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The 40 best plays of all time, from A Streetcar Named Desire to Old Times

Holly Williams, Paul Taylor
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The 40 best plays of all time, from A Streetcar Named Desire to Old Times

Theatre is the quintessential art of reinterpretation. Every time a play is revived it is “remade”. With something so joyously provisional, why would you want to be definitive? And so with that in mind, let’s be clear that what follows is not some Olympian effort to decree “the best plays of all time”. Instead, it is a selection of pieces we find continually rewarding.

Inevitably, such a list reflects the work that’s staged, celebrated, and studied in the UK; it draws on a western canon. There are more men than women, more white writers than people of colour, although limiting ourselves to a single work by any author – dead white male or not – should help to widen the scope a little; yes, that means only one play by Shakespeare. We hope you will check out these plays – ideally in performance but, if you can’t find one, by reading the text.

Far Away (2000), Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill has been called the Picasso of modern playwrights. Today, at the age of 80, the British playwright continues startlingly to reinvent herself. Far Away is a twisted fairy tale that demonstrates her matchless gift for merging the apocalyptic and the fantastical. It unfolds in three episodes that shelve steeply. In the first, Joan, a young girl who can’t get to sleep, is quizzing her aunt about what she has just accidentally witnessed. It sounds as if she has espied a bloody act of ethnic cleansing; the older woman stonewalls unctuously. Then, by a series of surreal jumps, the play escalates into a blackly hilarious vision of cosmic warfare. Partisan brutality has now spread from humans to the animal and mineral world. “The cats have come in on the side of the French,” someone says earnestly. The “natural goodness of deer has come through” says someone else, “you can see it in their soft brown eyes”. This extended sequence is characteristic of Churchill, finding a brilliantly absurdist way of attacking the pernicious myth, beloved of politicians, that there is a simple divide between virtue and evil, “them” and “us”. A sliver of genius. Paul Taylor

Blasted (1995), Sarah Kane

This play was a theatrical explosion. Sarah Kane’s debut, written while she was a student, features a nasty tabloid journalist holed up in a Leeds hotel with a much younger woman, whom he sexually abuses. The world of the play – and its conventional theatrical form – is then blasted apart, becoming a war zone: a soldier bursts in, explosions go off, and short scenes of grim horror unfold (stage directions include “he eats the baby”). Famously described as a “disgusting feast of filth”, Blasted was seen by critics as a puerile attempt to shock, and anointed as the classic example of provocative, Nineties in-yer-face theatre. But it’s since become canonical. It doesn’t seem to grow old: Kane’s writing has a horribly vivid energy, and the atrocities it depicts, depressingly, take on fresh resonance for each generation that discovers it. Holly Williams

Juliette Binoche as Antigone at the Barbican (EPA)

Antigone (441BC), Sophocles

Sophocles’ play is still the most powerful ever written about the conflict between our obligations to the state and our duty to the ties of kinship. Antigone defies her uncle Kreon, the new ruler of Thebes, by burying her brother Polyneices. He had brought an army against his native city and Kreon, in these politically volatile times, wants his corpse left for the dogs as an exemplary desecration. The philosopher Hegel saw this as the quintessence of true tragedy: not a conflict between good and evil, but between right and right. In fact, productions nowadays tend to come down in favour of Antigone and her self-sacrificing intransigence. The play has been adapted for many modern contexts, including Northern Ireland and South Africa. P

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982), August Wilson

Part of the playwright’s cycle exploring the African-American experience in 20th century American – a play for each decade – this chapter is set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. Ma Rainey, the “mother of the blues”, is slow to show up to record some tunes. Instead, we watch her band kill time and spar with one another. Although it all lands light as a butterfly, the script is stinging on subjects such as ambition and race relations. Ma Rainey, when she arrives, proves worth waiting for: an immense, haughty presence. There’s a twist towards the end, giving the play punch – plus the tunes are great, of course. HW

