Summer's Special in Sussex Thanks to ChichesterDate: 28 May 2001
Chichester launches its annual summer festival this week. Whatsonstage.com's Mark Shenton explains how location, history, a constellation of stars and a lot of luck have made Sussex one of the hottest theatrical destinations of the season.
There are few more exciting journeys than driving through the rolling Sussex Downs and into the beautiful cathedral city of Chichester where, across a vast green lawn, you catch sight of the octagonal expanse of the Festival Theatre.
It's a remarkable setting for what has become a remarkable theatrical institution. During the summer months, Chichester's is undoubtedly the schedule that I look forward to hearing about most. Not because it's the most ambitious (it isn't), but because it's frequently the most interesting, star-studded and most pleasant to visit.
A Happy Anomaly
Few British theatres offer such an apparent anomaly as Chichester Festival Theatre. Considering the size of its immediate local population, it's odd for any number of reasons. It's odd to have such a large theatre here, in terms of both physical space and reputation. It's odd that it produces its own product, much of which has subsequently transferred to the West End. It's odd that it frequently attracts glamorous stars to its ranks. It's odd that it both finds established directorial talents and also acts as a major seedbed of new talent. Odd, odd, odd.
So how did this happy theatrical accident happen, and in such a glorious location? Well, it started out nearly 40 years ago as one of those acts of chance, apparent insanity, philanthropy and luck which fuel so many seemingly impossible dreams. A local opthalmist, Leslie Evershed-Martin, was inspired when he saw a television documentary about the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in the Canadian town of Stratford, Ontario. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre presented an annual summer season of its own and its visionary director, Tyrone Guthrie, offered Evershed-Martin the encouragement he needed to follow suit.
But civic pride is one thing. The luck - or good judgement - was to establish Chichester's artistic credentials, too, from the very beginning. This was achieved in grand style when Laurence Olivier, then director of the National Theatre at the Old Vic, accepted the invitation to be the Festival's launch director. For its first three years, and with such productions as Uncle Vanya and Othello, Chichester effectively provided the nucleus of what became Olivier's National Theatre company.
A Star-Studded History
In the years since, the plays and players who have appeared in Chichester have continued to make theatre history. Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun is just one illustrious piece that has received its world premiere here. Internationally famous performers who have visited have included Ingrid Bergman, Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Omar Sharif, Kathleen Turner, Joan Collins, Lauren Bacall and Peter Ustinov.
Chichester is fond of its local stars, too: everyone from Penelope Keith to Dawn French have been held in its eclectic embrace. This was also the place that provided Sam Mendes - now artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and renowned as the Oscar-winning film director of American Beauty fame - with the critical first step on his road to professional success. Mendes was drafted in at very short notice to replace Robin Phillips as director of a production of the classic play London Assurance. It proved to be Mendes's calling card to the West End soon after, when the production transferred to the Haymarket.
Of course, that production was neither the first nor last Chichester production to find its way to London. In recent years, Chichester-originated stagings of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Patricia Routledge, and The Blue Room, directed by Loveday Ingram, have made similar journeys up the motorway. (The latter, ironically first seen at Mendes' Donmar, succeeded handsomely even without the starry, and briefly naked, appearance of Nicole Kidman that turned the original production into "theatrical viagra".) This year, the off-Broadway musical Song of Singapore that was given its British premiere at Chichester's Minerva Studio in 1998 is being revived briefly en route to a London showing in July.
Two Theatres, One Eclectic Repertoire
The main house, Chichester Festival Theatre, with its three-sided, 1,026-seater auditorium arranged around an open thrust stage, was the first modern theatre to be built in this way; it provides its own unique dynamic for the plays produced there.
The Minerva Theatre, a flexible studio usually configured to the same three-sided auditorium to mirror the main house, was added in 1989 in an adjoining complex that also includes the theatre's restaurant and a theatre shop. As well as offering a unique intimacy - the kind that made Maggie Smith's performance there in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologue absolutely indelible - it offers young directors the chance to develop their craft. It was the Minerva that gave birth, for instance, to Ingram's Blue Room.
Though Chichester is often accused of playing too "safe", it makes frequently interesting choices. This year is no exception: Peter Wood, the director most closely associated with the work of Tom Stoppard, returns to On the Razzle, which he first staged at the National in 1981; the Minerva offers Catherine Johnson's (of (Mamma Mia) fame) Shang-a-Lang, previously seen briefly at the Bush; and the Broadway musical My One and Only receives its British premiere with Janie Dee in the role created in New York by Twiggy, herself a one-time Chichester alumna. Those are just three reasons among at least ten to visit this year.
The Chichester Festival Season opens with Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle on 29 May and continues until 29 September 2001. See our previous news story for a overview of the main house season or click here for venue performance listings.