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Backstage at The Sunday Times photo shoot

Published 10 December 2009

“It’s hilarious. It’s brilliant. It’s like Team Theatre.” So said award-winning young playwright Polly Stenham in response to The Sunday Times Celebrate the Play photo shoot that brought the entirety of London’s play-creating community together under one roof. I couldn’t put it any better myself.

I have attended many varied events in my privileged position as an arts journalist, from press launches and opening nights to glittering awards ceremonies, but I have never seen anything quite like this photo shoot for the special Sunday Times Spectrum supplement published on 13 December.

The guest list for this unique, historic event read like a who’s who of drama in 2009. From the godfather of modern British theatre Peter Hall, to the Donmar Warehouse’s groundbreaking Artistic Director Michael Grandage and current hit director Rupert Goold. From knighted actors Ian McKellen, Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi to the new generation currently making waves; Michelle Dockery, Ruth Wilson and Ben Whishaw. From established writers Mark Ravenhill and Roy Williams to those emerging playwrights who are shaking up the industry and flying straight to the top of most wanted piles, including Stenham and Lucy Prebble. Just writing those names I know there are many missing, but to list all the attendees would be ridiculous.

It might be a morbid thought, but if something had gone bang at the Royal Court, where the photocall was staged, half of London theatre’s dramatic talent could have been wiped out.

It didn’t. Instead, while cameras flashed, groomers made beautiful people even more beautiful and a harried few tried to solve logistical nightmares, the cream of London’s theatre world milled around and chatted to each other as though this was a rather strange house party dreamed up by a stage fanatic.

Looking on, a floundering journalist amid a sea of talented performers and creatives, I found it quite surreal. I wasn’t the only one. Writer Laura Wade, whose new work Posh will be seen at the Royal Court in 2010, was a little bemused that playwrights should be seen in the pictures. “People don’t want to photograph us very often,” she laughed.

“It’s a reunion,” Patrick Stewart told me, before being whisked away to have his picture taken with Jamie Winston. “I’ve run into people I don’t see for months at a time.”

Away from the clicking shutters and bright lights of the photos, the treasure trove of clothing racks and wafting make-up brushes, there was a real sense of catching up and of an industry coming together in celebration.

“We work in a quite hermetically sealed way quite often, so it’s been nice to share it,” said Grandage, whose Donmar West End season was one of the driving forces behind the rise of quality drama in 2009. “I think we’re all here because it’s important. We probably all get asked at various points to go to all sorts of things, but if it’s about supporting the play, which is effectively supporting what we’re all in the theatre to do, then we’ll all turn up and fly the flag.”

The calibre of artists who wandered past me nibbling a flapjack or had a sneaky cigarette on the balcony, speaks volumes for what an incredible year 2009 has been for London drama.

Star of The Wire, Dominic West, who had barely recovered from the press night of Life Is A Dream before heading over to the Royal Court, agreed: “I don’t know what’s happened. Maybe it’s the recession, but there seems to suddenly be amazing plays and amazing actors.”

When you pause to think about the drama that London has had to offer over the last 12 months, it is hard to argue with West: the Royal Court presented Jerusalem and Enron, which both transfer to the West End in 2010; the Donmar completed its West End season with Judi Dench in Madame De Sade and Jude Law in Hamlet, and also brought theatregoers Gillian Anderson in A Doll’s House and Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire in its usual Neal Street home; Alan Bennett’s latest The Habit Of Art has just opened at the National Theatre; and in the West End Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart hit the headlines in Waiting For Godot, Anna Friel returned to the stage in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and there were major revivals of Arcadia, A View From The Bridge, Othello, Endgame, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and An Inspector Calls.

Watching a year in theatre stroll around before me wearing its poshest frocks, two things particularly stood out. One was how many young female playwrights pushing their way to the top of the ‘Most Sought After’ pile there were among the ranks of writers. The other was that most of the gathered guests had one man’s name on their lips; Mark Rylance, the actor who recently won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actor for his performance in Jerusalem.

“I think he’s the best actor in the world,” West told me. “He’s astonishing. I’ve never seen him be bad.”

Wade agreed: “I think he’s a wizard. It’s the sort of acting that doesn’t demonstrate its technique; there’s something invisible about what he does. It’s just amazing. And Jerusalem, I thought, was just a stunningly fat, filling play.”

If there was one man, then, that I needed to speak to about plays, it was Rylance, although, maybe asking why drama is so important was, in hindsight, a silly question. “That’s like asking a footballer why is football so important,” Rylance replied, slightly taken aback. “That’s what they enjoy doing. It’s what I enjoy doing; always have enjoyed doing it.”

A few weeks after the photoshoot, I interviewed playwright Mark Ravenhill about his adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Nation which is currently playing at the National Theatre. He too had been part of the historic event.

“I loved the way they mixed people up,” he told me. “I suddenly realised I was sitting next to Peter Hall and on the other side I had Chloe Moss and Lucy Morrison who did a lovely play for Clean Break last year that was at the Soho theatre. I kind of knew them both a little bit, so I was able to introduce them to Peter. It was really good fun to see all those different bits of theatre connected up.”

This will be my overriding memory of the day: the massed ranks of London drama – from lauded behemoths to fringe pioneers – coming together not to promote their own shows, many of which had already closed, but to celebrate the play. Well, that and Miriam Margolyes shouting the most obscene, distinctly unquotable of questions in the middle of a tense group shot.

To see more exclusive images from photo shoot, visit the Sunday Times website.

MA

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