Bent (1979), Martin Sherman

Sherman’s harrowing play pulls the rug from under you. You invest in the relationship between Max and Rudy, a decadent gay couple in Berlin in 1934 – but after the Night of the Long Knives they flee, before being caught and sent to Dachau. On the way, Max’s desire to survive results in a sickening betrayal. He pretends to be Jewish rather than gay, but in the camp meets Horst, a man who reveals the honour in being true to one’s self. There’s an astonishing scene where – forbidden to touch – they have sex purely through words. Ian McKellen originally played Max, but Richard Gere and Alan Cummings have also taken on the role in what is now seen as seminal gay text – one that proves truth and love may flower in the most horrific, hopeless circumstances. HW

Andy Cryer, Howard Chadwick and Kraig Thornber in ‘The Government Inspector’ at the Young Vic, 2012

The Government Inspector (1836), Nikolai Gogol

In Gogol’s great phantasmagoric farce, an impecunious clerk newly arrived from St Petersburg is mistakenly assumed to be the eponymous inspector, operating undercover, by the corrupt mayor and officials of this provincial town. Panic at the possibility of exposure drives these paranoid locals to project a false identity onto this stranger. That would have been a good enough joke. Gogol, though, gives it an inspired, twist. His penniless nonenity turns out to be driven by an equivalent dread of being recognised as one of life’s losers. So when he twigs to their exploitable mistake, he treats their absurd respect (not to mention their bribes) as long-overdue recognition of his true worth and becomes airborne with grandiosity. It’s the interlocking lunacies that generate the comic delirium in this Russian masterpiece. PT

Old Times (1971), Harold Pinter

One of Pinter’s most haunting and unnerving pieces. A married couple, Kate and Deeley, play games of power and possessiveness with the wife’s former flatmate, Anna, who comes to visit for the first time in 20 years. The piece is horribly preoccupied with the use people make of selective – and conceivably invented – memories as weapons or a way of gaining the upper hand. We mint memories, in this understanding of it, in response to the psychological needs of the moment: “There are things I remember which may never have happened.” Deeley is threatened by Anna’s youthful relationship to his wife and strongly attracted to the newcomer. There’s a wonderful evocation of rackety London when the girls lived as secretaries and (possibly) borrowed each other’s underwear, but the uneasy comedy of all this turns lethal. PT

Purgatory in Ingolstadt (1924) / Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1928), Marieluise Fleißer

The author of these sorely neglected plays was the lover, protégée and victim of Bertolt Brecht, and her subject was the lower Bavarian city of her birth. The plays use a bold collage technique instead of linear narrative, and she had penetrating insights into the city’s vicious pack mentality and conformist claustrophobia. In Purgatory, she evokes a stifling Catholic ethos: we see two very different rebels (one girl seeks in vain for an abortion) who suffer the humiliation of having to crawl back to the pack. Brecht effectively hijacked her second play Pioneers (about the contact between the inhabitants and a visiting squad of bridge-builders). He imposed overt anti-militarism and sensationalising sex, and Fleißer was denounced as a traitor to German womanhood. Stephen Daldry and Annie Castledine directed a superb version of these plays at the tiny Gate Theatre in 1991. Since when, nothing. It’s high time Fleißer was given her due. PT

Hattie Morahan in ‘The Changeling’ at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015

The Changeling (1622), Thomas Middleton / William Rowley

The best Jacobean tragedy outside Shakespeare, The Changeling – co-authored by Middleton and Rowley – also seems to anticipate film noir. The heroine hires a shady type to bump off her fiancé. This villain has a disfigurement, but the piece is alert to how perversely attracted we are to what repels us. The assassin demands her virginity as his blood-money and the slide into shadowy corruption becomes inexorable. There is a subplot in a madhouse that is designed as a distorted mirror of the main action in its obsession with disguise, lunacy, and sex. You feel that if ugliness did not exist, we would have to invent it to satisfy our desires. PT

Our Country’s Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker (1988)

Ah, the transformative power of theatre… This familiar idea is irresistibly proven by Wertenbaker’s oft-revived play, based on a true story about a group of convicts in an Australian penal colony who put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. It has fun sending up the pretensions of theatre, but ultimately uses it as means for talking about empathy, communication, and understanding, as relations between the reviled prisoners and the cruel officers thaw. A direct piece of storytelling with a huge heart. HW

