Theatreland, a DVD compilation of an eight-part series from British TV that documents a pair of high-profile London theatre productions, has something for everyone. Almost. Sure, it’s a theatre geek’s dream, as it allows behind-the-scenes access to the process of rehearsing and producing theatre. The soup-to-nuts tapestry examines all of the activities — onstage, offstage, backstage, front-of-house — involved in putting on a show and keeping a large theatre building in operation. As actors are interviewed, you could be watching Inside the Actors Studio. As the building engineers enter rooms that have been vacant for decades, you could be watching This Old House. As the “Theatre Ghost” is discussed — well, aren’t there shows on the Sci-Fi Channel that involve chasing inhabitants of the spirit world?
In 2009, Sean Mathias was Artistic Director at Theatre Royal Haymarket, a beautiful, 100-plus-year-old West End theater, in the heart of London’s theatre district. The historic playhouse has seen premieres of plays by Oscar Wilde and (in the English language) Henrik Ibsen. Mathias was planing a season of Waiting for Godot, headlined by Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, followed by the first-ever stage adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (That novel had, of course, been made into a classic film by Blake Edwards starring Audrey Hepburn.)
The glimpses of the varying points-of-view are fascinating. The chairman of the theatre, contemplating the possibilities for commercial success, admits that, in theatre, “no one knows anything,” and, later, explains that “we are dealing in a dream.” A cockney worker, fixing chairs in the auditorium, points out bluntly that the theatre was originally built for “small people,” not the “big, fat people” who attend theatre now and break the seats. Another worker says that they have 20 new headsets for hearing enhancement that they haven’t taken out of the boxes, which speaks to the youth of the fan-boy audience come to see the stars of the X-Men, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings movies. One of the theatre managers talks about the importance of ancillary sales — programs (they aren’t given out free in London) and bar sales. The artistic team worries that the production, which was received enthusiastically in “the provinces” during a pre-London tour, will meet a higher bar in town. The standing ovations they’ve become used to receiving? In the West End, “you don’t get that.”
“Learning it is beastly,” says Sir Patrick about the Godot text. “Shakespeare is a walk in the park compared to this. It’s more complex than Shakespeare.” Sir Ian (who had a long personal relationship in the 1980s with the much younger Mathias) speaks about his bond with Sir P: “Only a year separates us, we are both passionate about the same things, we’re both Northerners.” The marquee stars are certainly in a lot of footage, but there are fewer interviews with them than with others. We do, however, see a rehearsal with “new boys” brought in to play the small role that ends each act of Godot. There is a pool of four boys who switch off in the role. As the newest of that crop is given a run-through with the stars (who wear their street clothes), we see McKellen, when a boy turns to give lines to Stewart, swivel out to the staff sitting in the house with a charmingly enthusiastic thumbs up. Sir Ian thinks this kid is great! Later, Sir Patrick is seen chatting breezily with the Assistant Stage Manager right before an entrance. An actor prepares! The staff is protective of the big names: “No interviews with the stars,” the press is told, and, during a photo op, photographers are warned not to shoot the actors “in character.”
The Godot production was brought over to New York last season, playing on Broadway in rep with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land to great acclaim. The New York production, either because of schedule issues or American Equity insistence, had a pair of U.S. actors (Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) in the roles supporting McKellen and Stewart. In London, Pozzo was played by the amazing actor (and writer) Simon Callow, and Lucky was played by Ronald Pickup. Both offer striking insight into their experience. The play, Callow says, “encompasses all of human life.” Examining his process with striking self-awareness, he admits, “I thought I wasn’t up to it.” Pickup says, “Simon and I come off feeling as if we had played Lear and we haven’t.” There are some wonderful snippets of the Godot production. Wow, Callow looks to have been a tremendous Pozzo.
