As many of you will know, I’ve spent the last two and a half years doing an English degree, which I will be finishing in a few months. The watershed of graduation is looming ever closer, and I flit between being so excited to start new opportunities and being terrified of the uncertainty of a basically indefinitely blank canvas ahead of me (until now, everything I’ve started has been a several year, fixed project: five years of school, two years of sixth form, three years of university… while this is the start of “employement until retirement” [I hope!], which is a bit overwhelming at times, but also very exciting). I’m hoping to spend the future contributing to physical plays on real stages, but before I do I thought I’d look over my bookshelves and think about my favourite plays to read. These are not the same as performances I’ve enjoyed of these plays, but specifically plays I’ve enjoyed sitting and reading like novels. Plays are intended for performance, but we publish playtexts, and you get a particular experience reading them, which is different to seeing them performed. I also find I get a particular enjoyment from work I’ve spent time studying, and most of these are plays I’ve studied in an academic context, which I enjoy reading in that light.
Obviously favourite pieces of art change as people change, and I’m sure my favourite plays to read won’t be the same in three years as they are now, but, nearing the end of my degree, these are the plays I most enjoyed reading at the moment.
10. Antigone, Sophocles
I first read a version of this play in my early teens when I read Jean Anouilh’s adaptation, and I then studied it (in translation) for AS-Level Drama and Theatre Studies. I returned to it this year for the Tragedy Paper, and it’s still a very powerful piece of writing. I’ve only read it in translation (I don’t have any Ancient Greek unfortunately) but the translations available show how exciting a piece of writing it is. It leaves you with plenty to think about in terms of prioritising personal/family values versus communal/state ideals, problems which are definitely still at work in society today.
9. Blasted, Sarah Kane
This is dark. Really dark. I read it for the Tragedy Paper, and it’s stayed with me: it’s a brilliant piece of writing and a really thought-provoking play, even if its celebrity came to it by its shocking violence and explicit nature. I actually think I would prefer reading this play to seeing it: I can appreciate the function of the shocking elements on paper, while I might find them almost too much onstage (this is the point of course, but I like being able to think about the other powerful aspects of the play while I experience it).
8. Richard II, William Shakespeare
I can’t talk about plays I’ve loved reading in my degree and not talk about Shakespeare: the Cambridge English course has a whole module dedicated to Shakespeare (he’s the only author in the whole course for whom this is true) and the Tragedy Paper requires consideration of Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I’ve most recently read Richard II in this context: while it is now classified as a history play, it was originally billed as The Tragedie of Kinge Richard the Seconde, and it certainly exhibits many aspects of tragedy. It’s a great play and really worth actually sitting and reading. If you really can’t face reading it, the BBC Hollow Crown filmed version is great.
7. Medea, Euripidies
You’ll be surprised to hear that this is another I read for the Tragedy Paper… It’s a striking play and one which has informed most writing which followed it, directly or indirectly. It’s another I’ve only read in translation, if you can read it in Greek that’s incredible and more power to you for it, but the translations available are usually great and it’s a play well worth spending a few hours on.
6. The Real Inspector Hound, Tom Stoppard
On a more cheerful note, I performed in a version of this in sixth form and its a very clever piece of meta-theatrical melodrama which I love reading to this day: it’s ridiculous, but very funny and lighthearted enough to be a counterweight to some of the heavier reading of my course.
5. Dr Faustus (A Text), Christopher Marlowe
I studied this in A-Level English, and then again every year during my degree. There are two versions of the play (the “A” and “B” texts) and I personally prefer the earlier version, the A text, which doesn’t include a few scenes which I don’t think add much, and contains less censored lines which I think are better than the later versions, although obviously this isn’t a universally agreed idea. I’ve never actually seen a version of it I thought was good (please, for the love of all that is holy, avoid the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film, which is truly awful) but I love reading it: it’s beautifully constructed and written and very clever.
4. The Seagull, Anton Chekhov
I first discovered this in A-Level Drama and Theatre Studies, and returned to it for the Tragedy Paper. It’s not cheerful (the combination “Chekhov” and “Tragedy Paper” might have hinted that) but it’s striking, haunting and beautiful. Spend some time reading this one slowly, because it’s much more subtle than some of the others listed here.
3. The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution, Caryl Churchill
This is one of the texts I’m focusing on in my dissertation on Churchill and her use of children. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, which discusses the Algerian War of Independence and child abuse and it’s incredibly thought provoking. I will be posting my dissertation about it on this blog in a few months, so you can read more about what I think of it then, but if you have some time to read it, I can’t recommend it enough: it’s short, so won’t take you very long, and it’s time well spent.
2. Seven Jewish Children, Caryl Churchill
This was the text that prompted my dissertation, and I can’t begin to discuss it in just a few lines here. It’s available online here, and will take you about 10 minutes to read, and months to think about and understand.
1. Othello, William Shakespeare
This is my all-time favourite play, to read, to see performed, to think about when I’m daydreaming… It’s phenomenally powerful, insightful, and exciting. I produced a gender-swapped version of it at the ADC Theatre in May 2015, and I’ve studied it for the Tragedy Paper this year, and I still can’t get enough of it. If you haven’t read or seen it, you’re missing out, and you should go read it now. Seriously. Now.
If you’ve enjoyed this, please let me know in the comments, and please let me know if you’d be interested in something similar for favourite productions of plays, or favourite filmed versions of plays. I’m also considering doing something like this specifically for female playwrights: despite being someone who makes an effort to read work by female authors and playwrights, when thinking about work I’ve enjoyed studying so much of it is by male authors that I can’t honestly construct this list with more female playwrights, because I haven’t been able to study more of their works. I’d love to know if that’s something you’d enjoy. Also, if you’re interested in reading about some of my favourite books in various genres you can find them on my fairly regularly updated Reading Recommendations Page.
Thanks as always for reading, and for all your support of this blog. Please like the post if you enjoyed it, and follow the blog if you haven’t already to be updated when I write new posts! I’ll be back next Friday with recommendations for live theatre in April 2017.