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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Interviews by Dominic Dromgoole

‘I threw my arms around Beckett!’ – electrifying first nights, by Ciarán Hinds, Eileen Atkins and more

‘A hallucinatory experience’ … Frances Barber with Amanda Abbington and Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend.
‘A hallucinatory experience’ … Frances Barber with Amanda Abbington and Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

History has no shortage of explosive first nights and openings. Moments in public art when the concerns of an epoch meet the truths of artists and catalyse a volcanic response. These are the nights when pins can be heard dropping, when time is stretched into unforeseen patterns, when success is grasped or failure faced. For artists they are electrifying. Here are some stories from the frontline.

‘Beckett stood there like a stone but I carried on’

Eileen Atkins, attending Beckett’s Play, 1964
There were three figures on the vast Old Vic stage, all encased in jars. They did the same script twice through. Mad about Beckett anyway, I was overwhelmed by the cleverness and what it did to my brain. It was extraordinary the difference in effect when done at first one pace, then an entirely different one. The whole meaning shifted. Later I was in a car when I saw the director George Devine walking along with a man. I leapt out and shouted: “George, George, I just saw your amazing play.” “Well, say hello to the author,” he said and there was Samuel Beckett. I threw my arms around him and he stood like a stone. I wasn’t going to let him make me feel abashed, so I carried on.

‘The silences that night were spellbinding’

Anne Reid, The York Realist, Royal Court, 2003
I had no idea this was such a good play. The first time I read it, I thought: “Oh no, not another northern mother. Boring.” I was 64 and I’d never worked in London before. Peter Gill directed it so beautifully. Everything was specific in its choreography: this is the height to hold a teapot, this is how to take off and hang a coat. Whatever the action, he said if you take your time and present it, the audience will find it interesting. And he was so definite about pace: play the first scene legato, the second pizzicato – he really knew the music of a scene. The silences in the theatre that night … spellbinding! Later, we went to the Royal Court bar and as Peter walked down the stairs everyone burst into applause.

‘I had to stay focused to the millisecond’

Anoushka Shankar, scoring and performing Shiraz, 2017

Taj Mahal epic … Shiraz.
Taj Mahal epic … Shiraz. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Writing a score for Shiraz, a silent film from 1928 about the creation of the Taj Mahal, was hard because I was a novice, and in the absence of a director, there wasn’t an expert shaping the process. Part of the joy of music is improvisation: playing games with time by stretching it, concentrating it and concertina-ing it. This is not possible with film, given its precise time scheme. There was more adrenaline in playing live to the film than in any other show because it’s two hours of having to stay focused to the millisecond, keeping up with something that doesn’t stretch or slow. The film is on such a pitch of rightness it is silly: a human story, a fairy story and an epic told in ways that are engaging and exciting. Just to keep up with it was a thrill.

‘I drank gallons of wine to settle my nerves’

David Eldridge, attending various

Call my agent … Festen.
Call my agent … Festen. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Sometimes it’s not obvious to everyone that something’s a hit. I was at the Royal Court for the opening night of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. One senator of British theatre claimed on the way down to the press-night party it was “a misfire”. I asked him if he needed his ears and eyes tested. Sometimes you feel your life shifting if it’s your own play. At the opening of Festen at the Almeida, even the gallons of wine settling Olympic nerves couldn’t dull the awakening feeling my agent might be on the phone regularly. Sometimes, the culture itself is shifting beneath your stalls seat. All through the first night of Katie Mitchell’s revival at the NT of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, I was pinching myself. I was actually watching this masterpiece of post-dramatic theatre – in the Lyttleton!

‘We apologised and the curtain came down’

Ciarán Hinds, starring in Juno and the Paycock, November 2011

Masterpiece … Ciarán Hinds with Sinéad Cusack in Juno and the Paycock.
Masterpiece … Ciarán Hinds with Sinéad Cusack in Juno and the Paycock. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Opening night of Seán O’Casey’s masterpiece at the National, directed by the brilliant Howard Davies. A single door to enter and exit the tenement living quarters of the Boyle family. Second act, a raucous party going on. There’s yet another knock at the door, Juno goes to open it. Several twists and tugs later, she summons her husband, Jack, my unfortunate self. Many more twists and tugs later, a revelation that this door will not open for love nor money. Apologies to audience, curtain comes down. Men arrive with drills, hammers and saws. Two minutes later, the curtain goes up again. The play picks up where it left off. The knock at the door. Door opens. Cheers, whoops and applause. In the doorway stands Mrs Tancred in funereal garb, destroyed with grief by the murder of her young son. Don’t imagine she’d ever had a reaction like that before.

