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Jonathan Kent: 'I did Gypsy because Imelda said yes'

The former Almeida chief discusses Gypsy, Young Chekhov and his theatre heroes

Jonathan Kent in rehearsals for Young Chekhov
© Johan Persson

Director Jonathan Kent has been responsible for two of the most heralded Sondheim revivals of recent years: Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2011) and Gypsy (2014) which both featured a revelatory performance from Imelda Staunton.

But before those shows Kent became known for his remarkable success transforming the Almeida into one of the UK's most exciting theatres when he took over directorship of the theatre in 1990 alongside Ian McDiarmid. Since he left there in 2002 he has turned his hand to opera, plays and musicals and has an astonishing number of successes to his name, not least the five-star Young Chekhov Season which is currently playing at Chichester Festival theatre.

Before you got to the Almeida, it was barely on the theatrical map. What was yours and Ian McDiarmid's secret?

What we did was create a full time producing house which it wasn't before. It meant having to raise a lot of money — to begin with there was relatively little public subsidy. I had the protection of innocence. I didn't know what it all entailed and I think if I had known perhaps I wouldn't have... I just thought 'Of course we'll raise the money'. It didn't occur to me that it might be more difficult than I thought. As a result, it curiously wasn't. It was the making of me, really.

Is it true that you hadn't directed anything before you began running the theatre?

Yes, I was an actor before the Almeida. I was actually originally going to be a painter - I come from a family of architects.

Do you think the fact that you were an actor helps you direct?

Yes, I think it does. I knew from the second day of rehearsals of my first directing job. Everything came together. I remember thinking 'I don't care what anybody else thinks, I know this is what I should be doing.' It all made sense to me.

What makes you go for a project?

It sounds feeble but I very rarely plan. The minute I get asked to do something I know instinctively whether it's something exciting or not. I do sometimes mount productions for actors, one of the great gifts of running the Almeida and subsequently has been my relationship with actors. Imelda, for instance. Gypsy is the third thing we've done together and if I can bully her into it I'm sure one day we'll do some more.

The run of Gypsy is nearing an end, what made you want to direct it in the first place?

It was because Imelda said yes, but also it was the first time it's been allowed to be done in London for around 45 years. It is one of the greatest book musicals in the American repertoire, which was an obvious attraction. But the whole process with her was terrific. I'm prejudiced, but she gives one of the most phenomenal music theatre performances I've ever seen in Gypsy. And she is a remarkable actress, she just also happens to sing very well.

When did you get the idea to focus on Ivanov, Platonov and The Seagull for your current Young Chekhov season?

It had always been the plan to link the three together and do the genesis of Chekhov's genius when I was running the Almeida. We did Ivanov in David Hare's version and then we did his version of Platonov but then I left the Almeida. David always wanted to revisit the plays. Platonov specifically has moved it on a lot from when we did it at the Almeida.

Three plays running at the same time - is it the biggest project you've ever undertaken?

Yes, I think in this timescale it probably is. Years ago I did two Racine plays together in the West End but we mounted Phedre, and rehearsed Britannicus while it was playing. But this was a very tight schedule. We had ten weeks to rehearse three plays. It's incredibly short, it was a complete helter skelter, a white knuckle ride. It was exciting, although you have permission to come round and shoot me if I say I'm going to do three plays in ten weeks again. It was great but I don't need to do it again.

Who are your theatre heroes?

There are some great European directors; Peter Stein and Patrice Chereau. There's also Giorgio Strehler - who started Teatro Piccolo in Milan. The greatest theatre I've ever seen has been directed by him. He did a production of The Tempest which was not just the greatest Shakespeare but was also the greatest piece of theatre I've ever seen.

Is there something you're most proud of?

I'm proud of helping to create the Almeida as a producing house. My problem with productions is that when I think back to them, all I can see is what's wrong with them. I'm proud of what I'm doing at the moment, I went to Gypsy last night and it was great to see it again. I'm extremely lucky.

What's your next project?

I'm doing Long Day's Journey into Night on Broadway. Rehearsals begin in February. It's got Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. It's exciting.

Gypsy runs at the Savoy Theatre until 28 November and Young Chekhov at Chichester Festival Theatre until 16 November.