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2000 Questions: Our First 100 Interviews

This week marks a milestone for Whatsonstage.com: with Maria Friedman, we've reached our 100th 20 Questions interview! We take a trawl through two years of great insights into great stars, singling out our favourites & theirs too.

By • West End


Our weekly 20 Questions conversations with top theatre personalities started on 12 March 2001 with actor Michael Feast (then appearing in The Servant at the Lyric Hammersmith) and have continued uninterrupted (albeit with the occasional slow-down over Christmas) ever since. In the past two years, we've interviewed 50 actors, 34 actresses, seven directors, seven playwrights, two producers and, in amongst them, several category crossover types, like dancer/choreographer/director Matthew Bourne, playwright/director Peter Gill and actor/playwright Steven Berkoff.

For us, it's been a privilege getting to know all of these hugely talented people a little bit better - and we hope you've enjoyed the experience, too. To commemorate our 100th 20 Questions milestone, we've trawled back through all of them to identify some interesting contrasts and comparisons and to remind ourselves - and you - of a few more memorable moments.


All of Their Favourites

Thanks to the Q&A format of our 20 Questions interviews - in which, many of the same questions are posed to each subject - trends do emerge over the weeks and months, not least amongst the "favourite" questions.

The wide range of stage actors we've interviewed over the past two years have themselves worked with such a wide range of actors that there isn't too much overlap in terms of "favourite co-stars". That said, a handful of names are mentioned multiple times - amongst them, in no particular order, Hugh Jackman, Richard Briers, Zoe Wanamaker, Victoria Hamilton, Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale and the late Nigel Hawthorne.

Increased repetition is much more common where favourite directors and playwrights are concerned. As for the latter, no fewer than one in four interviewees name William Shakespeare as one of their favourite playwrights, if not their very favourite. The three 20th-century writers who tie for second place - with a dozen mentions apiece - are American Tennessee Williams and Britons Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn, the last now up to his 60th play and counting.

Just under 70 different playwrights have been deemed favourites, with those making it into the top ten most popular also including: Anton Chekhov, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, David Hare and Henrik Ibsen. Amongst others whose names have been frequently mentioned are George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Noel Coward, Eugene O'Neill and contemporary playwrights like Terry Johnson, Neil Simon, Sam Shepard, Peter Nichols, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Caryl Churchill and Patrick Marber.

Amongst musical writers, Stephen Sondheim comes out on top as the performers' choice, followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and Kander and Ebb. More than a few performers named Bernstein and Sondheim's West Side Story as the greatest musical of all.

As for "favourite directors", outgoing National Theatre artistic director Trevor Nunn is named more than any other. According to interviewee Simon Day, currently appearing in Nunn's swansong productions of Anything Goes and Love's Labour's Lost at the NT Olivier: "There's a nickname for him, "Second to None", which is obviously a pun on his surname but, in terms of his ability for staging, it really is true."

Nunn is most closely matched in the esteem of actors by Michael Grandage - who took over from another frequent favourite, Sam Mendes, as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in December 2002. And if it doesn't hurt to lead the Donmar, it most certainly doesn't to have had your hand in at the South Bank bunker. The other pair amongst the five most popular directors are Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner, former and future NT artistic directors, respectively.

Another favourite of our "favourites" questions concerns after-show haunts. A collation of answers in this category sees West End institution The Ivy still in the lead, though neck and neck with the less formal bar and restaurant, Joe Allen's. Also popular are a slew of private members' establishments such as Century, Black's, Teatro, Soho House and the Groucho Club, while plenty of actors prefer to head straight home after a performance.

Choice Roles & Role Models

To be or not to be Hamlet. Or perhaps the question ought to be: who'll be Hamlet next? While many actors answered something along the lines of "don't know" or "something new" when asked what they'd most like to play still, there are, nonetheless, some roles that come up again and again. Most frequent amongst those is the Prince of Denmark. So who's Hamlet would you most like to see? Take your pick from James Frain, Mark McGann, Daniel Evans or Lloyd Owen. Or why not a gender-blind prince in the form of Josie Lawrence or Daniela Nardini. Alternatively, Samuel West, who won this year's Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Actor for the RSC's recent Hamlet, is keen to play the part again.

