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A CurtainUp Book Review

Sam Mendes At the Donmar
Stepping Into Freedom

By Elyse Sommer

In an ideal world theatres like the Donmar shouldn't have to exist. In an ideal world each major theatre in England could afford an ensemble, a lengthy rehearsal period and posess an ongoing dialogue with a loyal audience.
--- Sam Mendes, September 2002
American theater goers tend to feel that they know London's Donmar Warehouse even though they've most likely never been there. That's because so many high-profile plays produced there during its first decade under the auspices of one of Britain's wunderkind, Sam Mendes, have transferred to London's West End and to Broadway: Cabaret has become one of those long-running hits kept fresh with constantly rotating casts. Take Me Out has just moved from the Public Theater downtown to the Walter Kerr and is sure to collect several Tony Awards and quite possibly this year's Pulitzer Prize.

Now Mendes, the baby-faced artistic director during the Donmar's first ten years, has broadened his horizons with several films (the also high profile American Beauty and Road to Perdition), Variety's London theater critic, Matt Wolf, offers Mendes-Donmar watchers Sam Mendes at the Donmar. . . Stepping Into Freedom. The 185-page book is essentially a biography of the theater -- from its birth (re-birth, really, since it was an existing venue), through its hiccups and triumphs and to transition marked by the passing of the baton by Mendes to Michael Grandage.

It's a well-designed, enjoyable to read book with lots of photos and quotations culled from Mr. Wolf's sixty interviews with Donmar alumni. Considering the consistently positive reviews given by one and all to Mendes and his invaluable executive producer Caro Newling and casting director Anne McNulty the book almost reads like a commissioned corporate biography. After a while the consistency with which these quotes hone in on the nurturing atmosphere and the special qualities of the theater's somewhat deceptive intimacy can make one wish for more diverse comments -- and yet the consistency in the overall positive content gives validity to the Donmar's special-ness. Playwright Peter Nichols comes as close to a complaint you are likely to find with " If I had to criticize the Donmar, there's a sort of snobbery about them, a kind of elitism." Nichols is, however, quick to point out that he's all for elitism which says "You come to us."

The book pays plenty of attention to the Donmar's most glittering and profitable productions -- including a whole chapter on The Blue Room, aptly headed Viagra. Wolf's story is most absorbing and revealing when it shows that the Stepping Into Freedom subtitle did not mean that the early successes like Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, and the newly conceived Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret gave Mendes and his colleagues the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. If you've heard about the shows that made getting a ticket to the Donmar a virtual impossibility, Wolf also tells you about shows that played to well below capacity audiences (the Pulitzer-Prize winning How I Learned to Drive, despite an outstanding production garnered only 43% capacity houses) and the decisions this prompted about what to put on and with what actors -- notably, the concept of conferring their own values and strengths to great plays with just one previous production in the 1980s or late 1970s.

Though Mendes has written the foreword, his place in the book as in the theater itself, is not that of a can't let go type of control freak. That's obviously why at thirty-seven he has no problem about moving forward with the next phase of his life -- and to let the Donmar move onward and upward as well.

By Matt Wolf
Limelight Editions Available here
At This Theater Cover
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