LONDON — Sam Mendes hit a home run Friday, taking a historic three Olivier Awards at a single ceremony, while Clare Higgins completed Britain’s third-ever best actress hat trick, following up Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle prizes with the same season’s best actress nod for her perf in “Vincent in Brixton,” which also nabbed best play.
Mendes and Higgins accepted their prizes via taped messages from New York in a lunchtime ceremony marked by numerous absentee winners — most of whom could be found gainfully employed across the Atlantic.
“I think we should have all flown over to New York for these,” joked Clive Anderson, the ever-witty compere of the Oliviers, London’s closest equivalent to the Tonys.
Indeed, diligent readers of the Net would have gleaned several of the winners in advance, starting with Mendes, who was presented with his three Oliviers following the Feb. 12 perf at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music of his sellout staging of “Uncle Vanya.”
For that play and its companion piece in the repertory, “Twelfth Night,” Mendes won prizes for best director as well as for best revival. The Oscar-winning director’s third Olivier was a special one honoring his decade-long stand as a.d. of Covent Garden’s tiny Donmar Warehouse, where both the Chekhov and Shakespeare productions were first seen last fall. Mendes stepped down from that post on Nov. 30.
His Vanya, Mendes’ longtime friend and colleague Simon Russell Beale, was named best actor against stiff competition from, among others, Michael Gambon (“A Number”) and Mark Rylance, who played Olivia in a separate all-male “Twelfth Night.”
“Vincent in Brixton” scored over a weightier National Theater entry, Tom Stoppard’s nine-hour-plus trio of plays “The Coast of Utopia.” The awards for dramatist Nicholas Wright and his leading lady, Higgins, can only help the build-up to the same production’s Broadway opening, March 6 at the Golden Theater.
Higgins has won the best actress Olivier before for her Princess in “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1995. “Vincent in Brixton” will mark her American theater debut. In copping all three actress laurels this London theater season, she follows where only Dame Judi Dench and Janie Dee have before her led.
The “Vincent” victories were two of 10 to go to productions that began at the Royal National Theater under its outgoing a.d., Trevor Nunn, who used his own win for outstanding musical production for “Anything Goes” to take a swipe at the Olivier nominating panel, which failed to cite a single member of that production.
Also not nominated was Glenn Close, the leading lady of Nunn’s sellout autumn revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But that revival did win for Bunny Christie’s towering set and for supporting performer Essie Davis’ perf as Stella, sister to Close’s blighted Blanche.
The musical actor and actress prizes went to two replacements: Alex Jennings and Joanna Riding in the West End “My Fair Lady” that began, under Nunn’s direction, at the National. (Last year saw Riding’s predecessor, Martine McCutcheon, take the same award.)
In his speech, musical first-timer Jennings got in a neat swipe while still thanking Nunn and producer Cameron Mackintosh: “If they fancy coming to see it, (the show) is still on.”
So frequent were the references from the Lyceum stage to Nunn in one thank you speech after another — Davis referred to her “Streetcar” helmer as “the divine and exciting and lovable Trevor Nunn” — that host Anderson was moved to call the director “the most popular Nunn since ‘The Sound of Music.'”
At another, cheekier point, presenter Alan Davies paused to remark that “Trevor Nunn can fuck off.” Davies said from the stage that he felt perfectly secure making such a comment since the technical categories — he was presenting best lighting — are almost always cut in the eventual TV transmission. (The Oliviers are not broadcast live but, instead, went out over the BBC the following night.)
Best musical went to the $4 million “Our House,” the show scored to the music of Britpop group Madness. More modestly budgeted than competitors “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and presumable favorite “Bombay Dreams,” “Our House” also needs the prize more than those two shows do: it has been playing to £10,000-15,000 ($16,000-$25,000) above the break, according to one of its co-producers — decent but hardly socko biz.
The Broadway-bound Boy George musical “Taboo” nabbed a sole Olivier for Paul Baker’s supporting performance. This year’s most-nommed entry, Matthew Bourne’s dance piece “Play Without Words,” won two of the five Oliviers for which it was nominated — for best entertainment and for Bourne’s choreography.
Although many of the British winners were in New York, virtually every American nominee this year went home empty-handed. They included opera singer Lisa Saffer for her perf in the English National Opera production of “Lulu” as well as Gwyneth Paltrow (“Proof”) and playwrights Christopher Shinn (“Where Do We Live”) and Stephen Adly Guirgis (“Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train”). Last year’s Tony-winning Elaine Stritch was nommed in two categories and won neither.
The Shinn play — a Royal Court world premiere — did garner the most promising performer award for Noel Clarke.
Charlotte Eilenberg wasn’t there to share in her own win for most promising playwright for “The Lucky Ones” having last August booked a family holiday to the Canary Islands. Her prize marks a rare instance of a theater publicist becoming that same theater’s award-winning dramatist.
In other tech categories, the costume and lighting awards went to Jenny Tiramani (“Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare’s Globe) and Peter Mumford (the National’s “Bacchai” cq), respectively.
The dance categories threw up two semi-surprises. South Africa’s Robyn Orlin, a relative unknown, won for outstanding achievement, a category that found her up against heavyweights Pina Bausch and Christopher Wheeldon. And best new dance production went to Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” performed by a visiting troupe from New York City Ballet, which was up against a second Wheeldon piece, “Tryst,” from the Royal Ballet.
The Oliviers bring to an end the season of London theater prize-giving that began in November with the Evening Standard Theater Awards and continued into this month with the London Critics’ Circle awards on Feb. 4. Unlike the Tonys, the Oliviers are voted on by small, select panels and — also unlike the Tonys — the British kudos have yet to demonstrate any real commercial clout.