From a play without a venue to a first for the Olivier Awards

Katori Hall becomes first black writer to triumph in best new play category
  • @arifa_akbar

Katori Hall, a black female playwright, made theatre history last night when she picked up a Laurence Olivier Award for The Moutaintop, which was initially staged in a 65-seat London theatre after she failed to find a venue in America.

Until now, no non-white playwright had won an Olivier in the best new play category – previously claimed by the likes of Alan Bennett for The History Boys and Nicholas Wright for Vincent in Brixton.

Ms Hall, 28, an American, brought her play to London after struggling to find a theatre willing to stage it in the US. She finally found a home for The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King's last night alive, in Theatre 503, in Battersea, London, where it premiered to critical acclaim. After a sell-out run at Theatre 503, it was transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End. The production was directed by James Dacre and starred David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs. Harewood was nominated for best actor in the Evening Standard Awards and Burroughs for best actress in the Oliviers.

Nica Burns, the president of the Society of London Theatre, commended Ms Hall on her persistence. "No one in New York would show it so she brought it to London and it filled all 65 seats at the theatre in Battersea. Sonia Friedman (the West End theatre producer) saw it there and decided to take it to Trafalgar Studios, and now she's taking it to Broadway," said Ms Burns.

Set in a Memphis motel room on the eve of King's assassination, the play evokes the ordinary, everyday side of the man whose character has been obscured by myth. King, played by Harewood, has just finished addressing a civil rights audience of 2,000, and is worried about the fact that his feet smell and frustrated to find he doesn't have a toothbrush. He is ravaged by doubt, both about his political purpose and about whether he should shave off his trademark moustache.

Another historical landmark was reached when the revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof claimed the best revival at the Olivier's. The play, written for a white cast but performed, at the Novello Theatre, with an all black cast, had a black producer – Stephen Byrd – again, the first non-white to win the accolade.

Rachel Weisz won the prize for best actress although her fellow Briton-in-Hollywood, Keira Knightley, missed out on an Olivier for her supporting role in Moliere's The Misanthrope. The far more seasoned theatre actress, Ruth Wilson, claimed that award for her part in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Theatre.

The plays Jerusalem, and Enron were both – unsurprisingly – recognised in the awards. Both productions, which started out at the Royal Court, and have since transferred to the West End, have featured prominently as winners in the Critics Circle and the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

Rupert Goold picked up the best director prize for Enron, now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre, while Mark Rylance was named best actor for his role as Johnny "Rooster' Byron in Jerusalem, now at the Apollo. The play, written by Jez Butterworth, was also honoured for best set design.

Another two productions from the Royal Court – The Priory and Cock – won prizes for best new comedy, and outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre (the Royal Court's Jerwood space), confirming its renaissance as a place of new writing excellence.

Winners were chosen by a public and professional panel of judges.

Olivier Awards The winners

*Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

*Best Actor: Mark Rylance, 'Jerusalem'

*Best supporting actress: Ruth Wilson, 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

*Best supporting actor: Eddie Redmayne, 'Red'

*Best new play: 'The Mountaintop' by Katori Hall

*Best new comedy: The Priory' by Michael Wynne

*Best musical revival: 'Hello Dolly!'

*Best new musical: 'Spring Awakening'

*Best entertainment: 'Morecambe' by Tim Whitnall

*Best actress in a musical or entertainment: Samantha Spiro, 'Hello Dolly!'

*Best actor in a musical or entertainment: Aneurin Barnard, 'Spring Awakening'

*Best supporting performance in a musical or entertainment: Iwan Rheon, 'Spring Awakening'

*Best director: Rupert Goold, 'Enron'

*Best revival: 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

*Outstanding achievemnet: Michael Codron