In a year that has already seen two of its productions transfer to the West End (Pirandello's Naked, starring Juliette Binoche, moved to the Playhouse Theatre and O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, starring Kevin Spacey, has just completed a season at the Old Vic), the Almeida is now launching two major new initiatives even as it prepares for an exciting new season at its home base.
Things kick into gear in August with a significant development for the Almeida as it orchestrates a season of international drama at the Malvern Festival Theatre in the Gloucestershire town of Malvern. Running 6-22 August, the season is built around four productions, three of them receiving their first performances at Malvern. The fourth concludes a tour of a production, Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, that closed the last Islington season but is the starting point for this new relationship - there used to be an annual Shaw festival in Malvern. Also, this acclaimed Michael Grandage production features the theatre's joint artistic director, Ian McDiarmid, in the cast.
The Almeida's other artistic director, Jonathan Kent, a one-time actor turned full-time director, is premiering his own new production of Racine's classic tragedy, Phèdre, at Malvern, en route to the West End's Albery Theatre, which - in the Theatre Company's other major development - it is taking over as a new base to be programmed alongside the Almeida.
Two more productions will receive their premieres at Malvern, and subsequently transfer to the Almeida. The first is the latest play by Edward Albee, The Play about the Baby, which Howard Davies (who directed the Almeida's hit production of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) will direct. The second is a co-production with The Right Size of Brecht's Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, directed by Kathryn Hunter, which will immediately go to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival after Malvern and then tour en route to the Almeida.
'It's like a rubric cube of trying to keep four balls in the air at once', confesses Kent over lunch in a break from rehearsals for Phèdre. 'We're setting up this orbit and fitting things in as we can,' he goes on.
'Malvern is very exciting. It may seem like a rather strange side excursion, but in fact it's a rather interesting thing to do, and is the first of what we hope will be an annual visit. I toured a play there from the Almeida, and when we went there, I thought what a wonderful place it would be for a festival - its small enough to be contained, but it has two theatres, a little cinema and is in a beautiful part of the country. It will be wonderful to have people like Ted Hughes and Edward Albee there at the same time. Possibly, it'll be the genesis of things.”
He mentions Hughes because it is the poet laureate who has provided a new version of Racine's Phèdre. 'I spoke with him about doing it, then I didn't hear anything from him for about three months, and thought, 'I must call him'. But then suddenly a parcel arrived, with the first draft!' The production that has resulted features Diana Rigg, Toby Stephens and Barbara Jefford, who will also perform another Racine play, Britannicus, in repertoire with Phèdre once it moves to the Albery.
By doing these plays, Kent says that he hopes to demonstrate that 'Racine is a subversive, radical, erotic playwright', rather than the frigid French poet that he is usually perceived to be. Moreover, he adds that doing the two plays together 'is interesting, because although they aren't preoccupied with the same things exactly, they do touch on a lot of the same themes, and are not at all alike. It's interesting to see how they reverberate off each other. Phèdre deals in lust and desire, and Britannicus deals in lust for power. Britannicus is a political thriller, whereas Phèdre is one of the most profound, pyschologically complex anatomies of desire ever written, I think.'
Kent is understandably sensitive about charges that the Almeida is star-driven, but the theatre is certainly adept at drawing names like Binoche, Spacey and Ralph Fiennes to work there, and he admits, 'It's naïve to pretend that it isn't good for the theatre that people are queuing to see a Pirandello play; and frankly, if Juliette Binoche wasn't in it, they wouldn't have. But what makes them really queue is that they heard she was very good in it; it wasn't just curiosity value. When people come to see Ralph Fiennes, they actually see Ivanov; and when they come to see Kevin Spacey, they see O'Neill. It's an event. And it's wonderful that people sleep out all night to see theatre. So I'm divided about it. It irritates me slightly when it's said that people only do so for the casts; of course, to a degree its true, but they're also doing it because the event has somehow permeated.'
Ralph Fiennes and Kent (who previously worked together on Almeida productions of Hamlet, staged at the Hackney Empire and subsequently on Broadway, and Ivanov, seen in Islington) will be reunited next year for a West End double bill of Richard II and Coriolanus that already promises to be something of an event. Kent also has plans to stage a new production of David Hare's Plenty at the Albery, with Australian film and stage actress Cate Blanchette starring.
Kent concludes that running both theatres is 'a way to make the Almeida more vibrant. Both houses should play off each other.' The core of our operations remains the Almeida, and we are running full seasons at both theatres.'
The Almeida season at the Malvern Festival Theatre runs 6-22 August. The autumn season at the Almeida itself begins from 27 August with Albee's The Play about the Baby. The season at the Albery begins from 3 September with Phèdre, which is joined by Britannicus from 29 October. And the Almeida's production of Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, co-produced with The Right Size, can be seen at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from 14 August - 5 September before touring to Liverpool, Oxford and Coventry en route to the Almeida, where it runs from 13-31 October