What’s Hot in London: March 27-April 2

Special Features   What’s Hot in London: March 27-April 2
Maggie Smith accepts a lifetime achievement award, Great Britain’s oldest operating theatre celebrates a birthday and more.
Dame Maggie Smith, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series Nominee as "Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham" in <i>Downton Abbey</i>.
Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.

Maggie Smith receives lifetime achievement from London’s Critics Circle
Actors have notoriously conflicted responses to critics: They love them when they’re good, hate them when not. It’s easier said than done not to read them, of course, because even if an actor doesn’t, they’ll get the vibe of what they’ve said.

This week I co-hosted a lunch to honor Maggie Smith with the 2015 Critics’ Circle Award for Services to the Arts, voted for by all sections of the circle but whose nomination was proposed by the drama section of which I am chairman.

Collecting her award, she commented,”I feel very, very honored. I know people say and I’ve certainly said I don’t read the critics, which a lot of actors say very airily, but believe me, you get to know what’s there. But I did learn a lesson once— I was sitting in a hotel with Frank Finlay who was a wonderful actor, we were filming Othello, but there was a newspaper there and I read it; there was a review in there and it was absolutely lethal and truly frightening. It was for The Master Builder at the National, and I remember bursting into tears. Frank gave me a great big hug and said, ‘What you must think about is how many actresses you’ve made very happy.’ I don’t know if the critic who wrote that is here, but it was a very good lesson.”

Dame Maggie has, of course, done great service in the theatre. Since beginning her career in the theatre some 64 years ago at Oxford Playhouse, she’s won Evening Standard Theatre Awards five times (also voted for by critics), a Tony Award and a special Olivier Award in 2011. She hasn’t, however, appeared on the West End stage since the 2007 run of Edward Albee’s Lady from Dubuque at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, but has been a series regular on TV’s Downtown Abbey.

For her film and television work, she’s also won two Oscars, three Golden Globes, five BAFTAs, three Emmys, four Evening Standard British Film Awards, five Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Royal Television Society Award, amongst others. She can now add the Critics Circle Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts to her heaving mantelpiece.

Gemma Arterton fights back against the critics—and cinema broadcasts of live theatre
The Olivier nominated actress Gemma Arterton is one of the actors whom Maggie Smith was speaking about when she referred to those who don’t read their reviews. She is up for Best Actress in this weekend’s Olivier Awards, presented at the Royal Opera House, for her performance in the title role of the current West End play Nell Gwynn. In an interview with the Radio Times, she’s said that she didn’t read the ones for Nell Gwynn, after being “really damaged” by the reviews of Made in Dagenham, the West End musical she originated in 2014. She said it made it “hard when you’ve got to go on stage again that night, and the next night, for four months after that.”

She also spoke out against the broadcasting of theatre performances in cinemas, as pioneered by NT Live that, since 2009, has taken productions from the National and other theatres to cinema audiences around the U.K. and the rest of the world. Benedict Cumberbatch, star of last year’s sell-out production of Hamlet (and himself an Olivier nominee for Best Actor for playing the title role), commented on Hamlet’s broadcast. “It’s just a great way of making the play accessible.” But Arterton has said, “A performance is something you were either there for or not—that’s what’s magical about it. And also for my own ego, I hate the idea of doing a theatre performance on screen—it’s a totally different style of acting, and I don’t think they merge.”

Another dose of O’Neill marks a 250th anniversary for a U.K. theatre
While Broadway recently had Michael Grandage’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie and currently has Jessica Lange revisiting the role of Mary Tyrone in of Long Day’s Journey into Night, which she previously played in a 2000 West End version, a high-profile British revival of Long Day’s Journey opened March 29 at Bristol Old Vic.

It reunites director Richard Eyre with Lesley Manville after their collaboration last year on Ibsen’s Ghosts that won Manville last year’s Olivier Award for Best Actress. They are newly joined by Jeremy Irons, currently riding high on the big screen with starring roles in the current releases Batman v Superman, High-Rise and The Man Who Knew Infinity, who returns to the stage that he made his professional debut at in the late ‘60s, after training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Bristol Old Vic is now the oldest operating theatre in Great Britain. This year celebrates its 250th (!) birthday. The theatre will also mark the anniversary with a weekend of celebrations May 28-30. Other productions planned this year include Timothy West as King Lear in June; Emma Rice’s last production for Kneehigh, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, will play there in May, and the theatre will co-produce Sheridan’s The Rivals with Glasgow’s Citizens and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse in September; artistic director Tom Morris (best known for co-directing War Horse), will direct a new musical The Grinning Man in October.

Murder Ballad heads to London, and Almeida Shakespeares to Star Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Scott and Juliet Stevenson
Newly announced this week was the London premiere of the 2013 Off-Broadway musical Murder Ballad, that will star Kerry Ellis (the first British Elphaba in the London production of Wicked, who took over from Idina Menzel, and then later reprised the role on Broadway as well). It will begin performances at the Arts Theatre September 29.

The new season at London’s Almeida Theatre will see the return of Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes, who recently completed a season in the title role of Ibsen’s The Master Builder at the Old Vic, will star in the title role of Richard III in a production directed by artistic director Rupert Goold that will also feature Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret, beginning performances June 7.

The season will also include two world premieres: Adam Brace’s They Drink It In The Congo and Ella Hickson’s Oil; according to Goold, these are both “urgent and anarchic new plays about the increasingly small, fragmented world we live in. Playful in approach and epic in form, they take us on international journeys, exploring our dependency on limited resources and the costs of modern living.” Finally, Andrew Scott will bow in the title role of a new production by Robert Icke of Hamlet next February.

For further news….
Stay tuned to Playbill.com—and follow me on Twitter @shentonstage—for rolling news updates as they happen!

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