(Dominic Dromgoole’s article appeared in the Guardian 10/26; via Pam Green; Photo: A hallucinatory experience’ … Frances Barber with Amanda Abbington and Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)
The author of a new book about the greatest openings in theatre history asks stars of stage to recall their most thrilling first nights – and the occasional disasters that befell them
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.