In 2009 the Theatre Royal Haymarket mounted the most successful production ever of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This was followed by the first staged adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. During the creation of these two historic productions, the Theatre Royal opened its doors to a television crew, for the recording of a unique and fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary of what goes on in a major West End theatre as the management, cast and crew work against the clock towards the opening of a new season. This documentary is called Theatreland, and it’s just been released on DVD.
Filmed over a period of six months, Theatreland covers every aspect of the preparation involved in the staging of a major production. We meet the actors, the artistic director, the theatre managers, ushers, stagehands, carpenters and plumbers. The commentaries are relaxed and informal – the maintenance staff just going about their day to day tasks whilst chatting to the camera about what has to be done to keep one of London’s oldest theatres in good shape – regularly checking absolutely every part of the building, from the 100 year-old seats to the plumbing system of a similar vintage.
Godot – hailed as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century – stars four of Britain’s most bankable actors – Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup. Filmed in their dressing rooms, backstage, or in the wings, they talk about the challenges they face, the huge burden of responsibility that the four of them carry with a play such as this, their anxieties, their on- and off-stage relationships with their colleagues and director, Sean Matthias – and the strange, almost insular existence of a group of actors during the run of a production. It was, quite obviously, a very happy company, and despite the stature of the stars, there was no clash of egos.
The cameras continued rolling at intervals throughout the 14-week season, capturing both the magic and the emotional burden imposed on the four main actors by a somewhat dark and introspective work. When it closed, after 172 sold-out performances, with 100,000 people having seen the play, the feeling of loss experienced by the cast was all too real, so much of themselves had they poured into this hugely successful production. The end-of-season backstage party, however, worked its charm, with the fizz of champagne and a sparkling cake on which a photograph of the four of them had been superimposed. Below it was an inscription which read: “We waited for 172 sold out performances, but he never turned up”!
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – starring Anna Friel and Joseph Cross – presented a different series of pre-production challenges – notably the huge, complicated, rotating ‘fire-escape’ set which had to be constructed off-site and assembled on stage. Just the right costumes – from the vast wardrobe of the costumiers – had to be selected, to portray 1940s wartime New York, and Wayne McGregor – Resident Choreographer of the Royal Ballet – was brought in to coach the cast in the dance style of the era. Anna Friel had never before played the guitar, and she also suffered the inevitable anxiety about the possibility of forgetting her lines, and her performance being compared with that of Audrey Hepburn – although the two productions are vastly different – the 1961 film having been only loosely based on Truman Capote’s novel. And then there was Jasper, the gorgeous ginger feline (and his equally beautiful white and grey understudy), who had to attend rehearsals, too, being coaxed off-stage at the appropriate moment by a plentiful supply of kitty treats waiting in the wings!
Theatreland was broadcast on public television in 2010, and the recently released two-disc DVD set includes a viewer’s guide, with profiles of the main players from both productions, and some interesting snippets of information about the plays and the playwrights. There’s a timeline of the history of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, an overview of London’s West End theatres, and an article about ghosts of the London theatres. The Theatre Royal itself is said to be haunted by the ghost of John Baldwin Buckstone, actor-manager of the Theatre in the mid 19th century – an apparition that Patrick Stewart was said to have seen during one of the performances of Godot.
The documentary was produced, directed and filmed by Chris Terrill for Sky Arts, and has been released by Athena, an RLJ Entertainment Inc brand. DVD sets are available from select retailers, catalogue companies, and direct from RLJ Entertainment. The documentary can also be streamed on AcornOnline.com.