1. Sun & Sea
Was it even ‘theatre’? Technically the centrepiece of the 2022 London Festival of International Theatre might be better described as opera, or even an art installation. Whatever it is, though Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė’s looped performance piece with songs was an absolutely staggering piece of work. Kicking around on the international circuit since debuting at the 2019 Venice Biennale, its London debut did not disappoint. Its strange mix of charming whimsy, primal horror and winsome electropop tunes was like nothing else, an innocent day out at the beach framed as an ominously distant memory.
Albany Theatre, now closed.
Punchdrunk’s first major show in eight years was unapologetically Punchdrunk: this is not a company that’s going to drastically change its core mission. And yet the best part of a decade away and the rise of numerous lesser immersive theatre artists later, and it’s abundantly clear how extraordinary Punchdrunk’s doomy interactive worlds are. ‘The Burnt City’ is an extravagantly imaginative trip into the last days of the Trojan War, by way of Greek tragedy and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. London is better for having a Punchdrunk show in it.
One Cartridge Place, Woolwich, booking to Apr 16 2023.
Anupama Chandrasekhar’s blackly hilarious drama about Gandhi’s killer Nathuram Godse was the best straight-up new play of the year. A dazzling spiritual successor to Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’, it was blessed with a titanic performance from Shubham Saraf as the delusional Godse, who spends the entire play locked in mortal combat with reality to try and persuade us – and himself – of the righteousness of his actions.
Returns to the National Theatre in autumn 2023 – dates TBC.
4. The P Word
Waleed Akhtar’s gorgeous, devastating play about two gay Pakistani men – one British-born and jaded, the other a vulnerable refugee from Pakistan itself – cemented his status as a major new talent (compounding this, he actually co-starred in it). Coming just weeks after his excellent ‘Kabul Goes Pop’ ran at Brixton House, it was a truly beautiful piece of storytelling.
Bush Theatre, now closed.
Daniel Fish’s ‘sexy’ version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma!’ had acquired a formidable reputation in New York and on its overseas transfer it delivered the goods: less performatively hot than suffused with the horny boredom of smalltown life, it smartly rethought the psychology of the inhabitants of the town of Claremore, Indian Territory. Yes it’s a weirder ‘Oklahoma!’ than usual, but none of it is for the sake of being weird, and the superlative production is getting a big fat West End transfer next year.
Young Vic; transfers to Wyndham’s Theatre Feb 16-Sep 2 2023.
Belarus Free Theatre’s magnificently chaotic adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s banned novel about a future Europe in which Belarus has been swallowed into a Russian superstate finally made it to London two years late, and it did not disappoint. The first half’s nightmarish barrage of imagery gave way to the engrossing Euro-noir of the second, but it was the sense of occasion as much as anything that really made ‘Dogs of Europe’ special. Staged just a couple of weeks into the war in Ukraine, the exiled company’s encore show of solidarity with the beleaguered country was a staggeringly powerful moment.
Barbican Centre, now closed.
The performance history of ‘Othello’ is so torturously complicated that it can sometimes be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Clint Dyer’s bleak National Theatre production was revelatory because it put racism back at the heart of Shakespeare’s play: it was the tragedy of a Black man – Giles Terera’s Moorish general – living in a world full of racist white people, who his nemesis Iago (Paul Hilton) deftly turns against him.
National Theatre, until Jan 21 2023.
8. The Seagull
Jamie Lloyd’s spare, mesmeric production of ‘The Seagull’ came within a week of being a show of 2020: the theatres shut when the Emilia Clarke-starring production was in previews. When it finally returned it proved divisive, but I loved Soutra Gilmour’s stripped-back chipboard sets and the sense of backwater stultification (not too dissimilar to ‘Oklahoma!’), enlivened by the utterly radiant niceness of Clarke’s Nina.
Harold Pinter Theatre, now closed.
9. The Trials
The Donmar Warehouse has had a great 2022, bafflingly capped by losing all of its Arts Council funding. I could easily have put ‘A Dolls House Part 2’ or ‘The Band’s Visit’ down on this list, but they’re both acclaimed Broadway hits that everyone was expecting to be great on their UK debuts (and were). Dawn King’s homegrown dystopian drama ‘The Trials’ – performed with a semi-professional cast – was the wildcard on the programme, and while it was a bit rough around the edges, its vision of a youth teetering on the verge of fascism as they desperately seek to enact justice for the shattered climate bequeathed upon them by our generations.
Donmar Warehouse, now closed.
The RSC was so confident in the magnificence of its spectacular Studio Ghibli adaptation that to this day there have been no official photos issued of its giant puppet stars. But believe me, the bizarre, Chinese lantern-like Catbus and the many incarnations of furry forest spirit Totoro are jaw-dropping stuff. Adaptor Tom Morton-Smith didn’t seek to radically reinvent the classic film, but the sheer technical virtuosity required was transformative enough, and crucially the movie's big heart was perfectly preserved.
Barbican Centre, until Jan 21 2023.
Honourable mention: Jerusalem
If it had been a new show it would have topped the list: as it is, calling ‘Jerusalem’ a show ‘of’ 2022 feels wrong. Long almost a cliche to call it the greatest British play of our time, the wholesale return of the original production felt like a visitation by some potent mythical being from our past. There was a lot of talk about how it might look jingoistic or dated, but the awesome reality defied all that, a meditation on the existence of wildness and magic in our world that was itself magical thanks to Mark Rylance’s staggering performance as otherworldly troublemaker Johnny Rooster Byron.
Apollo Theatre, now closed.