Changing of the Guard: Almeida TheatreDate: 12 May 2003
Our series on theatreland's newest artistic directors continues with Michael Attenborough, who this week reopens London's Almeida Theatre after a two-year refurbishment & inaugurates his reign with Trevor Nunn's revival of The Lady from the Sea.
Appointed in January 2002, Michael Attenborough officially became artistic director of London's Almeida last July, taking over from the "dream team" of Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid, who, over the previous decade, had built the intimate 320-seat venue into one of the country's most fashionable theatrical powerhouses (See News, 10 Jan 2002). Rather than producing, however, Attenborough has spent his first ten months in the job in planning and preparing to reopen the Almeida's home in Islington, north London, which has been closed since February 2001.
The son of famed actor and director Richard Attenborough, Michael Attenborough has a long-established career in theatre. An associate director at Colchester's Mercury Theatre, Leeds Playhouse and the Young Vic in the 1970s, Attenborough moved on to full artistic directorships of first the Palace Theatre Watford and Hampstead Theatre in the 1980s.
During Attenborough's five years (1984-89) running Hampstead, the theatre produced 33 plays (many of them premieres), five of which transferred to the West End and one to Broadway, won 23 awards overall and was nominated in the 1987 Olivier Awards "for its overall high standard of work." Amongst the plays Attenborough himself directed there were The War at Home (with Timothy West, which transferred to Broadway), Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (winner of the 1987 Time Out Theatre Award for Best Director) and Separation (with David Suchet, which transferred to the West End and was nominated for three Olivier Awards).
In 1990, Attenborough was appointed executive producer and resident director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he remained - becoming principal associate director in 1996 - until moving to the Almeida last year. His many new plays for the RSC over the years have included Billy Roche's Amphibians, Anne Devlin's After Easter, David Edgar's Pentecost and The Prisoner's Dilemma, and perhaps most notably, Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed, which transferred from Stratford to London's Barbican, the West End and on to Broadway.
Attenborough's other RSC outings have included Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Changeling and A Month in the Country as well as many acclaimed Shakespeare productions - played in Stratford, London, on tour and internationally - such as Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra and Henry IV Parts One and Two, part of the company's This England complete cycle of the bard's History plays.
What made you want to be a theatre director
I wanted to be an actor. My dad insisted I went to university, which was wise. When I was there, I found myself on stage with two wonderful actors - who now work all the time professionally, Jim Carter and Nicholas Woodeson - both were just brilliant, much better than me. So I started to direct instead, loved doing it and went on from there.
What was the first production you ever saw at the Almeida?
The School for Wives in 1993. Three things struck me about it. One, that the Almeida was a beautiful space, one like no other I had ever seen and, like most found spaces, that there was something faintly miraculous about it. You think, this wasn't built as a theatre and yet a fully-fledged piece of the theatre is happening inside it. When you walk into a West End theatre, you think, of course theatre happens here. A found space puts you in touch with something different. It feels more real in a curious way, as if somehow people have just pitched camp inside another environment. The Almeida is also historical in flavour because, in fact, it's an older building (built in 1837) than some West End theatres. The second thing that struck me was that the production was very well acted.
And thirdly, putting those two together, it occurred to me that this was a space that favours actors. It is truly an actors' theatre. All theatres are actors' theatres to a degree, but some seem to be vehement opponents of the actors' art. Most are too big; actors, on the whole, favour intimacy. Without wanting to make enemies at the National, I'd say the Olivier is a very tough space for an actor and, speaking nearer home, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. Two of the major auditoria in our country are two of the most notoriously tough spaces for actors. And, interestingly, two of the most actor-friendly places - I'm talking about the Almeida and the Donmar - weren't built as theatres. It's a little known fact because people have very short memories, but the Donmar was actually started as a brilliant theatre space by the RSC. Trevor Nunn started it and all the RSC's new London writing happened there, with Howard Davies as the artistic director and sensational work from Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton, David Hare and David Edgar.
Why did you want the job of artistic director?
I didn't until very recently. When it was advertised, I did not apply. I didn't want to be the artistic director of a theatre again. I'd done it at the Palace Theatre Watford and Hampstead, and I'd been Adrian Noble's number two for the first five or six years in his time at the RSC. I know what the job does to one's mind, one's psyche, one's nerves, one's family life, everything. It's a kind of second marriage really, a curious form of bigamy. In my second six or seven years at the RSC, I stopped all of my producing work and just concentrated on directing plays. I had the best time of my life, particularly because I started work on Shakespeare, which was an added plus for me. And so I thought, do I want to go back to those other headaches? No, I bloody don't. I was then rung up by Thelma Holt, who's on the board, and she said: "We are very disappointed you haven't applied. Would you consider at least coming along and talking to us?" So that's what I did and, of course, that's lethal because you come along and you get excited and, worse, you get ideas. By the end of the interview, I was thinking, I don't want anybody else to get this job.
