LONDON — In the latest upheaval to rock the London theater world, Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid have announced they are stepping down as co-artistic directors of the Almeida Theater, a small playhouse that has made a big noise in nearly 12 years under the team’s joint stewardship.
During their tenure, Kevin Spacey caused a stir playing O’Neill (“The Iceman Cometh”) and Juliette Binoche made her London stage debut in Pirandello (“Naked”), but overall the play — not just the player — was the thing.
“Oh my God,” said Lindsay Duncan, an alum of the Almeida’s acclaimed Pinter double bill of “The Room” and “Celebration,” when she heard of the duo’s plans to move on. “It’s the end of a very important era.”
“They’re really at the sharp edge,” she said of the joint a.d.’s. “They’re so clear about what they’re doing and what they believe in.”
A successor is expected to be named at the latest by early next year to lead the theater back into its refurbished Islington base by the end of 2002. At present, the Almeida is operating out of a renovated bus depot near King’s Cross Station, where Kent’s production of Chekhov’s “Platonov” — in a new version by David Hare — opens Sept. 11.
“All artistic ventures need to regenerate,” Kent told Variety Sept. 6 of a decision that he and McDiarmid had been “thinking about for a year.” Kent added, “Twelve years is a long time to run something, and it’s a good time to leave. Purely altruistically, this seemed the best time” to consider moving on.
The two will leave behind a theater on sound footing both artistically and financially. Since 1990, the Almeida has won more than 45 theater awards, presented 15 world premieres and transferred 14 shows to New York, where a recent Almeida sellout — writer-director Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” — starts previews Off Broadway Sept. 20 at the Promenade.
No less crucially, the money finally is falling into place for the £6 million ($8.65 million) overhaul back at their Islington home base. At the same time, a funding increase of 60% spread across three years means the Almeida, says Kent, “after 12 years is being acknowledged as a producing house, having always been funded as a receiving house.”
Few would argue with the impact made by the North London 303-seater since McDiarmid, then 45, reopened the onetime music hall in January 1990 with Howard Barker’s “Scenes From an Execution,” starring Glenda Jackson.
It wasn’t long before Kent — four years McDiarmid’s junior — had been promoted from his position as artistic associate to co-director and was making his mark on both sides of the Atlantic. His first Almeida credit, Ibsen’s rarely seen “When We Dead Waken,” brought Claire Bloom back to the London theater for the first time in 13 years. Later, Almeida-spawned stagings of “Medea” and “Hamlet” — both directed by Kent — went on to win Broadway Tony Awards for stars Diana Rigg and Ralph Fiennes, respectively.
Rigg and Fiennes are just two performers who have frequently appeared at various Almeida addresses: Fiennes originated his Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in East London, later playing “Richard II” and “Coriolanus” in repertory in a derelict film studio that once hosted Alfred Hitchcock.
Rigg led an ambitious West End rep season of two Racine plays, “Phaedra” and “Britannicus,” that, like Fiennes’ Shakespeare duo, traveled on to New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music. The theater also has offered a home to lesser-known but equally notable performers as Tom Hollander, Richard Griffiths and Oliver Ford Davies; the latter will play King Lear under Kent’s direction, opening Feb. 12, in the fifth collaboration between the two artists. Before that, Kent directs his colleague McDiarmid, Geraldine James and Ken Stott in a revival of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” opening Nov. 28.
More fleet of foot than places like the Royal National Theater, the Almeida has been able to program Shaw next to Ellen McLaughlin, Neil LaBute next to Chekhov. “It’s that crossover that’s hip, I think,” says Rachel Weisz, the star of LaBute’s “The Shape of Things.”
Kent insists neither he nor McDiarmid is planning to move across the Thames to run the National, which should itself have a new a.d. in place next year. (Then there’s the Donmar Warehouse, which won’t be led by Sam Mendes forever.)
“Not to be too arrogant about it, I’ve run a national theater for the last 12 years,” says Kent, dismissing any interest in the National. “I’ve run a theater of national importance. I wouldn’t want to go and manage that building.”
At the South Bank complex, he adds, “You are simply the (caretaker) of a national institution; we’ve been in the lucky position of creating a theater in our image.”