Come August, the London theatre scene often shivers in the shadow of that north-of-the-border knees-up gargantuan, the Edinburgh Festival.
But before the annual exodus begins, the capital anticipates the Scots shindig with its own London International Festival of Theatre. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, LIFT is as full to bursting as a set of fully-inflated bagpipes and a hundred times more enticing. The biannual festival aims to connect the immense cultural diversity of London with the wider world, and events take place in the streets, in museums, car parks and on the Internet as well as in established performance spaces.
Among the experiences on offer are a carnival from France inspired by Haitian Vodou; footballing passion from Brazil; a witty Japanese take on consumerism set in a supermarket; and a fairy-tale treatment of the toxic legacy of the Chernobyl disaster from the award-winning Belarus Free Theatre. Young Jean Lee's "The Shipment," which was at the MCA Chicago in 2010, will play the Barbican Centre. A second part of LIFT addresses the centenary of the World War I in a range of performances, interactive events and debate. (LIFT runs May 19 to July 5; liftfestival.com.)
If you're feeling a little more risk-averse, though, some surefire hits are back in town in late spring.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's critically acclaimed productions of "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," based on the historical novels by Man Booker prize-winner Hilary Mantel, transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon to the West End's Aldwych Theatre on May 17 (rsc.org.uk). "Let the Right One In," Jack Thorne's tender, discomfiting adaptation of the Scandinavian vampire novel and the Swedish and U.S. movies that it spawned, will seduce bloodsucker fans at the Apollo into the autumn (royalcourttheatre.com). And there's a return visit for a savagely funny, high-tech, multimedia "Ubu Roi" from the reliably brilliant company Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican Theatre from June 19 (barbican.org.uk).
Just as technically dazzling, and unforgettably disturbing, is "1984," a terrifyingly penetrating adaptation of the George Orwell modern classic, presented by notorious touring theatrical innovators Headlong. Co-created by two thrilling young theatrical upstarts, director Robert Icke and playwright Duncan Macmillan, it's at the Playhouse from May 8 (headlong.co.uk).
Icke's back in June, too, with "Mr Burns" at the Almeida Theatre. American writer Anne Washburn's hit drama gets its European premiere, and its riot of cultural concepts should be perfect meat for Icke, with his appetite for narrative games and boundary busting. It opens June 12 (almeida.co.uk). For those without plane tickets, the Midwest premiere is coming to Theater Wit in Chicago next January.
Meanwhile, if Icke is one of theatre's enfants terribles, Peter Brook is surely among its most cherished and revered veterans. His new work, "The Valley of Astonishment," created with his regular collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, is at the Young Vic from June 23 (youngvic.org) and explores the complexities of the human brain. The cast features the mesmerizingly mercurial Kathryn Hunter; the whole should prove fascinating.
Coincidentally, also following a neurological pathway is "Incognito" by the astute, if somewhat erratic, fast-rising playwright Nick Payne. Payne's time-traveling new work links the story of a 1950s brain surgery patient with that of a neuropsychologist whose marriage is in free fall. It opens at the off-West End venue The Bush on May 15 (bushtheatre.co.uk).
The Royal Court, home to the original Angry Young Man and many a theatrical cause celebre since, is, of course, no stranger to controversy. Nor, emphatically, is Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, whose "Khandan" ("Family") opens there June 12. Formerly little known, the Sikh writer exploded onto the British cultural scene in 2005 when her play "Behzti" ("Dishonor"), which depicted scenes of abuse in a temple and opened in Birmingham where there is a large Sikh community, led to violent protests at the theatre and death threats that forced the author into hiding. Ironically, "Behzti," though striking and intermittently powerful, was a patchy play; her next work, "Behud" ("Beyond Belief"), a response to the "Behzti" furor, was stronger and slicker. Now she brings us a piece about the clash between the demands of tradition and personal desire in a British-Punjabi family. Let's hope all the drama is onstage this time.
There's another intriguing family affair over at the Donmar Warehouse. Lyndsey Turner was the blistering directorial talent behind one of last year's stand-out productions, Lucy Kirkwood's coruscating geopolitical thriller "Chimerica." She helms "Fathers and Sons," opening June 10 (donmarwarehouse.com), an adaptation from Turgenev's novel by the eminent playwright Brian Friel, which sets emotional growing pains against the trials of parenthood.
And, speaking of theatrical eminence, one the season's hottest tickets is sure to be Stephen Daldry's revival of David Hare's award-winning 1995 play, "Skylight." Carey Mulligan makes her stage debut in the production alongside Matthew Beard, her co-star from the film "An Education," and regular Hare actor Bill Nighy. The production opens June 18 at Wyndham's Theatre (skylightwestend.com).
At the Old Vic (oldvictheatre.com), Kevin Spacey is celebrating 10 years as artistic director with a mouthwatering season performed in-the-round, always a good staging choice that greatly enhances intimacy in this vast barn of a venue. From May 28, Spacey himself performs David Rintel's one-man show "Clarence Darrow," revisiting the character of the trailblazing lawyer whom he has portrayed at the Old Vic in "Inherit the Wind" and on-screen in the PBS film "Darrow." The season continues with Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," directed by searing South African talent Yael Farber, and Kristin Scott-Thomas in the title role in Sophocles' "Electra." Tickets go on sale April 8; and with "Clarence Darrow" running a mere 21/2 weeks, prompt booking is recommended.
Still, if the sun deigns to make an appearance, it may well seem churlish to spurn it by sitting in the dark. In which case, head outside: The winning Open Air Theatre, at gloriously rose-scented Regent's Park, offers the Brighouse 1916 rom-com "Hobson's Choice" from June 17 (openairtheatre.com). But what promises to be the real treat opens later, on July 28: a staging of the Gershwins' classic "Porgy and Bess," with a book newly adapted by the scorching writer Suzan-Lori Parks.
And on the banks of the Thames, Shakespeare's Globe will be serving up a feast of horrors with a revival of Lucy Bailey's gleefully gory production of "Titus Andronicus" (though the squeamish should beware that faintings were frequent last time around). That's followed by "Antony and Cleopatra," starring the captivating Eve Best as the Serpent of the Nile. They open May 1 and 29, respectively (shakespearesglobe.com).
Finally, if a summer romance is what you crave, a new stage production of the film "Shakespeare in Love," opening at the Noel Coward Theatre on July 23 (shakespeareinlove.com), could be a sweet indulgence. Transpositions from screen to stage are often uninspiring. This one, though, should prove an exception, given the Oscar-winning original screenplay (by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman) and the impeccable team involved: writer Lee "Billy Elliot" Hall and Cheek By Jowl's director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod. And, with its stage-struck subject matter, it just might steal your theatre-loving heart.