Chichester Festival Theatre opened its doors in July 1962 to a chorus of enthusiasm and expectation. It was one of the first major theatres to have been built in this country for the best part of 30 years. With its 1,200 seats it was certainly the first large scale thrust stage theatre in Britain. Its design had been inspired by the thinking of Tyrone Guthrie and the development of the Festival Theatre in Stratford Ontario. Its first director was Lawrence Olivier. In 1989 a 283 seat studio theatre was added – the Minerva.
The 2009 season began in the Minerva with Richard Eyre’s production of “The Last Cigarette”, a dramatisation of Simon Gray’s “The Smoking Diaries” which was completed just before the author’s death last summer from lung cancer. Finely acted by Felicity Kendal, Nicholas Le Prevost and Jasper Britton as differing facets of Gray’s character. The main house season opened in April with a very ordinary production of Coward’s “Hay Fever”, with Diana Rigg as a rather dumpy Judith Bliss. It continued in May with Trevor Nunn’s production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” with Joseph Fiennes in the lead. In a programme interview Nunn described Chichester as “one of the biggest and most demanding stages in this country” and talked of the play’s “epic dimension” and “heightened language”. He used the Anthony Burgess’s translation, which is in rhyming iambic pentameters rather than the alexandrines of the classical French theatre. In the big set piece scenes he marshalled a huge cast to great effect. But to me, even from the centre of Row G, the famous balcony scene seemed a million miles away.
Four years ago, with Michael Grandage’s production of “Don Carlos” and Phyllida Lloyd’s “Mary Stuart”, Schiller became the hottest ticket in the West End exactly 200 years after his death. This year, with Angus Jackson’s Minerva production of his rarely performed “Wallenstein”, with Ian Glen in the title role, he has been confirmed as one of the greatest exponents of political theatre of all time who has now found an audience acutely hungry for informed intelligent articulate political debate. And the production demonstrated very clearly that the Minerva, with its steeply concave audience rake and its deep thrust stage, is an infinitely better space for great epic plays than its much bigger brother across the road.
I caught up with the Harwood plays after they had transferred to London. Both his writing and his structures now seem more than a little old fashioned. But I much enjoyed his programme comment that “the Germans are cultured but not civilised, we’re civilised but not cultured, and the French are civilised and cultured, which makes them unbearable”.
During August there will be Heidi Thomas’s new play, directed by Howard Davies, about the murder of the Romanov family in 1918, and Most Promising Playwright winner Lucy Prebble’s take on the Enron fraud directed by Rupert Goold who did “Macbeth”. The main house which has done first rate musical productions in recent years will revive Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” (pictured) – the show that created the modern “musical comedy” – and the Chicago Steppenwolf Theatre production of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”. The season winds up in September with Rattigan’s “Separate Tables” the first production of which I saw at the old St James’s Theatre 55 years ago.
Martin Bowley QC