Thelma Holt's office is in a suitably theatrical location — Ivor Novello's old flat above the Strand Theatre. She herself radiates a love of the stage — on which she has appeared as an actress — including, memorably, as a naked Lady Macbeth.
Theatrenow took the tiny lift (in which stars like Garbo, Dietrich and Coward used to squeeze to get to Novello's showbiz parties) in order to meet one of the West End's most engaging — and effective — producers, to talk about the season of Jacobean plays that she (with Bill Kenwright) is bringing to the Gielgud Theatre.
What attracted you to this season?
"Several things! On one level it reminded me of what the RSC used to be: it has superb acting, a real sense of ensemble, a huge energy on the stage and a real sense of commitment by the actors.
"The plays themselves are superb, but despite having had great reviews, it wasn't going anywhere - there was no money for it. Having seen them, however, there was no way that I could simply let them disappear. I knew I had to bring them into the West End." That must have been quite a challenge, financially?
"Of course, but then I knew I wanted to do it, and I tend to do what I want! In fact, if I'm told something can't happen — this season has 28 actors involved, for example — then I rise to the challenge, and make it happen. And 28 actors wasn't going to put me off -—I had 29 in Noel Coward's Semi-Monde at the Lyric last year."
You clearly like epic productions...
"You could say that. I'm currently working on a stage version of Dante's Inferno!"
You also seem to have a particular rapport with actors, unlike some producers. There's that marvelous line in The Producers where Max dismisses actors as not quite human and, when reproached, says "Have you ever eaten with one?"
"I think all producers should be forced to perform, on stage, at some point in their lives. Unless they've done that they have no idea of how it feels to read bad reviews — and everyone gets them, at some point in their career — and then to have to go on stage and perform in front of what looks like rows of Kalashnikovs pointing at them.
"When I said that I thought this Jacobean season was like the best of the way the RSC used to be, what I meant in particular was the way the actors all worked so well together and so clearly loved the plays. They were distraught at the idea of the season just ending, and were prepared to do anything to help get it into London. "I knew I had to help them, and that in order to do so I'd need someone's very generous support — and got it with Bill Kenwright. But everyone has supported this venture, because it deserves it. There isn't one actor or member of the stage management or anyone else connected with it who hasn't in some way helped get this season into the Gielgud."
The reviews that Greg Doran and the cast got must have helped, too...
"Yes, and that adds to the energy behind the whole project. Something happens to actors when a play — or season of plays — works well. There's something physical about it, the way they hold themselves changes..."
What of the plays themselves — Edward III in particular. Do you really think it's by Shakespeare?
"We know he collaborated with other people on some shows, but the joy of seeing something like Edward III is that it makes you think. I've seen it and been convinced it wasn't by Shakespeare, then seen it again, and changed my mind. It gives you something to argue about over dinner afterwards — and that's always a good thing when you go to the theatre!"
What do the Jacobean playwrights who feature in this season have to say about the human condition - about us as we are now?
"Quite a lot, unfortunately, in that their society — corrupt, violent, nasty — is in many ways like our own.
"We don't have a sense of the excitement and idealism of the Elizabethan age — we're much more like its successor. So these plays, which are great theatre in themselves, reflect a society that's closer to our own than some people would like to imagine. But theatre is meant to disturb at times, as well as entertain. And these plays certainly do both, which is why I've moved heaven and earth to get them into the Gielgud. I'd have put these plays on in tents in a car park if necessary — so having one of the best theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue is a bonus!"
by Paul Webb Theatrenow