Michelle Terry as Hamlet and Catrin Aaron as Horatio in ‘Hamlet’ at the Globe, 2018 (Tristram Kenton)

Hamlet (1599-1602), William Shakespeare

A play of astonishing breakthroughs. There had been plenty of soliloquies in Elizabethan drama beforehand. But no one had ever talked to an audience like Hamlet. He doesn’t just let you into his confidence, he lets you into his consciousness; the best portrayals make you feel that you are soul-to-soul with this figure. It’s his capacity for searching introspection that gets in the way and disqualifies Hamlet as a revenge hero: he’s rather wonderfully miscast. And like its title character, Hamlet is brilliantly self-reflexive, constantly probing its own theatricality. The conscience of Claudius is tested by a play-within-a play; Hamlet tries to fool the court by assuming an “antic disposition” that may at times waver into authentic madness. Why can the Player King fake tears for a fictional death and Hamlet remain so impotent in the face of his real father’s demise? The piece is like a painful meditation on the contradicting meanings of the verb to “act” – to feign and to intervene. Inexhaustible. PT

Henry IV (1922), Luigi Pirandello

It’s easy to make Pirandello sound like a forbiddingly cerebral writer. All his life he played tricksy games with philosophical problems such as the deceptiveness of identity. But the Italian writer’s aim was to “to convert intellect into passion” and his best works succeed in doing so. Henry IV is about madness, the appearance of madness, and the consequence of deciding to become trapped within the appearance of madness. The protagonist is an Italian nobleman who falls from his horse at a pageant and comes round, convinced that he’s the medieval German emperor. For 20 years, he has been allowed to live this illusion, attended by flunkies in period-costume. But now comes an embassy bent on “shocking” him from this idee fixe. Richard Harris and Ian McDiarmid were the last pair to play Henry in the West End and they relished the chance to interweave the quizzicality and raw pain that the part requires. The predicament of the central character feels more tragicomically stimulating than far-fetched. PT

A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Lorraine Hansberry

This play made history: the first on Broadway written by a black woman (shamefully, Britain wouldn’t have its equivalent – a play in the West End by a black British woman – until last year, with Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night). A Raisin in the Sun looks at the Youngers, an African-American family living in poverty in Chicago, dreaming of a better life – and fearing that their dreams will shrivel up like “a raisin in the sun”. Hansberry’s aching drama exhibits the same forceful tug as an Arthur Miller play, laying out how circumstances can crush hope. Its discussion of black identity, however, still crackles today – and the emotional kick that Hansberry’s script provides has drawn big names down the decade: Sidney Poitier starred in the premiere, and everyone from Denzel Washington to P Diddy have had a crack since. Hansberry died at only 34; one can’t help but wonder what other plays she might have had as contenders for this list. HW

Rochelle Neil and Tanya Moodie in ‘Intimate Apparel’ at the Park Theatre, 2014

Intimate Apparel (2003), Lynn Nottage

This Pulitzer-winning American playwright has dramatised the plight of Congolese woman (in her 2007 play Riot) and industrial unrest in small-town America (in Sweat from 2015). In this lovely earlier piece, she explores the history of her great-grandmother in early 20th century New York. Esther is a black seamstress – unmarried and illiterate – who sews ravishingly beautiful garments for other women to wear on their wedding nights. She gets what could be a last chance of happiness but it’s destroyed in circumstances that are never sentimentalised. The play is shrewdly amused at how Esther’s job brings her into contact with a wide social range (from a bored, unhappily married Fifth Ave socialite to a jaunty prostitute) and canny about the compromises that her clients make and injustices that hold. The sensual feel of fine fabric (her means of supporting and expressing herself) is conveyed with gorgeous descriptive power. Intimate Apparel manages to be uplifting without ever losing its irreverent humour. PT

