10 things I loved in 2013, from ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘riverrun’

'The final episodes of Breaking Bad had the suspense and spectacle of a great action thriller, the psychological depth of a fine novel, the rush towards a calamity of a Greek tragedy'

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad.  Parting from this breathtaking show was sweet sorrow indeed.  Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad. Parting from this breathtaking show was sweet sorrow indeed. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC


n Breaking Bad Parting from this breathtaking show was sweet sorrow indeed. The loss of such a gripping series is made worse by the nagging fear that we might be coming to the end of a golden age of US TV drama. The final episodes had the suspense and spectacle of a great action thriller, the psychological depth of a fine novel, the terrible rush towards calamity of a Greek tragedy and, in Walt’s admission that he did it all for himself, a moment of moral insight far beyond the pat “learning” of ordinary TV drama.

n The Rape of Lucrece Camille O’Sullivan’s brilliant reinvention of the poem is arguably the most significant Irish Shakespeare in centuries. O’Sullivan’s performance was much, much more than a staging of the poem. She challenged Shakespeare’s text even while she embodied it. If Lucrece as written is a moribund object of violent desire, the Lucrece that O’Sullivan performed is a living human subject. She took a text about a passively possessed body and transformed it.

nThe Spectre of Alexander Wolf I had never heard of Gaito Gazdanov, a Russian emigre writer, who drove a taxi in Paris. Alexander Wolf was published in a Russian-language magazine in 1948 but appeared in English only this year. “Haunting” is an overused term, but it has force here: Gazdanov mixes the 19th-century tradition of the uncanny with Proustian introspection and an old-fashioned mystery to create a profound meditation on identity, memory and death.

n Katie Roche Another act of revival, this time from the vaults of Irish theatre. The Mint Theatre in New York has been exploring the work of the fascinating playwright Teresa Deevy. Jonathan Bank’s production of her rivetingly strange 1936 play, Katie Roche, explored the difficulty of creating a viable female identity in de Valera’s Ireland. When I first saw the play I thought Katie merely incoherent. Here the instability of her personality is clearly Deevy’s point.

n Sing Me the Songs The great musical psychodrama of the Wainwrights – errant father Loudon and hurt children Rufus and Martha – tends to leave out probably the most talented member of the tribe: mother Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in 2010. This terrific double album of other people singing Kate’s songs has some spine-tingling moments: Peggy Seeger’s Tell My Sister, Linda and Richard Thompson’s Go Leave, Martha with Emmylou Harris and Anna McGarrigle wrenching out the tears on Heart Like a Wheel, Rufus’s Southern Boys, and Rufus and Antony harmonising on I Cried for Us.

n Embers/ Rough for Theatre I and II It was a great year for original Irish approaches to Samuel Beckett. Crime does pay after all: breaking Beckett’s rules is taking his texts into rich theatrical territory. Gavin Quinn’s new version of the radio play Embers for Pan Pan unfolded inside the head of its primary voice but made the head literal: Andrew Bennett and Áine Ní Mhuirí spoke from a giant sculptural skull. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, memorably. Sarah Jane Scaife took Rough for Theatre I and II out of the theatre altogether and into a derelict car park. The effect might have been to reduce the plays to a mere statement about homelessness. Instead Raymond Keane, Trevor Knight and Bryan Burroughs kept the stark poetry while adding grit and immediacy, to make the best productions of the plays I’ve yet seen.

nNebraska Who says Americans can’t do understatement? Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is so downbeat it is almost Scandinavian: black-and-white photography, narky old people, the endless flatness of the Midwest, a complete absence of glamour and an almost complete absence of money. Boring? Not for a second. Nebraska has a wonderful dry humour, a sense of the surrealism that is never far from American reality, and a rich melancholy. Bruce Dern deserves all the plaudits, but Will Forte as his infinitely patient son is a masterful study of emotional intelligence and human decency.

n Velázquez and the Family of Philip IV His career as an official court painter might seem to be the least interesting aspect of Velázquez’s genius. But this exhibition at the Prado, in Madrid, is stunning, not just for his technical mastery and visual boldness but also for the drama of the relationship between imagery and power. Especially in painting the marriageable princess, Velázquez had to both sell her as a dynastic prize and capture her humanity. The pictures bristle with this electric tension.

n Ancient Israel: A Translation with Commentary A new translation of what Christians call the Old Testament may not sound exciting, but Robert Alter’s compulsively readable version of – and consistently illuminating commentary on – Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings is thrilling. The story of King David emerges as one of the greatest of all literary narratives.

n Riverrun Finnegans Wake is James Joyce’s (typically modest) alternative Bible, and Olwen Fouéré’s Riverrun was an exhilarating swim in its swirling, eddying, endlessly babbling waters. It forced us to go with the flow and only later, in recollection, wonder at the marvels of courage and technique in this high dive into pure performance.


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