Perhaps it's no surprise, given the actors' reverence for the bard, that the most coveted roles are all Shakespearean ones. In addition to Hamlet, these include: for men, King Lear, Iago, Macbeth, Prospero and Benedick; and for women, Rosalind and Lady Macbeth. Other sought-after parts include both Trigorin and Konstantin in Chekhov's The Seagull, tortured Williams' characters like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending and Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and, for musical actresses, Sally Bowles in Kander and Ebb's Cabaret and Mrs Lovett in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

On the subject of casting, we're pleased to note that a few of our interviewees' choices have indeed come to pass. In October 2001, Emma Fielding (then appearing in Private Lives) said she'd like to play Imogen in Cymbeline, which she's now doing this spring for the RSC in Stratford; and in December 2001, Philip Quast - best known in this country for his Olivier Award-winning musical performances (including South Pacific which he was starring in at the time) - named himself for Trigorin, a role he tackles this summer in Chichester. Less happily, in May 2001, Henry Goodman (then transferred to the West End with political satire Feelgood) identified Max Bialystock in The Producers as one of his dream jobs. Though that dream came true on Broadway last year, it ended up as more of a nightmare, best now forgotten.

So much for characters. What real-life people would our interviewees most like to be, at least for a day? Judi Dench (hugely admired by her peers) and Madonna have both been popular choices as have David Beckham and his Posh Spice wife Victoria (chosen for her physical proximity to the footballer) and, along similar lines, Hollywood pin-up couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. Other interviewees opted for a variety of musicians, artists, historical figures, family members and younger versions of themselves.

Advising the Government

"Show us the money!" - or words to that effect - is the plaintive cry from most respondents when asked what advice they'd give the government for securing the future of British theatre. No less than 40% believe more funding is necessary, though there's less agreement on just how and where additional money should be spent.

A great many would like to see funds used to subsidise cheaper theatre tickets, while others feel the priority should be to revitalise regional repertory theatre, back new talent and/or extend drama school grants. Smarter funding is also seen as necessary, with "fund people not buildings" a frequent refrain.

Other oft-offered pieces of advice for the government have included: return drama to the national curriculum in schools, ditch management consultants and listen more carefully to arts practitioners, have more ministers actually go to the theatre, clean up the West End and, of late, stop making war.

While many of the responses in this category may sound simplistic, some interviewees have argued so passionately, knowledgeably and articulately regarding the state and future of theatre in this country that we think they merit special mention. So, right here and now, we'd like to elect the following as future UK theatrical ambassadors: director Edward Hall, writer-director Peter Gill and actors Samuel West (now a blossoming director himself) and James Frain. With the last, his feelings on the subject are not fully contained in his published 20 Questions, but Frain considered the question so seriously that, afterwards, he submitted a nearly 1,000-word essay-cum-mission statement. Bravo!

All of Our Favourites

Throughout, we have been fascinated by the breadth of responses and personalities that have emerged in our first 100 20 Questions interviews but, much as we've liked each and every one of them, there are a few that stand out.

Amongst our favourite moments over the past two years are: Lloyd Owen's recollection of crying "freedom" in Ceausescu's Romania, director Ian Marshall Fisher's love and restoration of "lost musicals", Alan Ayckbourn's advice to aspiring playwrights, Victoria Hamilton's career blueprint modelled on Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Matthew Bourne's tales from his years as a teenage autograph hunter, Desmond Barrit's route into acting via accountancy, Sally Ann Triplett's dedication of her Anything Goes performance to her father who died on the first day of rehearsals, Owen Teale's theory about architecture's impact on the London psyche, Clive Rowe's Modern Ballroom Dancing award, Dennis Quilley's assessment of how the West End has changed over his 5O-odd year career (and his favourite joke, which was so naughty as to be unprintable!), William Houston's thankfully avoided back-up career as an Ulster policeman, Richard O'Brien's conviction that children do not find him scary, Kika Markham's views on Afghanistan, Adam Garcia's environmental friendliness, Alison Steadman's experience of watching another Beverley in Abigail's Party, Daniel Evans' Ariel six-pack and legendary impresario Thelma Holt's anecdotes about thespian greats and her declaration that British audiences are the best in the world (we couldn't agree more!).

And, last but not least, we remember with fondness Adam Faith, whom we had the great honour of interviewing just weeks before his recent death. To Adam and to all of our hugely talented subjects, many thanks - you're all superstars to us!


You can scroll back through all of our first 100 interviews in the 20 Questions section of the website. If you have any comments or suggestions for future interviews, please email us or post them on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.


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