‘People thought a higher power was guarding us’

Paula Garfield, directing Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2012

What a joy … Paula Garfield’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
What a joy … Paula Garfield’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

For deaf actors such as myself to be in an environment where their language and community were front and centre was incredibly moving. This was the first time the deaf community had taken over the Globe – what a joy to see the positive impact on deaf and hearing communities coming together. The deaf audience were deeply inspired and able to connect with the performers and access Shakespeare in a new and meaningful way. We opened in May 2012. The rain had been pelting down for weeks. When the actors got on stage, suddenly the sun came out and beamed for both shows. Many said a higher power was looking out for us, protecting our language.

‘At the end, I had an out-of-body experience’

Adjoa Andoh, performing in Stuff Happens, 2004

‘The fulfilment of everything I believe most meaningful’ … Stuff Happens.
‘The fulfilment of everything I believe most meaningful’ … Stuff Happens. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Taking the curtain call at the hotly anticipated, preview-embargoed, press night, I felt myself have an out of body experience. To play Condoleezza Rice in a drama of such soul-searching national and international consequence; directed with such wit and elegance by the king showman, Nicholas Hytner, one of our country’s mightiest exponents of placing bodies in space to delight an audience; written with such craft, empathy, forensic research and imaginative dexterity by the playwright whose work was the inspiration for my career as an actor, David Hare … well! I had taken part in all three workshop and research periods and met the most extraordinary political and civilian actors. That night was the fulfilment of everything I believe most meaningful in the work to which I have devoted my life – political reflection, insight, humanity, laughs, Shostakovich, audiences full of intense curiosity, and a work that’s alive and significant.

‘We were convinced we were in a flop’

Frances Barber, playing in The Unfriend, 2022

The Unfriend.
The relief filtered through … The Unfriend. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

As many actors know, if you’re in a comedy, at the end of rehearsals the laughs dry up. Through dress rehearsals and the tech, the creative team and the crew have their own concerns and they watch the show with a stony-faced silence that feels like disdain. We were convinced we were in a flop and plodded on petrified. Then the show began. Within two minutes the audience started shrieking with laughter so loud that Reece Shearsmith and I stared at each other in panic. After the first scene, there was a standing ovation. At the interval we stood awestruck and asked each other if that really just happened. In the second act, the audience were rolling in the aisles. The end was like a hallucinatory experience, as if I’d floated out of my body and was looking down on the curtain call. The writer, Steven Moffat, looked as if he was in a coma. Maybe the audience thought they were going to be clobbered on the head by something dark, and when they realised there was no message, no feeling of guilt, no excess of suffering, the relief filtered through until they actually became hysterical. It was a bizarre moment, a sort of collective unconscious hysteria.

‘We came as far off the rails as you can go’

Alison Balsom, trumpeter, Gabriel, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 2013

Every performance is like a first night … Alison Balsom in Gabriel.
Every performance is like a first night … Alison Balsom in Gabriel. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

First nights for classical musicians don’t really exist. Every performance we give is like a first night – quite often it’s the only one – so they have gravitas and a sense of instant evaporation. But with Gabriel [a mixture of Henry Purcell’s music and scenes set in 1690s London], that first moment of putting this unique new thing on stage – not a play, not a musical, not a semi-opera but all of those things – felt like a kind of thrilling slow-motion train wreck. Not a disaster at all, but as in Polar Express, where you’ve come far off the rails but somehow, somehow, it’s still just within your grasp. And suddenly we had a sense of its beauty. That we loved it and the audience did too, and were rapt … it was the best feeling in the world.

Astonish Me! First Nights that Changed the World by Dominic Dromgoole is published by Profile Books at £20. The Unfriend opens at the Criterion, London, on 15 January

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