1833: Islington Literary and Scientific Society
1875: Wellington Club
Almeida Theatre in June 2011
|Public transit||Essex Road|
|Owner||Almeida Theatre trust|
|Designation||Grade II listed|
|Capacity||325, over two levels|
|Opened||1833 (as reading rooms)|
|Rebuilt||1982 (as theatre)|
|Architect||Roumieu and Gough|
The Almeida Theatre, opened in 1980, is a 325-seat studio theatre with an international reputation, which takes its name from the street on which it is located, off Upper Street, in the London Borough of Islington. The theatre produces a diverse range of drama. Successful plays are often transferred to West End theatres.
The theatre was built in 1837 for the newly formed Islington Literary and Scientific Society and included a library, reading room, museum, laboratory, and a lecture theatre seating 500. The architects were the fashionable partnership of Robert Lewis Roumieu and Alexander Dick Gough. The library was sold off in 1872 and the building disposed of in 1874 to the Wellington Club (Almeida Street then being called Wellington Street) which occupied it until 1886. In 1885 the hall was used for concerts, balls, and public meetings. The Salvation Army bought the building in 1890, renaming it the Wellington Castle Barracks (Wellington Castle Citadel from 1902). To suit the building's new purpose, the front-facing lecture hall's tiered benches were replaced so that the congregation was seated in the conventional position, facing away from the front, and a balcony added. The Salvationists remained there until 1955. For a few years from 1956 the building was a factory and showroom for Beck's British Carnival Novelties, then remained empty until in 1972 a campaign began to turn it into a theatre.
The campaign to open the building as a theatre was led by the Lebanese-born internationally renowned opera and theatre director Pierre Audi, after he had acquired the derelict building in 1972. A public appeal was launched and in 1980, with the building renovated, the theatre opened with a festival of avant-garde theatre and music, held both there and at other Islington venues, with Audi as the Artistic Director.
Under Audi the theatre's reputation grew and its annual summer International Festival of Contemporary Music and Performance became highly regarded. In the summer of 1985 Ástor Piazzolla, the renowned Argentine tango composer and bandoneón player, made a week-long appearance with his Quinteto Nuevo Tango. Peter Greenaway's 1983 series of films for Channel 4 Four American Composers featured Almeida presentations of works by Robert Ashley, John Cage, and Philip Glass and a Dance Umbrella presentation of Turtle Dreams by Meredith Monk.
The Almeida housed a producing company which commissioned and staged several theatre works and operas and was a London "receiving house" for Fringe, avant-garde and regional theatre productions. Touring companies from the UK were regularly hosted, including Shared Experience, Joint Stock, Theatre Complicite, Cheek by Jowl and the Leicester Haymarket, alongside international guest companies from the Philippines, Tibet, Israel, Ireland and Czechoslovakia. The Festival included contemporary music and performance presentations from continental Europe, Russia, North America, Japan, Argentina, and Morocco. Among the dozens of stage directors, composers, musicians and ensembles featured were Yuri Lyubimov, Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage, Phelim McDermott, Julia Bardsley, Deborah Warner, Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden, Yvar Mikhashoff, Michael Finnissy, Wolfgang Rihm, Claude Vivier, Gerald Barry, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Virgil Thomson, Arvo Pärt, Somei Satoh, Akio Suzuki, Takehisa Kosugi, Toru Takemitsu, Jo Kondo, Sylvano Bussotti, Giacinto Scelsi, Alfred Schnittke, Luis de Pablo, Capricorn, Spectrum, Music Projects/London, Singcircle, the Arditti Quartet, and the London Sinfonietta.
Peter Brook's Bouffes du Nord company played there in 1982 (Brook's company had been one of Audi's original influences for the project), and Ronald Harwood's documentary drama, The Deliberate Death of a Polish Priest premiered at the Almeida in October 1985, an early example of a transcript of a trial of the political murderers of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. In 1987, the Almeida also became home to Motley Theatre Design Course, under the directorship of Margaret Harris.
The Not the RSC Festival was presented at the Almeida in 1986 and 1987.