An Oak Tree (2005), Tim Crouch

What makes a great play? Many people argue for form matching content. On this, British theatre-maker Tim Crouch’s glitteringly clever play really delivers. A stage hypnotist encounters the father of a girl he killed in a car accident. The father truly believes his daughter has been transformed into an oak tree. At every performance, the father is played by an actor who’s never seen or read the play before; they are given a script or fed lines by – yes – the hypnotist (played initially by Crouch himself, also acknowledging his “real” role as the playwright). The actor is transformed before us; we accept that they are now the father (and fathers, over the years, have included Mike Myers, Toby Jones, Frances McDormand and even Alanis Morissette). An Oak Tree has a radical honesty which has made it hugely influential. We always know theatre isn’t “real” – by playfully acknowledging that, the emotional impact is actually heightened. It’s a magic trick where understanding the trickery only increases the magic. HW

Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972), Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard came to see that the righteous anger of didactic anti-apartheid drama was not as effective as the subversive laughter of the black townships when it came to getting across the harshness of the conditions there. Certainly, there is nothing moralising or solemn about this piece which was produced in 1972 and developed by Fugard from improvisations with the great John Kani and Winston Ntshona who first performed it. A mischievous shaggy dog story, it pulls the audience into an atmosphere of good-humoured sociability. Sizwe is a work-seeker in Port Elizabeth who can’t get a job because he doesn’t have a permit. It turns out that he has found a dead man’s pass book and has substituted his own photo, killing off Sizwe Bansi and giving himself a new identity as Robert Zwelinzima. How does he feel about this administrative rebirth? Wary. Told that he’ll be fine if he can keep out of trouble, he replies that he’ll be found out in the end for, after all, “our skin is trouble”. A deceptively light and humane play that outlasts the apartheid era. PT

Gillian Anderson in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at the Young Vic, 2015 (Johan Persson)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Tennessee Williams

From “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” to “Stellaaaaaa”, Williams’s play has entered the popular consciousness. As well it might: there’s something eternal in its themes of loss, ageing, and the lies we live by. Fear and lust rub up against each other, sweatily; few other writers have captured the heat of the South like Williams, and this is the playwright at his most atmospheric. Blanche DuBois – the deluded southern belle who shacks up with her sister and her macho, abusive husband – is a summit part for an actress, and everyone from Vivien Leigh to Tallulah Bankhead, Cate Blanchett to Gillian Anderson have had a go. HW

The Effect (2012), Lucy Prebble

Lucy Prebble made her name with ENRON, charting the hubris of the financial giant, but while it may be less flashy, The Effect is dazzlingly good. It has, at its heart, a question we’d all like to know the answer to: what is love? The play follows two volunteers in a clinical trial for a new antidepressant; when they fall for each other, they wonder whether their love is “real”, or a by-product. And given all interactions in the brain are just chemical, does it even matter? Ideas around what’s really real and what’s really romantic, what happiness is and what function unhappiness might have, are turned over by Prebble’s own very sharp mind. Her characters are fun to spend time with, her dialogue is snappy, but she digs deep too, into both scientific theories and human emotions, taking us from the grey lows of depression to the technicolour highs of new love. HW

The Seagull (1895), Anton Chekhov

You could make a case for any of Chekhov’s plays really (we nearly went for his early, entertaining Platonov, just to be different) but the lucidity of The Seagull wins out. It’s got more plot, a sliver less ennui, than some of his others: a young man, Konstantin, longs to be a playwright; his narcissistic mother Arkadina – an actress – is wrapped up in her new boyfriend, Trigorin, a successful novelist. He in turn romances Nina, Konstantin’s girlfriend and an aspiring actress. It’s not much of a spoiler to say none of their dreams exactly come true, life proving endlessly, exquisitely disappointing. The Seagull is at times a mordant comedy – scenes skewering both Arkadina’s monstrous ego and her son’s attempts at avant garde art are some of the best bits of theatre-about-theatre ever. But there’s also an almost unbearable tenderness to the play’s portrayal of young love, hope, and idealism. HW

Penelope Keith and Rebecca Knight in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ at the Vaudeville Theatre, 2009 (Anthony Devlin/PA)

