I need to start with an overriding principle: all awards for artistic achievement are inherently flawed. They always represent a compromise and therefore can’t express the joy of personal experience. They are also needed in hundred different practical ways, no point bemoaning their sheer existence or the agenda a specific award represents. The Oliviers focus on mainstream productions, complaining they ignore obscure edgier offerings is pointless. What struck me with the 2014 Oliviers nominations though was how the list was underwhelming, even by the standards of the commercial mainstream agenda.
Let’s count the ways:
Best New musical: It’s widely acknowledged that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory didn’t meet – very high – expectations. And then we have two other new musicals, The Light Princess and American Psycho, more spirited, lithe and innovative than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could ever hope to be. (Yes there are detractors but these productions were also embraced passionately by the audience). It’s depressing to contemplate which production got the nomination and which didn’t.
Best actor in a play: always an overcrowded category, therefore personal taste plays a big part. I ‘ll be honest and say, I don’t get Rory Kinnear, he is always good but nothing I can get excited about. Tom Hiddleston was also very good but lacked the blinding fury Coriolanus needs. At this point let’s assume these are my personal views and move on. But Jude Law, although good, was easily outshone by other mainstream performances: Simon Russell Beale in King Lear, Ben Whishaw in everything, Daniel Mays in Mojo, David Tennant in Richard II, Al Weaver and Harry Hadden-Paton in The Pride, Adrian Lester in Othello, Chiwetel Ejiofor in A Season in the Congo, Benedict Wong in Chimerica, Lenny Henry in Fences, the list goes on. (I have my theory about the Michael Grandage bias but let’s leave it for the end).
Best actress in a play: not many plays are centered around women and this category is sadly not as crowded as the previous one. Still Linda Bassett, who was holding Roots together, misses on a nomination as is Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the heart and soul of The Amen Corner, that gets a nomination for best revival. (Between best actor and best actress nominations, can you start seeing an uncomfortable trend?)
Best new play: 2013 was not a strong year for new plays. Even so, a nomination for Peter and Alice looks bizarre: this was a play with an interesting idea going around in circles and tying itself in knots. The production was blessed with great performances but the play was weak and the nomination is hard to understand. (Especially when new plays in affiliate theatres – John Donnelly’s The Pass or Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts – were far superior).
Michael Grandage vs Jamie Lloyd: I am a big fan of the West End director-curated seasons (even if my bank account suffers badly). Plays need to be produced commercially, as well as through the subsidised sector, and these seasons brought dynamism and excitement to the West End. On the other hand, if we compare the work produced by these two directors, I thought Jamie Lloyd made far more interesting choices with more exciting results, though no less commercial. This is not reflected in the Oliviers: between 2013 and 2014, Jamie Lloyd has three nominations, Michael Grandage has six. Is there a bias, making itself present not only in nominations but also in the press?