Attenborough settles in at hot London address

LONDON Look for Simon Russell Beale, Eve Best, “Brighton Rock” and even Dante Gabriel Rossetti to find a perch in north London’s Islington, starting in the fall. They are all part of the sophomore season of Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough, who has confounded skeptics to sustain the venue’s status as an essential London destination.

To be sure, there was considerable surprise voiced around London on that January day in 2002 when Attenborough, now 53, was named to the Almeida post, following the highly valued double act of Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent.

Would Attenborough, scion of an Oscar-winning film director father, be able to retain the flavor of the gritty yet glamorous playhouse — a venue, moreover, where he had never directed?

Now, as he preps his second season at the helm of the refurbished 321-seater, the answer resoundingly seems to be yes. Listen to Sinead Cusack, who starred in Neil LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat,” one of the Almeida’s near-sellouts in the season just finished.

“When I heard Mike was taking over, I was not completely sure if it was exactly the right fit,” says the thesp, who had previously played Shakespeare’s Cleopatra for Attenborough during the latter’s 12 years at the Royal Shakespeare Co. (Before that, he ran the Hampstead for five years.) “But he’s convinced me comprehensively; I can’t think of anybody better now.”

That Attenborough seems to have convinced auds is clear as well. He has at the same time wiped out a sizable inherited deficit, with the help of a one-time Arts Council grant.

His first lineup of six shows (a seventh, Sebastian Barry’s “Whistling Psyche,” starring Claire Bloom, opens May 12) played to 92% across the season and has spawned two West End transfers. Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” with Jonathan Pryce, is now at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Apollo, while David Eldridge’s “Festen,” adapted from the Thomas Vinterberg film, makes the move in September, produced by Bill Kenwright and Marla Rubin; the hope is for a New York run to follow.

Last May’s season opener, “The Lady From the Sea,” directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Natasha Richardson, had the heat behind it to transfer as well, were it not for difficulties involved in keeping together the creative team.

But transfers, the a.d. says, must never be a theater’s reason for being: “If they happen, it’s a bonus,” he says.

Attenborough prefers instead the discussion generated within the Almeida’s four rough-hewn walls. “It’s great we’re full; it’s great the building’s working” — after a £7.6 million ($13.5 million) overhaul that saw operations either cease or shift elsewhere for more than two years.

“But the most exciting thing for me is we’ve been constantly talked about,” he says. “We provoked discussion with ‘The Goat'; we certainly provoked discussion with ‘The Mercy Seat.’ And secondly, whatever people have thought about the plays, there’s been consistent praise about the standard of acting and production, and that’s what people have come to rely upon from us.”

Attenborough aims to keep the chatterati talking in the year ahead. The fall season starts in September with the Almeida’s — and Attenborough’s — first musical, “Brighton Rock.” It’s adapted from the Graham Greene novel whose 1947 movie version starred Richard Attenborough, Michael’s pa, as the young psychopath Pinky.

Giles Havergal, a dab hand at Greene rewrites from his work on “Travels With My Aunt,” is adapting the book, with music and lyrics from John Barry and Don Black, respectively; Lez Brotherston (“Swan Lake,” “The Dark”) will design. Bill Kenwright, who has nursed the venture with Barry for some 30 years, brought the show to Attenborough and will move it if reviews and business warrant.

So, are we to expect “Blood Brothers, Part 2″?

Attenborough smiles. “I warned Bill I’m going to do a very hard-nosed production of a bleak, tough, cruel novel. This will be stripped-back, very poor theater” — though its cast of 18, budgeted for a band of eight, makes “Brighton Rock” the priciest Almeida venture yet.

Next up will be director Robert Delamere’s staging of a new Peter Whelan play, “The Earthly Paradise,” about the triangular relationship between William Morris, his wife, Jane, and the 19th-century painter-poet Rossetti, who fell in love with Jane. “It’s about what happened or didn’t happen,” says Attenborough, who has long championed the work of Whelan, even after he flopped big-time on Broadway in 1998 with Whelan’s Shakespeare-themed “The Herbal Bed.”

“I ended up with a set I wasn’t happy with, costumes I wasn’t happy with and an American company that, with the best will in the world, was having to struggle to represent a 17th-century community in Stratford,” says Attenborough. The production, starring Laila Robins (now in “Frozen”), turned out to be vet producer Alexander Cohen’s last Broadway outing.

Were there lessons to be learned? “It’s when people smell success, when they think they’ve got something indestructible in the middle of a show, that it’s very easy to destroy them: Shows are not indestructible.”

Attenborough has so far resisted the sort of first-look deals with New York producers entered into at different times by the Donmar and, more recently, the National. “I’m quite happy not to be linked and allied,” says the director, who counts Manhattan Theater Club supremo Lynne Meadow and Lincoln Center Theater a.d. Andre Bishop among his New York contacts and friends.

“To be honest, our trump card is this theater, and people do come knocking on our doors.” He mentions Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour” as just one of the scripts sitting on his desk and talks of mounting the British preem of Sam Shepard’s Off Broadway entry “The Late Henry Moss.” Neil LaBute has had four shows at the Almeida across the different regimes, including recent Off Broadway opener “The Distance From Here.”

Nonetheless, says Attenborough, “I’ve said no to quite a lot of shows that were clearly aiming to go into the West End; that’s not quite us.”

Attenborough will follow the Whelan play with two apparent heavy-hitters: John Caird directing Russell Beale as Macbeth, followed by Richard Eyre directing “Mourning Becomes Electra’s” incandescent Eve Best as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, in a new version by Eyre himself.

“I deliberately set out, after a season dominated by new plays, to look at the classical canon, and both John and Richard said there’s only one place I want to do this play: inside the Almeida.”

It helps, of course, that Russell Beale, of Broadway’s current “Jumpers,” is one of five artistic associates who are attached, unsalaried, to the Almeida. (Others include actresses Penelope Wilton and Josette Bushell-Mingo and “Bombay Dreams” co-librettist Meera Syal.)

What can the Almeida bring to these plays? Says Attenborough: “There needs to be a safe place in which you can do dangerous things — where you feel comfortable and then you can do what you want. I can’t imagine John and particularly Simon doing a safe production of this play. Simon’s not going to be approaching Macbeth as a major warrior; he’s going to be approaching him as a psychotically ambitious man.”

Still further ahead is the prospect of Howard Davies directing Gorky and Lindsay Posner doing Moliere, as well as Attenborough’s own production of Sophocles’ two Oedipus plays, with “Mission: Impossible 2″ co-star Rade Sherbedgia playing Creon. Venture is intended as a co-production with L.A.-based Sherbedgia and his director-wife Lenka Udovicki’s home theater in Croatia.

Sherbedgia may have shared a screen with Tom Cruise, but don’t look for the latter’s name at the Almeida anytime soon. “We have never ever courted a star here,” says Attenborough. “I don’t see it as my job to court glamour; I see it as my job to produce fantastic pieces of theater.”

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