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Oscar Wilde

Has there ever been such a reliably delightful comedy? The improbable plot of tangled engagements, lost handbags, invented wicked relatives, and real monstrous aunts runs like clockwork. There are innumerable blissful one-liners, and at every turn Wilde has a fine old time pricking upper class social niceties. It’s frothy fun, and funny froth, and always invites larger-than-life performances. Being so very bankable has led to Wilde’s play certainly being overstaged and it now feels thoroughly un-urgent – until it makes you laugh all over again. HW

One Man, Two Guvnors (2011), Richard Bean

British playwright Richard Bean had the inspired idea of transposing Goldoni’s 18th century commedia dell’arte romp The Servant of Two Masters from Venice to Brighton in 1963. Our jack-the-lad hero – frantically trying to hold down a pair of jobs, unbeknownst to either boss – is a failed skiffle player. The atmosphere is Joe Orton-meets-the Carry On films. The complications are deliciously warped. One character does a bunk to Brighton disguised as her psychotic twin brother who has been bumped off by her posh twit of a boyfriend in a gangland brawl. Still with me? The dialogue is naughty and knowing: “It’s 1963, Dad, you can’t force me to marry a dead homosexual.” But there’s a terrific innocent joy to the physical clowning which peaks in the delirious sequence where our hero has to dish up lunch to the two masters at the same time, “assisted” by a terminally doddery octogenarian waiter. PT

A Doll’s House (1879), Henrik Ibsen

Ibsen wrote great women: we could have gone for Hedda Gabler. But A Doll’s House is one of those plays with a wide significance: written in 1879, it’s a proto-feminist text. When our troubled heroine Nora slams the door at the end of the play, it’s not just on her patronising husband, but on the whole of The Patriarchy. The play shocked some in its portrayal of a woman made so desperate by her suffocating domestic situation that she abandons her children as well as her husband, choosing freedom and self-actualisation over the prison of the home. Of course, things have changed for women since, but this exceptionally controlled play still unfolds perfectly – and that slam still resonates. HW

‘Machinal’ at the Almeida, 2018 (Johan Persson)

Machinal (1928), Sophie Treadwell

Feminism and expressionism collide in US playwright Sophie Treadwell’s extraordinary vision of a mechanised, dehumanising metropolis. We feel the nerve-shredding racket of modern existence – described as “this purgatory of noise” – assaulting the Everywoman character at every stage as she makes her descent to doom. She’s a stenographer, a sensitive cog in the machine who is blackmailed by her mother into marriage with a boss who revolts her, and ends up condemned to the electric chair for murdering him. Much depends on the design team for conjuring up the infernal assembly-line feel, but Treadwell’s nagging dialogue, with its jangly staccato and syncopated telegraphese, uncannily anticipates Harold Pinter and David Mamet. It’s possible that the protagonist is too passive (why doesn’t she opt for divorce?), but her phobia of modern life has an almost visionary intensity and her cry against institutionalised misogyny – “I will not submit” – resounds down the ages. PT

Making Noise Quietly (1986), Robert Holman

A supreme example of how a writer can make a play by putting together a triptych of miniatures. Born in north Yorkshire in the early 1950s, Holman was brought up in the pacifist tradition and Making Noise Quietly looks at the long-range effects of war in three chance encounters, beautifully evoked situations. In the first, set in a Kent field in 1943, a northern Quaker and an uninhibited London aesthete (based on the writer and painter Denton Welch) discuss their reasons for not fighting. There are wry homosexual undercurrents. In the second, a naval officer arrives to tell a mother of her son’s death in the Falklands War. The third is set in the Black Forest in 1986. An English private, gone Awol with his disturbed eight-year-old stepson, come into testing collision with a rich German businesswoman who survived the Holocaust. There’s a stunning scene in which she draws the little boy out of his dogmatic silence by her repeated, stern insistence that he says “thank you”; it’s uplifing in the end but it’s not pretty. Writing of rare sensitivity and cumulative power. PT

