“I threw my arms around Beckett!” – Electrifying First Nights, by Ciarán Hinds, Eileen Atkins and more | Theater

HHistory is not lacking in first nights and explosive openings. Moments of public art where the concerns of an era meet the truths of artists and catalyze a volcanic response. These are the nights when pins can be heard falling, when time is stretched into unforeseen patterns, when success is grasped or failure is faced. For artists, they are electrifying. Here are some frontline stories.

‘Beckett stayed there like a stone but I carried on’

Eileen Atkins, attending Beckett’s Play, 1964
There were three figures on the vast Old Vic stage, all locked in jars. They did the same scenario twice. Crazy about Beckett anyway, I was overwhelmed with the intelligence and what it did to my brain. It was extraordinary the difference in effect when we first made a rhythm, then a completely different one. The whole meaning has changed. Later, I was in a car when I saw director George Devine walking with a man. I jumped up and shouted, “George, George, I just saw your amazing play.” “Well say hello to the author,” he said and there was Samuel Beckett. I threw my arms around him and he stood like a rock. I wasn’t going to let him shame me, so I continued.

“The silences of that night were bewitching”

Anne Reid, The York Realist, Royal Court, 2003
I didn’t know it was such a good piece. The first time I read it, I thought, “Oh no, not another mother from the North. Boring.” I was 64 and had never worked in London before. Peter Gill did it so well. Everything was precise in his choreography: it’s the height to hold a teapot, it’s how to remove and hang a coat. Whatever the action, he said, if you take your time and present it, the audience will find it interesting. And he was so precise about the rhythm: play the first scene in legato, the second in pizzicato – he really knew the music for a scene. The silences in the theater that night… spellbinding! Later we went to the Royal Court bar and as Peter came down the stairs, everyone applauded.

“I had to stay focused to the millisecond”

Anoushka Shankar, scoring and performing Shiraz, 2017

The epic of the Taj Mahal… Shiraz. Photography: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Writing a score for Shiraz, a 1928 silent film about the creation of the Taj Mahal, was difficult because I was a novice and, with no director, there was no expert to shape the process. Part of the joy of music is improvisation: playing with time by stretching it, focusing it and tuning it. That’s not possible with film, given its precise timeline. There was more adrenaline going live on film than on any other show, because it takes two hours to stay focused to the millisecond, following something that doesn’t stretch or slow down. The film is on such narrow ground that it is silly: a human story, a fairy tale and an epic told in an engaging and thrilling way. Just keeping up with the beat was a thrill.

“I drank liters of wine to calm my nerves”

David Eldridge, miscellaneous assistant

Call my agent... Festen.
Call my agent… Festen. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Sometimes it’s not obvious to everyone that something is a success. I was at the royal court for the opening night of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. A British theater senator said on his way to the press night that it was “a dud”. I asked him if he needed to test his ears and eyes. Sometimes you feel your life changing if it’s your own game. When Festen opened at the Almeida, not even nerve-calming liters of Olympic wine could dull the waking feeling my agent could be on the phone regularly. Sometimes the culture itself moves under the seat of your stall. Throughout the first night of Katie Mitchell’s NT revival of Martin Crimp’s attempts on his life, I pinched myself. I was watching this masterpiece of post-drama theater – at the Lyttleton!

“We apologized and the curtain fell”

Ciarán Hinds, with Juno and the Paycock, November 2011

Masterpiece… Ciarán Hinds with Sinéad Cusack in Juno and the Paycock.
Masterpiece… Ciarán Hinds with Sinéad Cusack in Juno and the Paycock. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Opening night of Seán O’Casey’s masterpiece at The National, directed by the brilliant Howard Davies. A single door to enter and exit the Boyle family apartments. Second act, a noisy party in progress. There’s another knock on the door, Juno goes to open it. A few twists later, she summons her husband, Jack, my unfortunate myself. Many more twists later, a revelation that this door won’t open for love or money. Apologies to the audience, the curtain is falling. The men arrive with drills, hammers and saws. Two minutes later, the curtain rises again. The play picks up where it left off. The knock at the door. The door opens. Bravo, whoops and applause. In the doorway stands Mrs. Tancrède in funeral dress, devastated with grief by the murder of her young son. Don’t imagine that she had ever had such a reaction before.

