'Country Wife,' 'Sea' among org's offerings

LONDON — Two classic revivals and a new musical under one roof all directed by Jonathan Kent make up the boldest gamble of London’s theatrical year. At a cost in excess of £3 million ($6 million), the historic Theater Royal Haymarket is forming its own year-round theater company, thereby turning itself from being predominantly a receiving house into a producing house.

Kent’s choices, overseen by Arnold M. Crook and Nigel Everett, respectively chairman and director of the theater that more than a century ago premiered two of Oscar Wilde’s plays, are intriguingly ambitious.

First up is William Wycherley’s well-loved “The Country Wife,” which begins previews Sept. 27. This sex comedy from 1675 — not for nothing is one of the leads named “Horner” — stars Toby Stephens, David Haig and Patricia Hodge with Fiona Glascott in the title role.

That will be followed in January by Edward Bond’s “The Sea,” a little-seen, morally complex comedy of insular village life. Eileen Atkins stars alongside Haig.

The season will be rounded out in May by “Marguerite,” a new musical led by Ruthie Henshall, with a score by Michel Legrand, book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, the last three famously the triumvirate behind “Les Miserables.”

Based on Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camellias,” the story of love denied and tragically revived has been relocated to Paris during World War II.

Such diverse productions are linked by a shared design team: sets and costumes by Paul Brown, lighting by Mark Henderson and sound by Paul Groothuis.

Crook and Everett began pursuing Kent in 2005. “This theater has a long tradition of high-profile productions and performers,” Crook argues. “But it’s difficult to find appropriate productions. We decided to try to put our own season together with a director with a track record.”

Kent couldn’t be a better fit.

During 12 years at the Almeida, not only did many of his productions transfer to the West End and/or Broadway but he also helmed a dauntingly ambitious yet commercially successful pairing of two Racine plays in the West End in 1998.

Crook’s brief to Kent was to choose something “adventurous and exciting” but, at the same time, “commercially realistic.” Strictly limited runs in an 898-seat house don’t leave much margin for error.

The financial surprise is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, which has it that only musicals make money, it’s the two plays that will be the season’s bankers. Although “Marguerite” will have the longest (six-month) run and a $121 top ticket compared with $95 for each of the plays, the tuner’s running costs are far higher.

Due to his flourishing freelance career, Kent was initially resistant, but the proposal proved seriously persuasive.

“One of the reasons I left the Almeida was to direct plays rather than panic about getting through the next season,” he offers. “This allows me to return to directing without the stress of running the venue. I’m very excited by the opportunity to do serious work in the middle of the West End with a kind of continuity and shared aesthetic.”

Crook says they are already courting directors for future years. “It won’t necessarily be the same format. I really hope there is the chance to set up a repertory company, but we’re only at the embryo stage,” he says.

Is he scared by his surrounding rivals, notably such subsidized addresses as the National and the Donmar? “Competition enhances the theater business,” Crooke counters. “If we can raise our profile, the rest of theater can only benefit.”

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