Private Lives (1930), Noel Coward

Though he described it as “the lightest of light comedies”, Private Lives is the Noel Coward play that one would undoubtedly preserve for posterity. He wrote it as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, with indecent speed. The play centres on two divorcees who, five years after their split, bump into each other on adjacent hotel balconies while on the first night of honeymoons with their respective new spouses. An elegantly contrived coincidence followed by a pattern of cheekily reversed expectations: most comedies end in marriage; this one begins with nobbled nuptials as the couple unceremoniously ditch their second partners and abscond to Paris together. Elyot and Amanda are the kind of flighty egotistical couple that can neither live together nor apart. Coward has sharp insights in the plotless marvel of the second act: we see how easily post-coital languor can fracture into bitchy niggling and flamboyant violence. Anti-romantic comedy soaked in sex (and romance): “Don’t quibble, Sybil.” PT

Josie Lawrence in ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ at the Southwark Playhouse, 2017 (Scott Rylander)

Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), Bertolt Brecht

Few, if any, playwrights of the 20th century had as much of an impact on theatre as Brecht: he wanted art to be a political tool rather than escapist entertainment, but also revolutionised theatrical form and style, doing away with naturalism. But it can mean his “epic theatre” is still associated with didacticism, rather than heartfelt drama. Not so Mother Courage, though, which is epic in both senses: written after Hitler invaded Poland, but set during the Thirty-Years’ War, it is a potent story of one mother’s attempts to profit from conflict, and the huge personal cost war always takes in the end. H

Faith Healer (1979), Brian Friel,

Frank Hardy, an itinerant Irish faith healer, his wife, and his manager tell four monologues that contradict each other, leaving the audience to question truth and memory, lies and storytelling. Frank struggles to understand his own “gift”, and how his ability to cure comes and goes; Faith Healer is also a parable about the artist and his inspiration. The play foundered when it opened on Broadway, but has since been recognised as a modern classic: in a good production, there’s a trembling sort of power to it. Friel’s writing can be rhythmical, incantatory, but it’s also gorgeously subtle. Although Friel throughout maintains a – crucial – ambivalence, the play attains a sort of transcendent grace of its own. HW

Jerusalem (2009), Jez Butterworth

It can be hard to separate this play from an animating original performance by the great Mark Rylance, who played Johnny “Rooster” Byron – a wild misfit who lives in a caravan in the woods in rural England, gathering local young people to him like some kind of drink-and-drug-fuelled pied piper. Such a summary might sound tawdry, yet set on St George’s Day and ripe with Rooster’s storytelling, it has a mythic, mystical quality. A state-of-the-nation show powered by anti-establishment brio, it also precisely captures a contemporary rural community (very sweary, and very funny). Jerusalem became a ridiculously big hit, with audiences camping out round the theatre for tickets. But a recent revival suggests the play can still crow, whoever plays Rooster. HW

Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarre in ‘Angels in America – Millennium Approaches’ at the National Theatre, 2017 (Helen Maybanks)

Angels in America (1990-93), Tony Kushner

Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, Tony Kushner’s astonishing two-part play is set in the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s during the right wing administration of Ronald Reagan. The word AIDS was never mentioned by the President, and the struggle to find a cure was hampered by a lack of government recognition. Kushner retaliated by putting gay men centre stage in an epic that shows them fighting to forge their private and public destinies. This is, however, very far from a conventional “issue” play in its glorious ambition. The piece rages from Antarctica and the damaged ozone layer to a baroque heaven that god has abandoned. Prophetic angels crash through ceilings. There are “mutual dream” sequences where people wander in and out of each other’s fantasies. The presiding demon of the piece is one of drama’s greatest monsters: the incorrigible and shameless Roy Cohn was a real-life Republican fixer (and mentor to the young Donald Trump). He is a closeted gay man when diagnosed with AIDS, but he opts for contemptuous denial on both fronts. He’s awe-inspiringly warped, yet the spirit of the plays is correspondingly magnanimous. P

