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First Published 23 April 2008, Last Updated 30 January 2009

Perhaps more than ever, theatre was affected by, and reflected, world events in this decade. It was a time of great change – the early part of this period saw the Berlin Wall come down and the outbreak of the Gulf War, which caused a drop in American tourists visiting Theatreland. In Britain, Thatcher’s reign brought recession, which affected ticket sales, and poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square put the fear into many theatregoers, it was reported at the time. Most tragically, HIV and AIDS were increasingly in the headlines all over the world, as reflected in Theatreland by several seminal plays that addressed the issue (notably Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels In America and Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg at the Royal Court). The disease struck down many stars of the stage, including ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and actor Ian Charleson, who continued to perform on the National’s stage as Hamlet in his dying days in 1989. Unlike some, Charleson, who was just 40 when he died, wanted the world to know that it was AIDS that killed him, in the hope of removing the stigma attached to it.

An era ends

The beginning of this decade saw the end of an era with the death of Sir Laurence Olivier in 1989, but the awards named after him continued to honour those for whom this decade was one of triumph. Judi Dench, made a Dame in 1988, made the headlines by becoming the first person to win two Laurence Olivier Awards in one year when she did the double in 1996 – to top it all, she was nominated for an Oscar the same year.

Critics may have moaned that musicals were taking over the West End (sounds familiar?), but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh weren’t complaining. In 1993, Lloyd Webber had five shows running simultaneously in the West End, including his latest, Sunset Boulevard. Mackintosh, meanwhile, confirmed his status as mega-producer with the huge hit Miss Saigon, merged his company with Bernard Delfont and was knighted in 1997, the same year Lloyd Webber became a Lord.

Others who put their stamp on this decade included: Sam Mendes, who scored many a success as Artistic Director of the reopened Donmar Warehouse; Richard Eyre, who took over from Peter Hall to head the National Theatre; choreographer Matthew Bourne, who burst into the public consciousness in 1996 with an all-male production of Swan Lake; playwright Patrick Marber, who scored hits with Dealer’s Choice and Closer; actor Kenneth Branagh, who tackled Hamlet; and Mark Rylance, who played Henry V in the 1997 inaugural production at Shakespeare’s Globe, of which he was Artistic Director. The new Bankside venue was a lovingly created replica of the original Elizabethan Globe, a project set in motion in the 1970s by Sam Wanamaker. Sadly, the actor didn’t live to see his vision completed – he died in 1993.

To avoid confusion with the new venue, the Globe theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue was renamed the Gielgud, in honour of Sir John, who, at the age of 92, received the prestigious Order of Merit from the Queen.

Related Snapshots Of London Theatre
7 March 1989: Steel Magnolias brings Louisiana to London
14 March 1994: The perils of messing with Beckett
13 May 1997: Beauty comes to the West End


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