“People thought a higher power was guarding us”

Paula Garfield, directing Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2012

What joy… The production of Love's Labour's Lost by Paula Garfield.
What joy… The production of Love’s Labour’s Lost by Paula Garfield. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

For deaf actors like me, being in an environment where their language and their community were front and center was incredibly moving. It was the first time the deaf community had taken over the Globe – what a joy to see the positive impact on the deaf and hearing communities coming together. Deaf audiences were deeply inspired and able to connect with the performers and access Shakespeare in new and meaningful ways. We opened in May 2012. The rain had been falling for weeks. When the actors took the stage, suddenly the sun came out and shone for both shows. Many have said that a higher power is watching over us, protecting our tongue.

“In the end, I had an out of body experience”

Adjoa Andoh, playing in Stuff Happens, 2004

'The accomplishment of all that I believe to be most meaningful'... Stuff Happens.
‘The accomplishment of all that I believe to be most meaningful’… Stuff Happens. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Taking the curtain call at the highly anticipated and embargoed press night, I felt like I was having an out of body experience. To play Condoleezza Rice in a drama of such intriguing national and international consequence; directed with such wit and elegance by the king of spectacle, Nicholas Hytner, one of our country’s greatest exponents of placing bodies in space to delight an audience; written with such skill, empathy, forensic research and imaginative dexterity by the playwright whose work inspired my acting career, David Hare… well! I participated in the three periods of workshops and research and met the most extraordinary political and civil actors. That night was the fulfillment of all that I believe to be most significant in the work to which I have devoted my life – political reflection, insight, humanity, laughter, Shostakovich, an audience full of intense curiosity and a living and significant work.

“We were convinced that we were in a flop”

Frances Barber, playing in The Unfriend, 2022

The Disami.
Relief filtered through… The Unfriend. Photography: Manuel Harlan

As many actors know, if you’re in a comedy, by the end of rehearsals the laughter stops. Through dress rehearsals and technology, the creative team and crew have their own concerns and watch the show with a stony silence that feels like disdain. We were convinced that we were in a flop and we continued petrified. Then the show started. Within two minutes, the audience began to howl with laughter so loud that Reece Shearsmith and I looked at each other in panic. After the first scene, there was a standing ovation. At intermission, we were amazed and wondered if it had really happened. In the second act, the public rolled in the aisles. The ending was like a hallucinatory experience, like I had floated out of my body and was watching the curtain call. The writer, Steven Moffat, looked like he was in a coma. Maybe the audience thought they were going to be knocked out by something dark, and when they realized there was no message, no guilt, no excess pain, the relief filtered through until he became hysterical. It was a weird moment, a kind of collective unconscious hysteria.

“We’ve gone as far off the rails as you can go”

Alison Balsom, trumpeter, Gabriel, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 2013

Each performance is like a first night… Alison Balsom in Gabriel.
Each performance is like a first night… Alison Balsom in Gabriel. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Early nights for classical musicians don’t really exist. Every performance we give is like a first night – often it’s the only one – so they have gravitas and a feeling of instant evaporation. But with Gabriel [a mixture of Henry Purcell’s music and scenes set in 1690s London], that first moment of staging this unique novelty — not a play, not a musical, not a semi-opera but all of those things — felt like some sort of thrilling slow-motion train wreck. Not a disaster at all, but like in Polar Express, where you’re off the rails but somehow it’s still within reach. And suddenly we had an idea of ​​her beauty. That we loved it and the audience did too, and we were thrilled…it was the best feeling in the world.

Surprise me ! First Nights that Changed the World by Dominic Dromgoole is published by Profile Books at £20. The Unfriend opens at the Criterion, London on January 15

Martin E. Berry