The tone of <I>Variety</I> theater critic Matt Wolf's altogether professional study of Brit wunderkind director Mendes and the theater he built with his bare hands is decidedly worshipful -- but who can fault him? As actor Alan Cumming, who got his own dose of the Mendes magic in 1993 in "Hamlet" and "Cabaret" wittily puts it: "It takes a really healthy attitude not to freak out about running a West End venue at age 10."

The tone of Variety theater critic Matt Wolf’s altogether professional study of Brit wunderkind director Mendes and the theater he built with his bare hands is decidedly worshipful — but who can fault him? As actor Alan Cumming, who got his own dose of the Mendes magic in 1993 in “Hamlet” and “Cabaret” wittily puts it: “It takes a really healthy attitude not to freak out about running a West End venue at age 10.”

The tyro director was actually 24 years old when he was wandering through the Covent Garden district in 1989 (“sick with nerves,” as he recalls) and had a vision of the hot and happening theater he could make of the incredibly awkward space of the old Donmar Warehouse, once a rehearsal hall, but now shuttered and awaiting development. But craft and cunning, as well as youth and chutzpah, account for the rise and rise of Mendes, who in 10 years transformed the Donmar from an ungainly white elephant into the most dynamic theater space on either side of the Atlantic. Wolf takes it a season at a time in this smartly organized and lucidly written account, whose handsome design includes startlingly clear production photos and bold-faced marginal ruminations from actors and designers about their experiences working in the Donmar’s confined, but somehow liberating three-sided space. Writing for pros in the know, rather than star-searchers, Wolf lays out the development of the Donmar in the growth cycles that Mendes devised — and keeps his cavils to himself.

After dealing with the tricky realities of hustling up funding and rounding up youthful and dedicated management and staff, he identifies the stroke of genius that made Mendes, in his very first season, a force to be reckoned with — his initial artistic decision to “reconsider a contemporary show in the terms most capable of revealing the material anew.” That, and his extraordinary coup in opening the house with “Assassins” and bagging Stephen Sondheim as the Donmar’s de facto house dramatist.

Once he reconfigured the American musical (“Cabaret,” “Company,” “Nine,” “Into the Woods,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Gypsy”), Mendes went on to “reconsider” and “reveal” the modern American play, attracting top Brit talent like Natasha Richardson, Zoe Wanamaker, and Mark Rylance with productions of Miller, Williams, Mamet, and Shepard. But at no point does Wolf settle into the roll call pattern of naming big names, and his analyses of individual productions (even the no-names) are instructive throughout.

Wolf is surprisingly uncritical, however, about the star-heavy and often controversial productions of the Donmar’s more recent history, making as nice over Gwyneth Paltrow (“Proof”) and Nicole Kidman (“The Blue Room”) as over Brit powerhouses Zoe Wanamaker (“The Glass Menagerie”) and Helen Mirren (“Orpheus Descending”). And although it is refreshing, from a professional point of view, to find a theater artist defined largely through his work, Mendes could have spent the past 10 years sleeping under the theater seats for all we learn of his personal life.

Sam Mendes at the Donmar: Stepping into Freedom

Limelight Editions; 185 pgs., $22.50

Production

Matt Wolf
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