Work by major playwrights, old and new, British and foreign was staged and the theatre acquired an artistic reputation comparable to the leading theatres in central London and, as noted by playwright David Hare, "it reinvented the European repertoire for London audiences and made British theatre more cosmopolitan and outward going". Organised as a non-profit producing theatre its productions regularly played to packed houses and frequently transferred to the West End (14 between 1990 and 2002) and to Broadway.
In 1993 the theatre won the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.
One of the keys to the success and reputation of the Almeida during the 1990s were the stagings of various plays by Harold Pinter. These included revivals of Betrayal in 1991 and No Man's Land in 1992 and premières of Party Time in 1991 and Moonlight in 1993.
During their time at the theatre, McDiarmid and Kent were described by The Guardian as "[making] Islington a centre of enlightened internationalism"; and, as they were about to leave their positions in 2002, Michael Billington, in same newspaper, summed up their achievements as threefold:
Three things have made the Almeida the most exciting theatre in Britain. First, an eclectically international programme: everything from Molière and Marivaux to Brecht and Neil LaBute. Second, top-level casting that has given us Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet and Ivanov, Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh and Juliette Binoche in Naked. Third, a territorial expansion that has seen the Almeida colonise the Hackney Empire, the old Gainsborough film studios and even a converted bus depot in King's Cross".
In November 1999, the Almeida was awarded £1.5 million by the Arts Council of England to undertake essential repairs to the theatre. The work began early in 2001 when the theatre was closed, and the company moved temporarily to a converted bus station at King's Cross. National Lottery backing of £5.8 million allowed for a complete restoration.
The restoration included rebuilding and extending the foyer, installing more comfortable seating and access, plus better backstage facilities with the stage area re-built for flexibility and strength, the roof improved and insulated, the lighting grid strengthened, complete re-wiring, and technical equipment updated. Michael Attenborough took over as artistic director in 2002 and, following the completion of its restoration, the theatre was re-opened in May 2003 with a production of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, directed by Trevor Nunn. The theatre's artistic remit was the presentation of bold and adventurous play choices staged to the highest possible standards, in productions which revealed them in a new light. This included classics from the British, American and Irish repertoire, foreign classics in newly commissioned versions, and new plays. In October 2012 Attenborough announced that he would step down early in 2013.
Rupert Goold was appointed Artistic Director in February 2013, taking up the post full-time in September 2013. His association with the Almeida Theatre Company began in 2008 when he directed Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. In 2013 his Headlong theatre company co-produced the premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica, directed by Lyndsey Turner, at the Almeida: the show subsequently transferred to the West End, winning five Olivier Awards in 2014. Goold's first Almeida production as full-time artistic director was the world premiere production of American Psycho: A new musical thriller (initially programmed by Michael Attenborough), which ran from 3 December 2013 to 1 February 2014. In 2014 he directed the premiere of Mike Bartlett's play King Charles III, which, following its sold-out run at the Almeida, transferred to Wyndham's Theatre and Broadway.
Almeida Projects is the Almeida Theatre's education and community programme. It was founded in its current form in 2003 by Rebecca Manson Jones, after Michael Attenborough's appointment as artistic director. Almeida Projects activity includes durational residencies with partner schools, a subsidised ticket scheme for school groups visiting the theatre, productions of new plays for young people inspired by the main programme, the Young Friends of the Almeida scheme, social networking Teachers' Evenings for local performing arts teachers and a training programme for workshop leaders.
Almeida Projects works closely with nine partner schools in Islington: Central Foundation Boys' School, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, Highbury Fields School, Highbury Grove School, Islington Arts and Media School, Mount Carmel Catholic College for Girls, The Bridge School and City and Islington College. The Young Friends of the Almeida Theatre scheme was established in May 2008 to enable local young people to take part in activities outside of school. It currently has over 700 members and includes the Young Friends of the Almeida Creative Board, composed of young people who take an active role in planning and promoting all Young Friends activities.
The Almeida was one of the launch theatres for Digital Theatre, a project which makes theatre productions available in video download form. The first performance that was filmed was 'Parlour Song'.