The reason I changed my mind and the reason why the ideas I was having excited me were really linked to what I was saying about the Almeida being such a unique and extraordinary space. In fact, I think the space appealed more in 2002 than it would have done five or six years beforehand. Working on Shakespeare, I became very attuned to the specific challenge to an actor and a director of making the highly theatrical completely true and completely real. Shakespeare is about the most theatrical and dramatic of all dramatists. He's also the most poetic, formalised, non-naturalistic (to our ears anyway) writer you can find. So, having done Shakespeare, I never wanted to be shoved back into a naturalistic straightjacket again. That's not to say I'm not interested in a kind of naturalism. It's the ambition, the scale of certain works, that I really wanted to get my shoulder behind and, it seems to me, that the combination of the epic scale of this theatre and its intimate setting was almost unique. If I'm rigorously honest, the other reason I wanted to apply was because the sheer tradition, the integrity and track record of this theatre is second to none.
How would you rate your predecessors' tenure?
I'm proud to say that the new theatre has only one area with names attached to it and it's a dressing room - the Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid dressing room. Those two really performed miracles in this place, and their refusal to compromise their standards at any point was wonderful. So now I can get on the phone to someone in New York or Los Angeles or London, anywhere, and say I'm interested in Al Pacino coming to work here, or whoever, and people don't slam the phone down. They've heard of the Almeida and that's down to those two gentlemen.
They leave lots of other legacies, too. I think their greatest act of generosity and foresight is the building itself. It was falling apart, and I'm quite sure that, though they told nobody, they knew they wouldn't stay on. It's an act of great dedication to say: "We'll set the wheels in motion for a beautiful new building, but we won't be there to enjoy it." Another important legacy is that, when they took up the post, they were both actors. I remember the moment they came here very clearly. I was just taking up the job at the RSC, and I remember thinking, how interesting to see a theatre run by two actors. Will they have the stamina? Will they last? Will they get fed up with the things that aren't to do with production? And I also wondered, on the quite positive side, whether the fact that they were actors would be inspiring to the imaginations of other artists. The answer to all those questions has quite clearly been yes. And it's not a coincidence now that a lot of the policy decisions I've made have been orientated around actors.
What do you consider your most immediate challenges?
The one staring me in the face is the opening show, The Lady from the Sea. It's no accident that I've invited Trevor Nunn, one of the most terrific directors in the world, to direct the inaugural production, taking him back to small-scale work. Trevor opened and founded two small theatres in Stratford (the Other Place and the Swan), he founded and opened two small theatres in London (the Donmar Warehouse and the Pit), and he spent the last three years kicking the odd ball around in the Cottesloe. He's done some of his finest work in small-scale and he's fabulous with actors, his attention to detail with them is second to none. They'd walk over broken glass to work with him. It's lovely to see him in our space. A few weeks ago, we were both standing there with hard hats, and he was almost literally smacking his lips with delight at the idea of coming back to somewhere where the large naturalistic changes that Ibsen asks for are just not possible. Instead you have to invent and evoke a different visual language.
I want each show at the Almeida to feel like an event. Coming here doesn't feel like a conventional theatre visit, and therefore the plays have to rise to the level of the building. We need to be doing things you can't find anywhere else. The Lady from the Sea is an event. Pam Gems has written a thrilling new version of it, Trevor's directing it in his first production after the National, Natasha Richardson is starring, plus it's a terrific play. A first play written by a brilliant actor and writer like Antony Sher, particularly on a subject he knows so much about, that is an event. A new play by Neil LaBute is an event. The second play by a 24-year-old woman (Joanna Laurens), who's hardly known to the public but who is one of the most astonishing new voices I've ever come across, is an event. Our plan to do Sophocles' Oedipus plays in 2004, to hold that big Greek story in the intimate Almeida - that is an event, too.
And I have to nurture all of those events. There's something very sacred about my role in relation to shows I'm not directing here. When I was at the RSC, we would have anything up to 30 plays in the repertoire. Here, you can concentrate on one at a time, devoting absolute care one by one. There was that sense of devotion and care and focus and scrutiny behind Jonathan and Ian's work. So that's a challenge to maintain. There are other obvious challenges like: can I present interpretative quirks? Will we have our audience back to Almeida Street after they spent two-and-a-half years away from it? I think the major challenge goes under the headline, "Re-exciting Everybody".
