My greatest night out

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IMELDA STAUNTON

Actor

I REMEMBER going to the Old Vic in the days when the National was there. It was Long Day's Journey Into Night, with Laurence Olivier, at the time when he was an actor. I was 17ish, and I was very impressed. It was a really, really hot night, and I'd got platform boots on and I was boiling, but it was utterly riveting. It did make me turn a corner. It was my first theatre.

STEPHEN DALDRY

Royal Court Theatre

I CAN'T pinpoint an early play, but an experience I can talk about is the relationship between Princess Diana's death and Conor McPherson's play The Weir, at the Royal Court; it's one of the most successful productions that we've had for some time. You would think that a bar in the middle of nowhere, with a load of old blokes telling ghost stories, and a woman talking about grief, would not be a smash box office success. What is it that draws people? And what drew people to Diana? Why did her death become such a ritual moment? I was fascinated with that week, and what I found extraordinary, sitting in Hyde Park, was the unspeakable collective grief. It was one of the greatest dramatic moments I have experienced, the feeling that we were weeping, in Hyde Park, not for Princess Diana but for ourselves. Our sense of grief when people die around us is never released. It's a very rare experience for me as a theatregoer to have the feeling that I am uncontrollably about to break down, that it's going to be embarrassing, but the sharing of the experience becomes part of the healing. It can't be replicated in the cinema; it's unique to the theatre. In the cinema, it's much more private.

What's fantastic about Conor's play is that you go through this extraordinary wobble and you are healed. You look round and you realise how many people are weeping. Theatre that affirms our common humanity, and confirms the power of simple storytelling, releasing emotion and healing and allowing collective redemption has to be one of the great arguments for it. It's not about theatre as education, or about provoking us or challenging the status quo, all of which are vital to a civilised society. What is unusual about this play is that it purely celebrates the quality of life, and the arts, if anything, is about the quality of life.

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