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Mark Shenton’s top venues: Almeida Theatre, London

Almeida Theatre. Photo: Robin Fisher Almeida Theatre. Photo: Robin Fisher
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Top of many critics best shows of last year, including that of my colleague Natasha Tripney, was Oresteia, Robert Icke’s revelatory modern take on Euripides, which Susannah Clapp in a five-star review in The Observer also dubbed “one tremendous evening”. My own best female performance of last year came from Kate Fleetwood in Medea.

Both premiered at Islington’s Almeida Theatre as part of its season of Greek plays that also featured Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel in Bakkhai, and saw the theatre stage all-day readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey in multiple venues and with all-star casts (these can still be watched online).

This year, Rupert Goold’s 2013 production of the musical American Psycho, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis and featuring a score by Duncan Sheik and a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is heading to Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, with a cast that includes Benjamin Walker (stepping into the title role originally played by Matt Smith in Islington), Alice Ripley and Jennifer Damiano.

Originally built as a lecture theatre in 1837, and subsequently used as a Salvation Army meeting hall, the Almeida has been a theatre only for the last 35 years, since it was renovated under the auspices of Pierre Audi, who reopened it in 1980 and operated it mainly as a theatrical receiving house for touring companies and the home of his own annual Almeida Opera season.

In 1990, actor Ian McDiarmid and actor-turned-director Jonathan Kent took over as joint artistic directors, and quickly established the Almeida as a go-to destination, with numerous West End transfers (some 14 in a 12-year period) and its productions of Medea (starring Diana Rigg), Hamlet (with Ralph Fiennes in the title role that first played under the Almeida’s auspices at Hackney Empire) and The Iceman Cometh (Kevin Spacey) all also going to Broadway. This has continued to the present day, with the current transfer of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III to the Great White Way, where it is playing at the Music Box Theatre.

Under the Kent/McDiarmid watch, the Almeida also stretched its wings beyond Islington, with productions staged at the West End’s Albery (now the Noel Coward), and in found spaces including a converted bus depot in King’s Cross and the former Gainsborough film studios, while its home theatre was extensively (and expensively) renovated. Kent and McDiarmid didn’t stick around, though, to enjoy the refurbished theatre after it reopened in 2003, instead handing it on to Michael Attenborough, who succeeded them as artistic director.

Attenborough’s decade at the helm yielded some challenging hits, such as the UK premiere of Edward Albee’s The Goat (or Who Is Sylvia?) – which marked the first significant London stage performance of Eddie Redmayne and subsequently transferred to the West End. It also featured some 32 new plays (against 15 premieres during the Kent/McDiarmid era, which concentrated more on revivals) that included David Eldridge’s adaptation of Festen, which had Rufus Norris directing a cast that featured a pre-movie star Tom Hardy. That show also transferred to the West End. And Rupert Goold’s Headlong co-produced the sensational premiere of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica at the theatre, directed by Lyndsey Turner and subsequently transferring to the West End.

If these were, for me, three jewels in the Attenborough’s Almeida crown, at other times the theatre seemed more pedestrian; it just lacked excitement otherwise, except when it was the home for Simon Russell Beale’s Macbeth or Jonathan Pryce’s King Lear in the classics department.

It wasn’t until the arrival of Rupert Goold as artistic director in 2013 that real excitement returned to the Upper Street venue, and the theatre has once again become a theatrical address where there’s a tingle of anticipation each time you go there.

Sure, it produced what I thought was my dud of the year in 2014, Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns – but the same play was highly regarded by other critics, including some I respect. And that’s the best kind of theatre, really: an ability to provoke and divide suggests that something is going on that’s worth paying attention to.

Mr Burns was directed by Robert Icke, now the Almeida’s associate director, who has truly become a name to watch there — he also co-directed and co-adapted its joint production of 1984 that subsequently played two seasons at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre and toured extensively, as well as the aforementioned Oresteia. His forthcoming production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, opening on February 12 with Paul Rhys in the title role, is one of the shows I’m most looking forward to this year.

There have also been some brilliant reconfigurations of the venue helmed by excellent directors: Sacha Wares staging the premiere of Mike Bartlett’s Game last year in Miriam Buether’s set that divided the audience into separate cubicles to watch the action from behind glass; Joe Hill-Gibbons putting the audience at the heart of the London riots on platforms arranged around the entire playing area for Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution; and David Cromer transposing his Off-Broadway staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to an English-accented world. For each, the audience space was entirely remade.

Another notable show last year was Simon Stephens’ Carmen Disruption, stunningly staged by another name-to-watch, Michael Longhurst, which Susannah Clapp described vividly in her Observer review:

The sound can be heard right across London. Theatrical classics are being cracked open. That has been David Lan’s special project at the Young Vic. Now, at Rupert Goold’s galvanic Almeida, there is an explosive example of fracture and rediscovery. It’s called Carmen Disruption. For maximum impact, first disrupt your theatre. The audience for Simon Stephens’ new play have to pick their way to their seats past a dressing room where a diva is humming, and on to the stage, past two cellists (upright) and the body of a huge bull (recumbent). At least as disconcerting for Almeida habitues, their brick-and-iron palace has become a conventional opera house, with a gilded circle and chandelier. This is thanks to Lizzie Clachan’s design and Jack Knowles’s lighting… Carmen Disruption will go on reverberating, not because it beguiles but because it is so 3D dramatic. It is a depth charge to the theatre.

Depth – and death – charges of a different sort have also been provided in a series of shattering Ibsen’s, all stunningly directed by Richard Eyre: first there was Eve Best’s Hedda Gabler in 2005 (part of Attenborough’s programming), Ghosts in 2013 (with Lesley Manville as Mrs Alving, that straddled the Attenborough/Goold regimes) and the recent Little Eyolf (which closes on January 9, 2016).

Goold’s own directorial contributions at the theatre have included his brilliant Las Vegas reimagining of The Merchant of Venice (first produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company but finally brought to London in a startling Almeida revival) and last year’s astonishing modern rewrite of Medea, starring Goold’s wife Kate Fleetwood.

If Goold’s Almeida has turned into one of London’s most essential and dynamic theatres, what’s striking is that that isn’t just down to his own work but also because it’s a place that provides house room to some of the best emerging and established directors in Britain.


 

Almeida Theatre
Almeida Street, Islington, London N1 1TA
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Administration: 020 7288 4900

Artistic director: Rupert Goold
Executive director: Denise Wood
Associate director: Robert Icke
Producer: Lilli Geissendorfer
General manager: Catherine McKinney
Box office manager: Tina Ferguson
Front of house manager: Dervla Toal
Director of development: Sally Noonan
Director of marketing and communications: Jane Macpherson
Head of production: James Crout


 

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