The challenge

On the day I turned 37, in August 2015, I set myself the challenge of seeing a live performance of all 101 of Michael Billington’s Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present.

On these pages I want share with you my progress, and my responses to the performances along the way.

I’d also love to get your help in finding them all.

The reason

I love the theatre as much as I love a challenge. In 2011 I watched with two friends a live performance of every Shakespeare play and in 2013, a little less successfully, tried to participate in a version of every summer Olympic sport with another group of friends.

The list

Billington lists 101 plays in chronological order, virtually all from the Western literary canon, starting with Aeschylus’ The Persians and concluding with King Charles III by Mike Bartlett.

Read more here about Billington’s rationale.

The rules

I have to watch all 101 plays anew, including ones I’ve already seen.

The performances have to be live, rather than recordings.

They can be in any language and anywhere in the world.

They can be shown at the National Theatre with Hollywood stars or in a community centre in Kirkby (my hometown)  with a cast of first-time amateurs. One of the great joys of the Shakespeare challenge was travelling across the UK watching well-assembled and thoughtfully-staged student / amateur / semi-pro productions inspired by people who will never have their names in lights but love the craft.

I’d like to see a fairly faithful performance of the original, recognising that is often a contested concept, but I may (have to) be open to more radical interpretations.

Finally, in the spirit of Orwell, I will break any and all of those rules to avoid being barbarous.

The omen

As with all the best challenges, I had the idea on the spur of the moment and decided to give it a go with little planning or forethought.

Then had an early wobble.

101 is a lot of plays and many are quite obscure. It’s quite dispiriting, as we found with the Shakespeare challenge, to search for a play and discover the last recorded performance of it was in the early 2000s, in Chattanooga.

As I debated the idea with myself on the tube home, I lifted my eyes and noticed a familiar-looking face take a seat opposite me.

Like an emissary sent by the Theatre Gods, David Suchet, who was then starring in The Importance of Being Earnest (number 50 on the list), was busily chatting away – in a very actorly fashion – to a friend.

I took this is an omen that the Theatre Gods were smiling on my venture.

The strategy

In as much as I have a strategy, it is to seize the low hanging fruit – the Shakespeares, the West End regulars, the twentieth-century classics, the am-dram staples – as quickly as possible. Thus leaving as much time as possible for ones which will require a lot more searching.

How you can help

You can see the full list here, with the ones I’ve already watched or found in bold.

If you spot any I haven’t found, if you are involved in a group plan to stage one of them on, if you know of any useful listings, please let me know!

We will do this…

John