Following clashes last year between Michael Portillo and Nicholas De Jongh over the UK’s history of theatrical censorship (See News, 3 Feb 2004), the guest speaker at this year’s 16th annual Critics’ Circle Awards, held today at the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, earned a warm reception for defending his right to offend (See Today’s Other News for full list of winners).

Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre – which today won four of the Critics’ Circle Awards, two for his own premiere of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys - spoke passionately about freedom of artistic expression following Birmingham Rep’s December cancellation of Behzti and the BBC’s controversial airing last month of the NT musical Jerry Springer - The Opera, both of which attracted headline-grabbing protests from religious groups.

“I claim unequivocally the right to be as offensive as I choose… and, on behalf of my colleagues, to tell any story we choose,” declared Hytner, adding that in modern society “nobody has the right not to be offended”.


Winners also had their say on receiving their various awards. Amongst them:

  • Eddie Redmayne, winner of Most Promising Newcomer for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia said, “I wish I could say I was one of those actors that didn’t read the notices”, but admitted, after not being able to sleep following the Edward Albee play’s UK premiere at the Almeida last year, his girlfriend “frog-marched” him to the newsstand at 4.00am when he couldn’t resist any longer.

  • Rebecca Lenkiewicz, winner of Most Promising Playwright for The Night Season at the NT Cottesloe, thanked, amongst others, NT artistic director Hytner “for his faith in the play”, director Lucy Bailey and the cast who “kind of fell from heaven”. The actress-playwright stated her aim to “write many more plays until I write a very brilliant one”.

  • After critic Michael Billington, presenting the Best Designer award, enumerated his myriad credits over the past 12 months, winner Christopher Oram, who won for Suddenly Last Summer, modestly observed that “it sounds like I’m kind of doing too much work at the moment”. He said, however, that he felt “incredibly privileged to do the job that I do”. And, in an emotional thanks, concluded with a thank-you to his partner, and director of Suddenly Last Summer, Michael Grandage.

  • Grandage later figured heavily in the thanks of Best Actress winner Victoria Hamilton, also winning for Suddenly Last Summer. “You can’t ask for much more really than to work with Michael. I love working with him. You’re very lucky as an actor if you can find a director early on that you have a relationship with like I have with Michael.”

  • Best Actor winner Richard Griffiths (pictured at the Awards launch in November) was on the receiving end of a perplexing introduction from The Stage’s veteran critic Peter Hepple, who began with a recollection of seeing Griffiths perform “30 years ago when he first caught our eye – which is not difficult for someone of his proportions”. Griffiths also joked about his size, saying that the bottle of champagne he received with his certificate was quite large, it only looked smaller because “it’s me holding it”. He also thanked his young co-stars, who play his eponymous students in The History Boys, saying “I can’t tell you how much I owe them and how much I appreciate them”.

  • In accepting the Best New Play award for The History Boys, author Alan Bennett wondered why “people still think that if something is funny and enjoyable, it’s therefore not serious”. He described The History Boys as “a serious play and a sad one”, adding that “to be both funny and sad at the same time is I think the best thing to be”.

  • Stars Lee Evans, Conleth Hill and Brad Oscar accepted the Best New Musical for the The Producers, which had its UK premiere at Drury Lane in November. Speaking for the trio, Evans joked, “We started rehearsals for this musical many months ago and it was the most exciting thing we’d ever done…and now basically it’s a bit of shambles” thanks to fatigue and aching joints. He also confessed how “scared” the company were ahead of the press night because they thought critics “would have a go” in reaction to the show’s New York success. However, “we really wanted to do Mel Brooks justice”. They continue to work hard, he said, because they “don’t want to let down” either Brooks, “a massive hero of my own”, or director Susan Stroman.

  • Best Shakespearean Performance winner Paul Rhys (for Measure for Measure at the NT Olivier), who is filming in Warsaw, and Best Director winner Rufus Norris, currently in New York with the Young Vic production of Sleeping Beauty, were unable to attend today’s ceremony. Their awards were collected, respectively, by Nicholas Hytner and Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough.

    - by Terri Paddock