One thread follows an aspiring actress working as an usher. She is chosen to bring intermission tea to the box seats which occupy Dame Maggie Smith and Lady Olivier (Joan Plowright, widow of the the legendary Laurence Olivier; she played Masha in his film of Three Sisters). Those grande dames do not allow the camera into their box, but the young actress reports that they love Pickup’s performance as Lucky.
Pickup is less well known in this country than many British actors of his generation since he hasn’t done much film, though he was in that Olivier version of Three Sisters, as well as a taped-for-TV version of the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Olivier, and he was also one of the leads in the recent film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (I saw the NYC Godot, by the way, and thought the highlight of the production was Crudup’s Lucky speech.) Of course, both Smith and Plowright worked at the National Theatre during Olivier’s reign, as did Pickup, so they are all old friends and colleagues. (It’s true: actors sometimes tend to like their friends best when they see a play. Except when they don’t.)
If Dame Maggie and Lady O don’t permit the camera to film their theatergoing outing, there is, otherwise, surprising access, as when Callow staggers offstage, apparently unaware before he went on of who was in the audience, and says, “Well, that was a particular torture of a special kind. Joan and Maggie are in. Maggie is in my direct sight 98% of the time. She was almost onstage with us.”
There is a lot of fascinating reaction to the reviews. The Godot production set box office records. Critically? “It’s a shame to lead with The Daily Mail,” someone says as he ponders the critics’ quotes ad. “The critics’ words outlive the production,” McKellen observes wistfully. “It’s like you’re back at school, getting marks” is the wry observation of director Mathias.
In another episode, we meet and follow an understudy during a moving arc. We see him spending hour after hour at the theatre sitting around, doing nothing but waiting in case back-up is needed. Then we see Sir Patrick fighting voice loss and getting by, but only just, until finally he can’t, and our boy goes on to great success, giving a poignancy (and a surprise ending) to the glimpse of the existential state of being an understudy in a production of Waiting for Godot.
The series is heavy on the Godot content, but, actually, more of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s production (the focus of the final few episodes) is shown in rehearsal. Still, the focus is as much on the process of set construction and load-in as on a glimpse into the rehearsal room. The technicians explain the difficulty of fitting a three-dimensional structure onto a stage that was designed for sets made up of nearly two-dimensional flats. One of them says that sets, which can cost as much as £100,000, are kept around for a year or so after closing in hopes that they can be sold or rented, but that most end up being trashed.
Mathias is seen focused mostly on the technical aspects of the set, and hardly at all on the acting. A clip of an actor’s question that is included is followed by Mathias saying, “You’re making a small problem bigger. We’ll fix it with sound!” At the same time, the leading lady Anna Friel (who comes across in interviews as very unassuming and likable) speaks so effusively about her trust in Mathias that one feels as if it is the cut that makes him seem so focused on the technical aspects of the production to the expense of the acting.
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And what about that “theatre ghost”? Well, apparently John Baldwin Buckstone, who was actor-manager of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the mid-19th century and a friend of Charles Dickens, haunts the place. As this was mentioned, I had a sort of “Yeah, right” attitude, and expected to learn about a ridiculous, laughable myth. But as the staff is interviewed, the accounts are surprisingly credible and clear headed. And then one of the stars of Godot sees the ghost onstage. Has someone from the audience walked onstage? In 19th century clothes? The actor turns back to his scene partner, then around again, and the figure is gone. It’s not that I believe there is a ghost. But, wow, I can’t dismiss it as some cheesy TV gimmick, either. You listen to these people talk about it, and…well, welcome to the world of the Theatre Royal Haymarket. And to Theatreland.
Finally, there is a woman who vacuums the theatre. I can’t do justice to her with any attempt to describe her. She’s like a character out of Catherine Tate or Monty Python. Listening to her talk about the apparition is a terrific delight of the ghost episode. And which Knight of the British Empire saw the ghost and talks about it during this engaging and informative series? Well, you won’t get that from me. You have to watch it to learn that, and, when you do, like me, you will enjoy a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek at some rather tasty sausage being made.