“Ladies, this is your final call.” Emilia, the rumbustious, fiercely feminist biographical drama of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady of the sonnets’, closes on Saturday. Queue for returns at London’s Vaudeville theatre, a venue that turns out to have form when it comes to rediscovery.
It wasn’t planned that way. After all, a producer’s choice of West End house is governed by factors beyond her or his control, from theatre availability to relationships with theatre owners, scale of production, audience capacity, projected length of run and so on – but there’s a sweet logic to that particular play having transferred to that particular venue.
With Nimax owner Nica Burns as part of the producing team, her Vaudeville theatre presented a perfect choice in more ways than one: 107 years earlier, after four matinee performances at London’s Royal Court, this was the theatre that hosted the West End debut of Rutherford and Son, a play by, gasp, a woman. Yet audiences didn’t know that at the time, since it was billed as having been written by GK Sowerby. The author’s female identity only publicly emerged some time later.
I imagine the expensive feathers of theatregoers of 1912 will have been somewhat ruffled by Githa Sowerby’s family-firm drama, which treated them to nothing less than a dark, brooding study of class, gender and generational warfare. Since then, the play has been consistently ‘rediscovered’, first in 1980 and again, notably, in Katie Mitchell’s celebrated 1994 National Theatre production designed by Vicki Mortimer. It has just opened at the same venue, directed by Polly Findlay.
Frankly, theatre likes nothing more than a discovery. After all, which management doesn’t love uncovering a lost voice (such as that of Emilia); a new acting talent; giving birth to a new hit musical; or bringing an unjustly neglected play back to public acclaim? The British Library is awash with directors searching through long-buried manuscripts for masterpieces by forgotten writers. And if they disinter a treasure, there are theatres on both sides of the Atlantic dedicated to staging them.
Off-Broadway boasts York Theatre, which revives forgotten musicals, while London’s Finborough has been responsible for countless unexpected play revivals, many of which have gone on to have further renewed life.
What’s more unusual is the rediscovery of a theatre. Correction: theatres, plural. This autumn, we’ll see doors opening at everything from two new, grand-scale Troubadour theatres at Wembley Park and White City to another pair of new venues for Southwark Playhouse, plus London’s first purpose-built immersive theatre venue, Space 18 on New Oxford Street. But more surprisingly, two ‘lost’ venues are being brought back from the dead.
Rachel Edwards, who produced the thrillingly up-close-and-personal Sweeney Todd in a Tooting pie-shop (then in the West End and Off-Broadway, where it notched up the longest run in the work’s history) will soon announce her opening season as artistic director of Soho’s Boulevard Theatre, a revivification of the long-defunct venue that flourished briefly in the 1980s. Her new 165-seat auditorium is a far cry from last week’s announcement of the rediscovery, nay re-imagining, of the Walthamstow Granada.
Closed to the public for years, the now decayed, palatial art-deco wonder was built in 1930 as a 2,000-plus seat cinema designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, a once highly influential theatre director and designer.
His background alone suggested theatrical success – his father taught Stanislavski – but his own achievements were extraordinary: he escaped Russian state censure by fleeing Moscow in 1919 for London, where he became famous for producing opera at Covent Garden, changing the way the British played Chekhov and marrying Peggy Ashcroft. He also designed the West End’s Phoenix Theatre and eight venues for the Granada chain founded by media mogul and lifelong friend of Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Bernstein.
Under the aegis of Soho Theatre and its executive director Mark Godfrey who, over nine years, helped mastermind the reclaiming of the building, Komisarjevsky’s auditorium will be restored as a 1,000-seat theatre for, primarily, live comedy, a much-needed addition when London offers almost nothing between tiny comedy club and stadium-sized venues. Plans also include pantomime and more in a venue that will harness the grandeur of its past to present live performance.
At this point I must reveal a connection. Although perhaps not quite up there with the Redgraves or the Foxes, the, er, depth of my theatrical roots became clear when I reached for my copy of Komisarjevksy’s 1930 autobiography Myself and the Theatre. He dedicated his book to Bernstein but a copy was given to my grandparents, keen amateur theatre practitioners, by a group of actors.
It bears an inscription: “In happy memory of their production of The Case of Lady Camber.” The play, by deeply forgotten Horace Annesley Vachell, was strong enough to be filmed three times: most notably in 1932 as Lord Camber’s Ladies, produced by Hitchcock. Something else ripe for rediscovery?
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict