Islington is where the Hollywood stars shine

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Indy Lifestyle Online
For the next three productions at London's Almeida theatre, Hollywood is migrating to Islington, and the cast list will be impersonating the Milky Way. Newspapers, suggests Jasper Rees, may as well send their staff astronomers to write the reviews, and theatre critics can have the night off.

This week Juliette Binoche can be seen in Pirandello's Naked. Next month it's Liam Neeson's turn in David Hare's new play, The Judas Kiss, which, owing to a scheduling log-jam, will play in the West End. In April, for Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, cometh Kevin Spacey.

Not everyone in town is impressed with this constellation. I spoke to Binoche in a break from rehearsal and she said, "I don't know who is Kevin Spacey. Did he do sex, lies and videos?" He speaks well of you too, Juliette.

There are several other reputable fringe theatres in London that might easily have invited the above triumvirate - the Donmar, Hampstead, or the Lyric Hammersmith, for example - but they know there's no point. For some reason, the invasion from film is concentrated on N1.

It's not as if the pay is better there. In fact, it couldn't be worse. Binoche and Neeson have both won Academy Awards, but they will trouser no more than the Equity minimum of pounds 225 a week. Binoche says she is getting "around 10,000 or 12,000 francs for a month".

Her vagueness is the barometer that tells you she is not in it for the instant cash dividend, and as the run is only six weeks long, she will be available again in a jiffy for more lucrative screen work. She was first approached by the theatre as recently as October, and will be out of the building by the end of March.

"The concern I had," said Binoche, who hasn't been on a French stage for 10 years, "was that it's a small time of rehearsal. In France the minimum would be six weeks. Four is not very much."

The Almeida has not always been able to array its productions in such spangliness. "The people who really forged the reputation of the Almeida," says Hare, who directs plays there at pounds 2,000 a throw, "are Diana Rigg, for undertaking an extremely risky run of roles, and Ralph Fiennes."

Rigg repositioned her own career at the Almeida in Medea and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Later this year she will star in a new version of Phaedra by Ted Hughes, who after his Whitbread-winning translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses will be something of a hot ticket himself.

Fiennes, it will be recalled, arrived fresh from his Oscar nomination in Schindler's List to take on Hamlet in an Almeida production that transferred from the Hackney Empire to a Tony-winning run on Broadway. Then with The English Patient in the can, and another nomination on the way, he starred in the production of Ivanov that took the (largely expatriate) audience in Moscow by storm.

Fiennes is full of admiration for the Almeida's joint artistic directors. "The combined partnership of Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent," he says, "has made the Almeida the most interesting theatre venue in London."

It is such endorsements that grease the wheels of the theatre's absurdly ambitious casting policy. To rely on the theory that if you don't ask you don't get, would not quite be enough. Commuting between the two worlds of film and theatre, Fiennes has acted as a kind of apostle. "There's no doubt," says Hare, "that film actors tell each other that if you're directed by Jonathan Kent, you're going to be wonderfully directed. What it's really about is pastoral - that there is simply a reputation for two artistic directors who both are in the theatre from morning till night and are on the actors' side."

"I hadn't heard of the theatre," says Binoche, who is duly being directed by Kent. "I saw Ivanov with Saul Zaentz, the producer of The English Patient. It's how I met Jonathan and the first time I saw the theatre. I knew from Anthony Minghella [director of The English Patient] that the productions there were good work. That's what I wanted to come here for."

Neeson will be playing Oscar Wilde in Hare's new play. Hare modestly claims that "he's not doing it so much because it's this particular play as that it's the part he's always wanted to play".

When I spoke to her, Binoche had not yet sampled the cramped conditions backstage. But size doesn't seem to be a problem. "On the contrary, I love that," she says. "When I studied drama, I tell you I didn't have an apartment. When you know the conditions you've been through, it's a luxury. There's a great spirit here, and that's what I wanted. In the rehearsal with the actors it's a lot of sharing, and Jonathan is open to any kind of suggestion."

"All theatres are unglamorous backstage," says Hare. "That's what actors are perfectly well used to."

The playwright Edward Albee says: "It does seem to me that it's wise not to have a huge cast when you're doing something at the Almeida, because it can get a little crowded down there under the stage."

Like Who's Afraid, an award-hogging revival which transferred to the West End, Albee's next play, The Play About the Baby, is a perfect fit: it calls for a cast of four. Albee himself feels like a perfect fit, too. "I think that people who go there, who experience the ambience and enthusiasm and dedication, want to work there. You want to work where you can be happy. The National Theatre is sometimes a bit of a factory. In other words, the great attraction of the Almeida is that it allows its stars to step off the celebrity treadmill.

"It isn't in that sense a starry theatre," says Hare. "The one thing it doesn't do is fit stars up with vehicles. It has always been an ensemble theatre in which everybody's fitted very happily." Hare adds a warning note that the traffic jam of film stars may have an adverse effect. "I think it is pure coincidence. The only danger of the current policy is, it creates an insatiable appetite. And I think they're aware of that."

There is no firm cast list yet for The Play About the Baby, but we can rely on it to be reasonably stellar. With her commitment to Phaedra, Diana Rigg will presumably be unavailable to reprise her relationship with Albee. Albee says that "we're working on the casting. But I don't want to mention any names because that raises their salaries." Of course, that's one thing it won't do.

`Naked' previews from Thursday at the Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1. Booking: 0171-359 4404.

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