While the Almeida's entire front-of-house area is brand-new - from the bar to the foyer, box office and toilets (now fully enclosed and not, as before, situated in an open courtyard) - the theatre itself, once entered via a new, wheelchair-friendly ramp, is essentially the same (at least to the naked eye). Attenborough took great pains to stress that the unique relationship between the actor and the audience in the Almeida has been untouched by the building work; it remains a place where epic events can take place in an intimate setting. The architect, Mark Foley of the firm Burrell Foley Fischer, was also given clear instructions to retain the informality that conjures the quality of an improvised space - one that Attenborough characterised as "not at all posh", with bare brick walls still an integral feature. But, even though it therefore all seems unchanged, only the four walls and the circle actually remain from before.
Once the builders got their hands on the building, they removed both the floor and roof; both were installed completely anew. Air conditioning and a new sub-floor heating system were introduced, and the lighting grid strengthened. But while the same bench seating layout remains, the seating, too, is new and - according to Attenborough at least - is "more comfortable", though they are yet to be tested by watching an entire play from them. (To this observer, they seemed very much the same as the ones they'd replaced). The addition of 18 seats (to make a new total of 321) has marginally increased seating capacity.
Below and backstage, changes are more visible. There are still no flying or lift facilities for designers to employ, but dressing rooms have been increased from just two previously to five, now comfortably equipped and including showers, and there's also a 'green room' for the actors and an improved wardrobe facility.
The costs of the refurbishment (and temporary relocation to King's Cross) were met partly by Arts Council Lottery funding (£4.3 million) and money that the Almeida raised itself (£3.3 million). Attenborough noted that the latter was accomplished "without having to give our name away" - a reference to the fact that other theatres (such as the Royal Court with its Jerwood Theatre Downstairs and Upstairs) now have a sponsor's name affixed. The only parts of the Almeida named for anyone bear tribute to Kent and McDiarmid, each with a dressing room named after them. Principal sponsor for the first year will be the private bank Coutts and Co, of which Rick Haythornthwaite, chair of the Almeida's Board of Trustees, comments: "Coutts and Co's commitment to the theatre provides crucial funding for the Almeida's inaugural year in its newly refurbished home".
Turning to his artistic policy for the revitalised building, Attenborough called the Almeida "a space that invites anything". He hopes people won't be able to pin his policy down and that it will be hard to define, except that he wants to promote an "eclecticism of choice" that constantly "takes the audience by surprise". Calling it a "militantly non-naturalistic space", this theatre does, he stressed, require "high definition acting" - something, he added, "that is the hardest thing an actor has to accomplish, requiring energy but not push or volume".
Actors will play an active role in the running of the new building, and a group of Associate Actors have been appointed to have a direct input into the artistic policy. These comprise Josette Bushell-Mingo, Simon Russell Beale, Meera Syal, Richard Wilson and Penelope Wilton. Attenborough - who came to the Almeida by way of the RSC where, between 1996 and 2002, he was principal associate director - has also brought Neil Constable and Maggie Lunn from the RSC to join him. Constable, formerly London manager of the RSC from 1998 to 2003, joins as Executive Director, and Lunn, formerly producer and casting executive at the RSC and subsequently head of casting at the National, joins as Artistic Associate, with responsibility for assisting in assembling creative teams and acting as casting director on all productions.
Attenborough also announced that money has been raised to appoint a Projects Director who will oversee a number of new initiatives. The first of these is that the Almeida will become the new home of Push, the award-winning black-led arts organisation set up by Bushell-Mingo to reflect the under-representation of black artists in mainstream arts. The Almeida will host a major event under this umbrella next September, Push 04, and will include a new play, ballet, opera and piece of music theatre that have been specially commissioned.
The Almeida is further developing its work in education by earmarking six local secondary schools with which to build what Attenborough calls "a long-term, sustainable relationship", transcending the usual experience of kids being "herded into schools matinees".
Attenborough also spoke of two other relationships the theatre is forging. First, Wills Wilson, a duo who forge site specific participatory projects, have been commissioned to develop one for next May that will "research the landscape we live in, and the relationship between urban sprawl and the effect on the psyche." Another company, Dramatic Solutions, are also being offered a home at the Almeida, to continue exploring "how theatrical techniques can unlock conflict". This is about bringing the real world to the theatre, rather than the theatre to the world, and came out of a two-day conference on conflict resolution that Attenborough presided over at the RSC around his production of David Edgar's play The Prisoner's Dilemma.
Keen to encourage actor development sessions, Attenborough has invited Judi Dench and John Barton to share their techniques with groups of actors and aspiring actors from drama schools. He is also seeking to explore new ways of looking at old plays. Whereas there are established mechanisms for dealing with new ones, that include workshops and readings, no comparable system is applied to looking at old ones, and he plans to do readings of them.
After The Lady from the Sea (running 8 May to 28 June 2003) and the premiere of Antony Sher's first play, I.D. (28 August to 18 October 2003), Attenborough will direct the British premiere of Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat (23 October to 6 December 2003) as his own first production for the theatre. "The moment I read it, I knew it was the play I wanted to direct here first," he says. "It's passionate, personal and ruthlessly honest. I believe it's Neil's best play." He will follow this with a new play, Five Gold Rings (11 December to 17 January), by 24-year-old Joanna Laurens, about whom he says: "She writes like nobody else I know - beautiful, sensual and very powerful."
- by Mark Shenton