Sam Mendes At The Donmar - Stepping Into Freedom



"Sam Mendes at the Donmar - Stepping Into Freedom" by Matt Wolf.
Limelight Editions. $22.50

A chronicle of the amazing London Production Company known simply as the Donmar reads like a "Who's Who" of the modern theatre world. Rather than merely opting to track a decade of exciting achievement, Matt Wolf has chosen to offer us a glimpse into the inner workings of this unique performing group, and of the Artistic Director who is almost solely responsible for its existence and its success.

In late 1989 Sam Mendes wandered by a boarded up warehouse, an abandoned theatre in a state of disrepair. This former home of the studio theatre of the Royal Shakespeare Company sported a sign reading simply, "Closed Until Further Notice." At the time, Mendes was awaiting reviews of his production of The Cherry Orchard and was a nervous wreck, yet there was something so compelling about the space that the fresh young director decided to make inquiries. "It was a vibe thing," he says, "where it is, the shape of the auditorium the atmosphere when you walk in. It felt happening, and it still does." A scant three years later Mendes was not only heading a company, but about to open his first production in that same building: the European premiere of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins. Throughout its life span, the physical structure itself continues to be a major player. High ceilinged, with a three-sided stage, it seats a mere 250 - intimate but rarely intimidating. The audience can see not only the actors, but one another as well. Actors accustomed to close- up camera work find it simple to adapt to what they view as a cinematic space. while those used to a larger theatre find it a welcome respite. The space has proven to work as well for large-scaled musicals as for two-character dramas.

The first defining decision in what was later considered to be a stroke of genius, was to open with a musical by the brilliant, versatile Stephen Sondheim, who was to emerge over the Mendes decade as "the Donmar's de facto house dramatist." Sondheim has said of his work that he has "always seen them as music theatre rather than musicals." As such, they work brilliantly in the space, with Mendes the perfect director to bring them to fruition. In addition to Assassins (a European premiere), Mendes brought in Company, Into the Woods, and the first sustained London run of Merrily We Roll Along, The director concludes that Sondheim is "just brilliantly suited to the space."

Cabaret, which was eventually to make a superstar both in America and abroad of Alan Cumming, proved the next major defining decision. Mendes came to realize that revivals need not necessarily be rehashes of old successes, nor do they require a specific time lapse from the original. A revival could be as recent as a year after the original (or even the successful film version). A revival need not imitate nor blatantly attempt to "one-upsman" the original - it merely needs a fresh approach to already established, worthwhile material. It was no mean feat to top the original Broadway production of Cabaret, which had catapulted Joel Grey to heretofore unprecedented heights and Liza Minelli to an award-winning movie star, yet Mendes managed such a fresh and original take on the play that it not only toured America after its Broadway run, but sold out nearly every performance. From a personal point of view, this critic can attest to a penchant for avoiding revivals whenever the memory of the original is fresh in mind. Disappointment is generally in store. One major exception was catching a touring company matinee of Mendes' incomparable Cabaret one Sunday in Denver. Here was a fresh and immediate approach to the material which at the same time lost none of its original intent or luster!

Mendes was fortunate to surround himself with a professional and caring staff which included executive producer Caro Newling and casting director Anne McNulty. After a few forays into original works, the group discovered that Donmar's audiences responded better to plays with a track record, be they Shakespeare, Sondheim, Stoppard, Mamet or Tennessee. As a result, a truly eclectic body of work emerged. Decisions on what to do next depended often on a gut reaction, rather than a practical choice. Caro Newling's attitude all along was "if that is the project you want to do, then do it." Directorial passion always won out, frequently resulting in what appeared to be unorthodox choices.

The theatre survived on meager government subsidies, subscriptions, and later, on first-look deals from Broadway producers. And it seemed that, despite the fact that they were able to pay "fuck-all" (to quote actress Helen Mirren), virtually everybody wanted to work at the Donmar! In exchange for what is known in America as Equity Scale, actors repeatedly turned down more lucrative work for the opportunity to experience this environment (which included only two dressing rooms backstage, shared by the entire cast). Here are some impressive testimonials:

"At the Donmar, you get a real sense of the company...there is no star, no major glorious leading player. You get this group...who are going to do the show for an audience in front and on two sides, and you can't really hide. (Adrian Lester)

"I actually think it's a deceptive space in that it's bigger than you think; when watching as an audience member, you think you couldn't get any closer if you tried, but being on stage it's a much bigger space than you think it is." (Jenny Galloway)

"It's just so fantastic to be able to do theatre...and have the audience right up against you; I love it...At the same time, the Donmar doesn't feel like a little theatre." (Alan Cumming)

"It feels like you're performing in a living room - and you can think your stuff out there; you sense the personality of an audience very quickly there." (Colin Firth)

"The Donmar is almost like an informal space: it's not intimidating at all, and it's certainly not sophisticated backstage. But ...the experience is upbeat. There's no trickery there, just artistry." (Blenda Blethyn)

"The Donmar just has a magic to it; I'm not quite sure why." (Iain Glen)

The defining, or should I say "re-defining" moment for the Donmar came in 1998 with Mendes' presentation of David Hare's adaptation of Schnitzler's La Ronde, The Blue Room. The decision to go with an Australian/American movie star, with precious little stage experience, in the lead role enlarged the theatre's reputation to the degree that their fortunes can be discussed in terms of pre-and post Blue Room. Kidman, her marriage to Tom Cruise still intact, was in London for the filming of Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut. The choice was somewhat risky: the actress had little stage experience, but more important, casting a beautiful star of this magnitude posed problems hitherto unheard of at the formerly abandoned site. Tight security had to be enforced, for one thing, dealing with Hollywood's largest theatrical and public relations agencies for another. Would she succeed in the role for which more seasoned actresses were passed over? Would this be considered a mere publicity stunt? (Anathema to the Donmar!) Insecure at the start of rehearsals, the actress plunged wholeheartedly into the work of this demanding role in a 2-character play, eventually wining awards both in England and America (where it had transferred to Broadway). Quite simply, Nicole Kidman feels the experience "changed my life." Partially because of the nudity required by both Kidman and her co-star Iain Glen, the show racked up the largest advance sale ever, playing to well over capacity houses during its entire run. Ticket scalping became the order of the day.

In 2002, the Donmar repeated the experience with the casting of Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof, a vehicle that proved nearly as successful, if not quite so sensational, as The Blue Room.

Wolf is thorough in his documentation of the Donmar's failures as well as its more substantial achievements. This is a company of risk-takers and as such, one of its stars points out, "the Donmar is a very creative place and a very safe place to fail."

Ten years seemed to Mendes an appropriate time to hand over the reigns to his successor, Michael Grandage. He had already picked up his Oscar for the innovative movie, American Beauty, starring former stage actors Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning, and had directed Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition. It was time to move on. But not until he had fulfilled his promise to mount an Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night. Time to pursue other opportunities on stage and screen, and who knows where else?

If fault is to be found at all in Wolf's demanding work, it is that we would have liked to have gotten under the skin of Sam Mendes - to know him on an a more intimate level. Apparently the actress Kate Winslet did just that, for she agreed to become his wife. And we would have opted for a few less details of Nicole Kidman's extravagant pashmina gifts to her cast and crew in exchange for a few insights as to just what makes Mendes tick. Minor flaws in a work so filled with an outpouring of so many facts and so much love.

Dorothy Sinclair
Los Angeles, June 30, 2004