What are your plans beyond 2003 season?
Aside from the Sophocles in 2004, I can't yet talk specifics because I would be speculating on titles that I haven't got the rights to yet. As I said, I hope to do many new plays. There are three in the first season, and I have at least two, if not three, in the pipeline for 2004. But I am absolutely certain that there will be more classical work there as well.
What are your views on transfers & multiple venues?
Transfers would be great, but that isn't my focus. When I first came to the Almeida last year, I was offered a number of starry revivals - very solid, wonderful, well-made, classical plays, and I said no to them all. I didn't want to be a theatre that just supplied fodder for the West End. If shows go to the West End, then fine, but that's not what we're here for. We're here to do the Neil LaBute's and the Joanna Laurens' not the Mrs Warren's Profession's. It's perfectly possible that Trevor's production of The Lady from the Sea might go in to town, but that's not why he's doing it or why I'm doing it.
We may look at branching out into additional spaces again, but only if the demand is there as it clearly has been in the past. There have only been two main reasons the Almeida ever stepped outside of Islington. One was Ralph Fiennes. When he wanted to do Hamlet, they went to Hackney; when he wanted to do Richard II and Coriolanus, they went to Gainsborough Studios. Ralph also did Ivanov here in Islington, but in those others, he inspired grander scale events. The space has got to follow the event, not the other way round. Secondly, it was because we had to get out of Almeida Street when it was being rebuilt. That's why we went to King's Cross.
The Almeida did previously have a season in the West End, at the Albery. I'm not sure I want to do that again. I might say to myself: this play isn't right for the Almeida but I'm really fascinated by it, it's a West End play so I'll co-produce with a West End producer. So it might be Almeida at the Wyndhams or whatever, and I could do that. I'm not sure I'd take the Almeida a lot to the West End, though. I think that confuses the issue. My major focus now is on the building and, in the first year, getting it humming. I don't think we can even think about anywhere else until we've got that right.
What is your overriding vision for the theatre?
The vision would home particularly in on the epic scale in the intimate setting and the 'event'. I would love it if, after three or four years, nobody could quite pin down my policy. I want to continue to surprise. So, in about 14 months' time, I hope I'll have done about six new plays and then I'm going to do two of the oldest plays ever written. And then, just as they think I'm getting terribly serious with Sophocles, I might do a musical or a contemporary opera. They've already said no to me, but imagine if you could persuade the rights holders to West Side Story to let you do that inside the Almeida, to just 300 people a night. This is probably the greatest musical of the 20th century; it's robust enough to take re-examination. We could launch West Side Story in a completely different vein, with orchestration for a dozen musicians instead of a bloody great orchestra, for instance.
How will you measure success at the end of
From the audience, it's as simple as that - if the audience is regular, if they are stimulated and wanting to come back for more. I don't think an Almeida audience would keep coming if we became mainstream and conventional. I'd also like to see the audience expand in terms of age, race and class and we have various schools and community projects focused on doing that. I hope that in five years' time, we can look at that audience and say, it's every bit as big but more varied.
What would you say to entice first-time visitors to the Almeida?
I'm not sure that a potential member of an audience, particularly if they don't go to the theatre very often, would be enticed by the fact that the Almeida is different to other theatres, because they'd think, "well, I don't go to other theatres anyway so why should I be fascinated by that difference." You have to start with the products. With Antony Sher's I.D., for instance, you'd start by saying: "You must see this play about the man who assassinated the Prime Minister of South Africa; he was an extraordinary man, he stabbed him four times in the chest. It's an amazing story." And then I'd say: "And, by the way, when you walk into the theatre, you'll be staggered because it doesn't look like any other theatre space you've ever dreamt of or ever seen."
After a refurbishment lasting more than two years and costing £7.6m (See News, 7 Apr 2003), the Almeida Theatre in Islington officially relaunches this week with The Lady from the Sea, which opens 15 May and continues to 28 June 2003 (previews 8 May). The 2003 season, supported by principal sponsors Coutts, then continues with the premiere of Antony Sher's first play, I.D. (28 August to 18 October 2003); the British premiere of Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat (23 October to 6 December 2003) and Joanna Laurens' Five Gold Rings (11 December to 17 January), the last two directed by Attenborough himself.