Long Day’s Journey into Night (1940), Eugene O Neill

When O’Neill described Long Day’s Journey as a “play of old sorrow, written in blood and tears”, he was barely exaggerating. This enormous autobiographical drama is so raw and unremitting in its revelations about his dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family that the author left instructions – mercifully disobeyed by his widow – that the play was not to be performed until 25 years after his death. You can understand the trepidation. Long Day’s Journey plunges deep into the tortured heart of the Tyrones – James, the acclaimed actor who sold out to commercial success, his wife Mary who has recently relapsed into morphine addiction, and their two sons. O’Neill is sometimes castigated for being a long-winded, repetitive writer. But the way the family pick at the same scabs again and again is very true to life. When the play is under the baton of the right director, it’s the like listening to the recapitulations in a great piece of music. After witnessing three-and-half hours of whisky-soaked and morphine-fuelled recrimination, you emerge drained but in a state of elating catharsis. PT

Helen McCrory in ‘Medea’ at the National Theatre, 2014 (Rex Features)

Medea (431BC), Euripides

Based on the Greek myth where Medea kills her children in order to get revenge on her unfaithful husband, this tragedy has lost none of its force – or power to shock. But the text allows more sympathetic readings Medea too, as a woman fighting for justice in an unjust world. With a monumental lead part, and a chorus who react and comment on the action, the play has always been one of the most popular of the Greek tragedies. Taut and tense, you see the horror coming but feel desperately compelled to keep looking. HW

Arcadia (1993), Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard sometimes gets accused of being all head and no heart – but this play proves otherwise. Yes, it’s a mind-achingly clever look at both science and art, pitting the rational against the romantic, while giving you mini lessons in chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics and the life and shaggings of Lord Byron. But there’s a love story and a tragedy here too. Two stories, set in the same country house, in 1809 and the present day, intersect and eventually overlap beautifully. The mathematic theorising forecasts hope as well as disaster for the universe, and the story offers the same for its characters. HW

La Dispute (1744), Pierre de Marivaux

Who committed the first infidelity? Was it a man, or was it a woman? (You can bet it was a man who first thought of this prurient question.) The court in Marivaux’s dark comedy thinks it has created the right laboratory conditions for finding out the answer. Four teenagers have been brought up in complete solitude and then are released into each other’s company where their encounters will furnish “a most original entertainment” for the unseen Prince and his fiancée. The play incisively shows how easy it is to turn a stage into an experimental blank slate. But it feels a bit pervy – the Enlightenment’s idea of reality television. Marivaux is elegantly conscious of the objections. There are razor blades secreted in the rococo décor of his works. PT

Juliet Stevenson in ‘Happy Days’ at the Young Vic, 2014 (Johan Persson)

Happy Days (1961), Samuel Beckett

A middle-aged woman is buried in a mound of earth first up to the waist then, after the interval, up to the neck. Her taciturn and largely unseen husband seems to have no plans to dig her out. It is a sight that has never lost its capacity to startle. Beckett’s Winnie prattles away dogged with optimism (“This will have been another happy day”) in a loquacious attempt to stave off hysteria and despair at her encroaching fate. Between the bell for waking and the bell for sleep, she struggles to pace her day and to ration her precious (and depleting) resources, ritually inspecting the contents of her capacious handbag (toothbrush, lipstick, mirror – and, more ominously, revolver). Partly irritating, partly heroic, she brings forth a dotty lyrical monologue that’s threaded with genteel half-remembered wisps from the “immortal” classics. Peter Hall, who directed Peggy Ashcroft in the part, rightly pointed out that “Beckett’s theatre is as much about mime and physical precision as it is about words”. Except that his texts are great and this one is superb beyond belief. To quote Winnie: “What is that unforgettable line?” PT

John (2015), Annie Baker

Plays by this American writer tend to be long, slow – and strangely riveting. It’s hard to pin down what exactly makes John so bewitching. It is set in a kitschy, tat-filled Gettysburg guesthouse, where a fighting young couple interact with the sweetly eccentric landlady and her blind but visionary friend. The house seems haunted: full of creepy dolls, and pianos that start playing themselves. But it’s also haunted by history (it was a civil war hospital), and by the older women’s memories of love, ghosts, and their own mystical experiences. All of this is a slightly spooky, but also rather emotionally stirring. Baker is super sharp, too, on the millennial couple’s dying relationship, which opens out into a look at how it’s often women who have to prop up men’s myths, to feed their needy hunger. HW

