A drama about a lonely woman talking on a phone might seem a little too close for comfort after the few years we’ve had. But everything changes when you learn that the woman is Ruth Wilson, the play is Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice and the director is the celebrated Ivo van Hove. It’s one of the many enticing performances to begin in 2022: a testament to the fact that, despite all the setbacks it has suffered and the uncertainty it faces, live theater remains defiantly creative.
Wilson and van Hove last collaborated on a powerful Hedda Gabler at the National Theater; this performance of Cocteau’s delicate exploration of loss (at the Harold Pinter Theater, from March 17) will surely touch on our recent experience of isolation and the nature of contact in our hyperconnected world.
This is a year that promises potential barnstorm performances and revelation revivals. In April, Mark Rylance repeats his dazzling delivery of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a decade after Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem first went on stage (Apollo Theater, from April 16). It’s a chance for anyone who missed this flashy, funny drama to meet Rylance’s rebellious Rooster as he braves the local council in a battle that delves deep into English identity.
Also back is James McAvoy with his excellent, moving performance at the forefront of Cyrano de Bergerac: another outsider whose story is excitingly recalibrated in Jamie Lloyd’s production. It was one of the hits of 2019, a fiery intelligent contemporary version (written by Martin Crimp) on Edmond Rostand’s 19th-century drama (Harold Pinter Theater from February 3, then Glasgow and New York).
We can hope for many more penetrating revivals of classic plays this year. There is The Chairs at the Almeida (from 5 February): a new version of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist drama by Omar Elerian drawing from the climate crisis. Also in February, Game of Thrones star Kit Harington plays Henry V in a new, modern performance of Shakespeare’s play that promises to explore our relationship with Europe and what it means to be English (Donmar Warehouse, from 11 February).
Director Robert Icke also asks exploratory political questions in a new stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic study of dictatorship, Animal farm (Birmingham Rep from 22 January, then British tour). Timberlake Wertenbaker delves into history to investigate corrupt leadership in a version of Racine’s Britannicus (Lyrics Hammersmith from 26 May). And Punchdrunk, the groundbreaking immersive theater company, digs into the fall of Troy in The burned city, a giant production rolling out over three large buildings (One Cartridge Place, London from 22 March).
And is it significant that a recurring theme this year is that of outsiders tackling corrupt systems, challenging norms and pushing boundaries? We see it in To Kill a Mockingbird, the British premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s seminal novel, starring Rafe Spall playing Atticus Finch (Gielgud Theater from March 10). We see it in The maize is green, a revival directed by Dominic Cooke of Emlyn Williams’ play, in which Nicola Walker plays a pioneering teacher in 19th-century Wales (National Theater from 7 April). We also see it in Antigone in Inua Ellams’ new Sophocles adaptation (Open Air Theater from September 3).
New plays in the same vein focus – not surprisingly – on medical pioneers. First in line is Dr Semmelweis, a fascinating original drama by Mark Rylance and Stephen Brown, in which Rylance plays the 19th-century German-Hungarian doctor, a man before his time who tried to save lives by arguing for greater hygiene among obstetricians (Bristol Old Vic, of 20 January). Another pioneering physician, a 19th-century Jamaican nurse, is the focus of Marys Seacole, a new play by Jackie Sibblies Drury that asks what it means to be a woman paid to care (Donmar Warehouse from April 15). A third, Dr Richard Myers (the IVF innovator), is in the middle of The Fever Syndrome by Alexis Zegerman (Hampstead Theater, March 18).
Jodie Comer plays a high-flying lawyer who suddenly finds herself on the other side of the legal system in Suzie Miller’s. Prima Face (Harold Pinter Theater from April 15); Ralph Fiennes plays powerful city planner Robert Moses in David Hare’s new play Straight line crazy at the Bridge Theater (from 16 March); and Shubham Saraf play Gandhi’s killer The Father and the Killerin by Anupama Chandrasekhar (National Theater from 12 May).
For the first time, Florian Zeller (author of The father) chooses to premiere a new play in the UK: The forest, about a man in crisis (Hampstead Theater from 5 February). And there’s the exciting prospect of new work by verbatim supremo Alecky Blythe in Our generation, based on five years of interviews with young people (National Theater from 10 February).
Finally, why write one play when you can write three? In a daring experiment, Sheffield will simultaneously play three interrelated dramas in three theaters (the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio, starting June 14), with actors sprinting between the stages. Chris Bush’s Rock / Paper / Scissors tells the story of a scissors manufacturer in Sheffield and three generations fighting over the factory site. On this proof it appears that live theater has lost none of its lust, playfulness and power.