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Sonia Friedman: Give us a break

The producer is a leading light of the West End. She tells Fiona Mountford about her proposal for the future of commercial theatre

Anyone who has enjoyed a straight play in the West End over the past decade, perhaps with some well-judged star casting, will almost certainly have seen something from Sonia Friedman Productions. Catherine Tate and David Tennant in Much Ado about Nothing? Yes. Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss in The Children's Hour? Yup. Kristin Scott Thomas in Betrayal? That too. Friedman has, deservedly, become known as one of the premier purveyors of quality work in London's commercial theatre sector and as I sit in her cosy office above the Duke of York's theatre, looking at the framed production posters on the wall, I'm momentarily confused as to which of her current or future shows I'm here to talk about. Perhaps it's Pinter's Old Times, which opens in January, again starring Scott Thomas. Or the behemoth that is the multi-Tony-Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon, launching in February. But then Mark Rylance's face glowering from the poster of Jerusalem reminds me: it's a double bill of Shakespeare, with Rylance starring as both the titular Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night.

Two Shakespeares playing in rep in the West End is almost unheard of, because of the hefty staging costs weighed against perceived limited box office appeal, but Friedman, who started as a producer at the National before going on to co-found the touring company Out of Joint with Max Stafford-Clark, isn't one to be daunted by logistics. Stylishly dressed in leather trousers and biker jacket, she speaks so much sparky, spiky good sense that I'm torn between continuing the interview and frogmarching her to the DCMS for a meeting with Culture Secretary Maria Miller.

Certain newspapers' controversial breaking of the review embargo on Twelfth Night when it first played at Shakespeare's Globe in September – critics bought their own tickets so as not to have to wait for this week's official West End press night – prompts me to ask about the balance of power between critics and producers. "In the subsidised sector I think it's pretty equal. In the commercial sector, I sometimes think that critics wilfully choose not to understand the challenges we have". Such as? "Ticket pricing. Journalists run the story they want to believe. If they decide that the story of the day is 'The West End is overpriced', they will look at the premium pricing and choose to ignore all the other range of seats. They will also choose to ignore the fact that [National Theatre transfer] One Man, Two Guvnors has premium pricing [and] that other plays that have come via the subsidised sector have premium pricing.

"I think many people can't believe that a producer in the commercial theatre actually has the same mission as a producer in the subsidised sector, which is to produce work in the best possible way they can. The big difference is, we don't have a £20m subsidy."

Ah yes, the S-word. Given that subsidised theatres, in particular the National, are increasingly producing their own work in the West End, how does this impact on her?

"I do think it's the new debate," she says. "It's great for those subsidised theatres, and I would absolutely be doing the same thing myself if I was running any of those organisations. Why give the money away? However, I genuinely think that if the subsidised theatres are allowed to operate commercially, then the commercial theatres should be allowed to operate in a subsidised manner sometimes.

"[The subsidy] would never ever feed the producer, it would always be about bringing in an audience. The minute your play hits recoupment, you feed it straight back to the Arts  Council. Obviously there are some shows where it would be entirely inappropriate. I don't think The Bodyguard …" She breaks off into laughter. "I want there to be discussion and debate. This is not an attack against subsidy. This is about how we, as an industry, evolve."

The Book of Mormon, the satirical musical about Mormonism from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is another show that wouldn't need any external financial backing, given that the first batch of tickets have all but sold out. ("The comedy is universal and the writers are inspired by British comedy giants," says Friedman, when I ask whether there's a risk that such an overtly American subject might not translate over here.) Yet if Friedman's proposed subsidy pot for commercial theatre did come to pass, it could be enormously beneficial for the promotion of new writing, a genre permanently imperilled in a musicals-heavy West End. So should commercial theatre be doing more here?

"The economy and pressure on the writer are so enormous in the West End. I can see why writers want the protection of the subsidised sector. If you're going to do a new play in the West End, it has to have a star." Critics don't always help, she feels. "This is a generalisation, but I think when critics come to review a new play in the subsidised sector, they come with a glass-half-full [mentality]. They are prone to want to like it. I'm absolutely convinced that they come with a glass-half-empty [mentality] when it's a new play in the West End. There is a sort of whiff of suspicion: 'Is it not good enough to go on elsewhere first?'" As one guilty of such prejudice in the past, I concede that this is a fair point.

We could talk for hours about the restructuring of British theatre culture, but I'm intrigued by a comment Friedman made in a previous interview, when she said that although theatre is a man's world, she is "most definitely not a feminist". "I don't want to be singled out as a woman, and, therefore, does that make me a feminist or not? I don't know. I just want to be treated equally," she says now.

Gender is something that Mark Rylance, one of her long-time closest collaborators, picks up on when I ask him about her. "Sonia is a powerful, smart woman in a man's business, particularly when she works on Broadway," he says. "She has to massage a lot of egos and take big risks." She's also, he adds, "like a wonderful artistic director. I certainly feel her to be a fellow artist with an eye and ear for theatre that I very much respect."

It was almost inevitable that Friedman would work in the creative industries; she grew up with a concert-pianist mother, violinist father and musician siblings. At four, she was already staging shows for her family under the banner of Sonia Friedman Productions, her brother providing the music. Then, after toying as a teenager with being a cellist, she went off to "carve out my own thing", which turned out to be marshalling creative sorts into order.

She speaks enthusiastically about the "absolute kick and adrenalin buzz and I would even call it some sort of addiction" of putting on a show, but such high-intensity work is not without its drawbacks.

"I've had to sacrifice a lot to get to where I am now," she says frankly. "I'm 47, I've never been married and I have no children. I've made choices along the way that have meant I've put my work first." It's not a wedding ring that she's wearing, but a "place-holder" from her new-ish American partner. "He's reserved a space," she says with a smile.

Our conversation drifts agreeably over a range of topics: the difference between producing in the West End and on Broadway (cost, in a word) and her top tips for the future (young director Polly Findlay and, sweetly, her sister, singer Maria Friedman, about to make her directorial debut). She has a six-page wish list of future projects, but the one that got away is Enron. "Rupert Goold sent it to me, but I don't think I got around to reading it until it was too late," she says sheepishly. Still, as so very little escapes the dynamic Sonia Friedman, she can afford to have let this one go.

'Richard III' and 'Twelfth Night' play in rep at the Apollo Theatre, London W1 until 10 Feb (0844 412 4658; shakespearewestend.com)