The History Boys (2004), Alan Bennett

Hector wants to teach boys knowledge that will last them a lifetime and that can be passed on like a gift. But the headmaster has become obsessed with government league tables and has hired Irwin to teach them glib, exam-passing techniques. That’s the clash at the heart of Alan Bennett’s hugely popular hit. It’s set at a Yorkshire grammar among a group of clever sixth-formers who are preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam. As with a lot of Bennett’s work you can discern a revue-like structure in the play’s glorious string of skits, gags, songs and sheer elating silliness. But it’s also a brilliant portrait of a maverick teacher. Some of Hector’s comments have passed into common currency, such as how, when you read something that you had thought special to you, “it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours”. The scene in which the doomed Hector analyses the Hardy poem “Drummer Hodge” with his pupil Posner is unsurpassed in drama as an example of humane teaching. Gay, unhappy Posner also has the play’s best joke: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f***ed.” PT

Suranne Jones and Nina Sosanya in ‘Frozen’ at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, 2018 (Johan Persson)

Frozen (1998), Bryony Lavery

The mother of a murdered child. Her imprisoned paedophile killer. A criminal psychologist attempting to understand what drove him to do it. Through first monologues, and then dialogue, this modem classic has much to say about the extremes of human anguish, but also our capacity for change, and for forgiveness. It’s a dark and thorny work, but a deeply humane one too, by a prolific British writer at her best. HW

Life is a Dream (1635), Calderon de la Barca

Calderon’s play is one of the masterpieces of the Spanish Golden Age, but it also seems to anticipate the world of Pirandello. The predicament of the young prince, Segismundo, calls to mind the Chinese sage’s story of the man who dreams he is a butterfly and wakes to wonder whether he is actually a butterfly dreaming he is a man. This youth is at the mercy of political fluctuation: he’s been imprisoned in a dark tower from birth because of a horoscope that predicted he would usurp the throne. Then, when there are anxieties about the succession, his father has him drugged, brought to the palace, and bafflingly treated like a prince. A poetic piece that tackles deep metaphysical, political matters in a dazzlingly theatrical way. PT

Copenhagen (1998), Michael Frayn

Tempting as it is to include Michael Frayn’s sublimely funny backstage farce, Noises Off, the more serious Copenhagen just pips it. It imagines a real meeting between nuclear physicists, the Dane Niels Bohr and German Werner Heisenberg, in Copenhagen in 1941, to discuss developments that will lead to the atomic bomb. Then Frayn reimagines the meeting, and reimagines it again – after all, no one really knows what happened. Was Heisenberg warning his old friend of the Nazis’ advances in nuclear weapons? Hoping for a mutual pact to prevent the atomic bomb? Seeking absolution? Looking at the unreliability of memory, the structure of Frayn’s play is cleverly animated by the scientific ideas his characters discuss: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is the basis for its dramatic form. A big hit when it opened at the National, it went to the West End, Broadway – and wound up on TV, starring Daniel Craig. HW

Jessica Brown Findlay and Angus Wright in ‘Oresteia’ at the Trafalgar Studios, 2015 (Manuel Harlan)

The Oresteia (458 BC), Aeschylus

The only surviving full trilogy of Greek tragedies. Through Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides, Aeschylus traces the impact of violence and revenge down a Royal family, throwing questions of justice and duty into sharp relief. To win the Trojan war, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter; the trilogy opens with a play in which his wife Clytemnestra kills him to avenge her daughter’s death. In Libation Bearers, Clytemnestra’s son Orestes murders her in retaliation (if Antigone is a tragedy because it’s a conflict between right and right, this is perhaps a clash between wrong and wrong). The cycle is broken in Eumenides, where the gods form a court in which to try Orestes. It’s juicy, meaty, high-octane stuff – and has been given era-defining productions both in Peter Hall’s masked version at the National in 1981, and in Robert Icke’s crisp modern adaptation in 2015. HW