Arts: Theatre: The man to whom the stars say yes

Ralph Fiennes, Diana Rigg, and now Liam Neeson, Kevin Spacey and Juliette Binoche: big names accept small fees to work for Jonathan Kent at the Almeida. The secret, he tells Robert Hanks, is to take actors seriously
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The Independent Culture
When Jonathan Kent was 17, he lived in Islington for a while, in a room on the busy Liverpool Road. This was 30 years ago, long before Islington had established itself in the public consciousness as the home of sun-dried tomato paste and New Labour, when it was still a shabby, working-class part of London. It must have seemed particularly dingy to an aspiring art student from Cape Town, South Africa; and Kent now says that when he thinks back to that time, what he remembers is lying in his bed while it rained outside, every day for six months. He swore then that once he had got out of Islington, he would never return.

Things didn't turn out as he expected, though: he didn't go to art school. Instead, he went to drama school and became, for the next 20 years, an actor. And now he has ended up living and working in Islington - these days a much more desirable address - directing plays and running the Almeida, arguably the greatest success story of British theatre in the last decade. Since Kent and his joint artistic director, Ian McDiarmid, took over the Almeida in 1990, they have sent productions of Euripides and Shakespeare to the West End and Broadway, taken Chekhov to Moscow, staged Pinter's first full-length play in more than a decade, won a score of major awards on both sides of the Atlantic, and remade the careers of a number of actors - most famously, Diana Rigg, whose Medea turned her from kitsch TV icon to major classical actress overnight. Kent himself has been transformed from jobbing actor into one of the most respected theatre directors in the country. Presumably, he now thinks the sun shines every day.

And all this has been achieved on shoestring budgets - every actor, star or unknown, whether playing Hamlet or Third Spear-Carrier, gets the Equity minimum wage. As Richard Griffiths asks, how many middle-aged people do you know who can get by on pounds 215 a week? Yet stars keep coming to the Almeida, and then coming back again.

When the Almeida colonised the Hackney Empire for Kent's staging of Hamlet, Ralph Fiennes, fresh from Schindler's List, took time off from Hollywood to trail out to E8 to play the Dane. At the beginning of this year he was in the Almeida itself, playing the lead in Chekhov's Ivanov, again directed by Kent, before the production toured to Russia (the trip is the subject of an Arthouse documentary to be shown on Channel 4 on 14 December). Kevin Spacey came to watch Ivanov, and ended up agreeing to star in The Iceman Cometh next spring. Liam Neeson will play Oscar Wilde in David Hare's The Judas Kiss; and Juliette Binoche has just signed up for Pirandello's Naked. And Penelope Wilton, Emma Fielding, Ian Holm, Tom Hollander, Diana Rigg seem unable to stay away.

Jonathan Kent has no trouble identifying the reasons why they come. One is the space itself (the Almeida is tiny, but just big enough to create "some sort of distance, which I think theatre needs"). More important, though, he believes that "the Almeida puts actors centre-stage" - which is, he reckons, rarer than you might think. One theme which keeps emerging in conversation with him is his admiration for the sheer nerve it takes to get up on stage - directing he regards as "a much less valorous pursuit". He gets quite cross, in his gentle way, with what he sees as the underrating of actors - "This whole patronage of actors, that they're these silly fluffy things that ponce around and get paid too much, or have views that are inappropriate ... We downgrade the craft of acting, and upgrade the pursuit of celebrity."

This love of actors endears him to them. Tom Hollander, who starred in Kent's production of Tartuffe and is currently rehearsing with him for a new staging of Gogol's The Government Inspector, regards him as "the only director I've worked with who truly understands what actors' preoccupations are when rehearsing a part". Richard Griffiths, who was transformed into a major classical actor when Kent directed him in Brecht's Life of Galileo, ranks him second only to Trevor Nunn among living directors, and talks of his "gift of understanding an individual actor's personal frame of reference ... He manages to tune into that for every single person in a slightly different way, so that there's no one in a production who doesn't feel that he's getting every encouragement."

Writers adore him too. David Hare, whose adaptations of the classics Kent has staged a number of times, admires his "sense of responsibility to the writer, the dead author". Both he and Tom Hollander suggest that what marks out Kent from other directors is his willingness to serve actors and text - he is not, in Hollander's words, "a dogmatic auteur who recreates a play in his own image". According to Ian McDiarmid, when Kent rehearses a play, "he starts with broad brushstrokes and the details fill themselves in with time".

This lack of dogma can be a source of weakness. Critics in this country were not altogether bowled over by his Hamlet (it won three awards on Broadway); and Kent's Mother Courage at the National, which starred Diana Rigg, was a stilted, stagy affair. But nobody can deny that, for a man who never directed a play until he was in his forties, he's had an astounding run of success .

Meanwhile, plans are afoot for the Almeida to expand, with a residency at the Malvern Festival, talk of running a West End house for a year, and eventually building a new, larger auditorium to complement the Almeida itself. At the moment, the rise of the Almeida seems unstoppable.

When Kent arrived there, he had no intention of directing at all. But, "The minute I started directing, I realised that's what I wanted to do ... It's something I find really satisfying. And something I feel I should be doing." Chorus of agreement, cheers and bouquets from all round.

'The Government Inspector': Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404), previews from Thurs, opens 17 Dec.