Saluting the English-language theatre trailblazers of 2020

Actors, directors and playwrights have all made an impression, but who’s top dog in the year in which most people have felt as sick as one

The coronavirus did its best but it couldn’t lock down the city’s English-language theatre groups or keep their audiences away. But if there was a consolation prize, at least we didn’t have to put up with Copenhagen Stage. 

Granted, That Theatre and Why Not Theatre had to shorten their runs in March, but they still had plenty of time to make an impression, with the former prevailing on this occasion with a knockout new play, ‘The Visit’, which portrayed the infamous visit of HC Andersen to the home of Charles Dicken in the 1850s.

So may we make a special mention, at this point, of its creators Barry Mckenna and Peter Holst-Beck (who made a memorable Andersen) in what was undoubtedly the year of the playwright.

More noms than Titanic
And then, once the corona-webs had cleared, the various groups were charged with planning suitable autumn productions and, again, they did not disappoint.

The CTC started proceedings with ‘The Effect’ – their best for several years – and then the House of International Theatre dared to dream with an ambitious double-header, ‘Harry Clarke & The Shy Manifesto’, a production that has landed no less than four CPH Culture nominations, which is a record in these parts.

That Theatre then conjured up its second original of the year in ‘Extremophiles’, a compelling play by its new resident Irish playwright Fergal O’Brien, and Why Not Theatre completed what has been a dud-free year with yet another standout work by Serbian dramatist Tanja Mastilo.

Raining stars
In a word, outstanding; in terms of stars, let’s just say the average score for all these productions was over five out of six!

Of course, most of these wizards were old hands at play, but there were some new faces working their magic, and this is our Top Five Trailblazers selection for 2020. 

5 Fergal O’Byrne: Ian Burns’s Irish cousin, of course 
When an esteemed director comes to grace us with their presence and more experienced eye, I must confess I never get that excited, but when it’s the playwright … that’s a whole other story. With Mastilo and McKenna leading the charge, 2020 was undoubtedly the year of the dramatist on the local scene, and nobody underlined this more than Fergal O’Byrne, the creator of That Theatre’s autumn production ‘Extremophiles’. It wasn’t so much that his play was performed, but that his entire vision was realised, giving new meaning to the expression “the writer’s on set”. Ian Burns has given him free rein to write a trilogy, explaining: “It’s rare that a writer and a theatre company click in the way that we have,” so watch out for O’Byrne’s next original, ‘Rub-a-Dub-Dub’, in the spring of 2022. Burns/O’Byrne … it has a nice ring to it.

4 Joe Young: The Night is Young’s 
When ‘he’ first appears, we see him through the frosted window of the door, his outline foreboding. It’s reminiscent of a horror film in which you can’t quite see the menace until it’s got you in its vice: blurry in a fog, black and white outlines, mummified. When the door is finally, reluctantly opened and Leon walks in, the routine becomes exceptional. After all, it’s in their nature: doors open. But few have tension like this. Despite another measured performance by Why Not Theatre stalwart Nathan Meister, it is South African newcomer Joe Young who gives the stronger performance as the intruder. His eyes never stop conveying his inner turmoil, and it’s his emotion that you end up subscribing to the most.

3 Jody Fish: he’s a chameleon in New York 
Monologues can be a lonely business, but Jody Fish as the title character in the HIT production of David Cale’s 2017 play ‘Harry Clarke’ filled the space at Bøssehuset effortlessly, deliberately sharing almost constant eye contact with the audience as he took them into his world. It was hard to look away. Who was this chameleon before us? It was like he was controlling the flow of blood to his face, whether it was as the pale-faced child enduring the shameful bullying of his father, or with the brooding intensity he brought to his alter-ego Harry Clarke and more than one seduction scene. It’s jaw-dropping how the same actor can look both unremarkable and devilishly sexy with a flick of the head. Oh, and he can sing too. 

2 Michael Worthman: Fiskler … wasn’t he on the Nostromo? 
Ian Burns provided the heartbeat of ‘Extremophiles’, but it is the wonderfully named Fiskler played by Michael Worthman who commands both its Antarctic weather base setting and its soul. Dishevelled yet authoritarian, vulnerable yet soothing, and dynamic yet self-destructive, it’s an intriguing collision of contradictions that Worthman convincingly, and compellingly, portrays. Definitely an actor to look out for! 

1 Carol Hayes: Hey big contender!
Finally, a Copenhagen Theatre Circle production earning a nomination that wasn’t directed by  Jens Blegaa! Nobody deserves it more than up-and-coming director Carol Hayes, for whom 2020 has been a breakout year. While for others it started before it began, hers started gamely with the only Copenhagen performance to date of ‘Manwatching’ at Dexter’s Bar in early February. The recruitment of comedian Adrian Mackinder was an inspired choice and the show was packed out, with Hayes proving why she is a worthy winner of our top trailblazer by charging the audience to “Pay what you decide”. And then eight months later, she was ahead of the curve again with Lucy Prebble’s ‘The Effect’, a play of chemical love set against the backdrop of clinical drug trials. You could have spent the entire spring lockdown searching for a play, and you wouldn’t have been able to find a more apt choice for the times we live in.

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