As Notting Hill’s Gate theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary, Alexander Larman meets its artistic director Christopher Haydon to discover the secrets behind its enduring appeal
The Gate theatre, aptly named because it’s just off Notting Hill Gate, is not the most prepossessing of places from the outside. Located above a pub, if it weren’t for a big sign saying ‘Gate’, it’d be easy to miss it. This would be something of a shame, as, since its foundation in 1979, it has acquired a reputation for punching well above its weight, not only featuring many world premieres of plays that have gone on to become much-revived modern classics, such as Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, but also having launched the careers of actors and directors including Jude Law, Stephen Daldry, Katie Michell and Rachel Weisz, as well as the National’s incoming artistic director Rufus Norris. It is little wonder that Bill Nighy once said of it ‘The Gate is our oxygen. It should be on the National Health.’
With all the kudos surrounding the venue, its artistic director, Christopher Haydon knows that he has a lot on his plate. In post since 2012, he came to the position determined to expand the theatre’s international scope, not just in terms of commissioning plays by European, African and American writers, but also by taking the work overseas. His latest production is a restaging of 2013’s Grounded, an acclaimed work by George Brant about a fighter pilot who is forced to become a drone operator when she becomes pregnant. It’s controversial, biting stuff, and when it transfers to Washington in June will become even more timely.
However, for the unruffled and charming Christopher, provoking debate is all in keeping with what the Gate’s been doing for the last three and a half decades. As he says, ‘it’s been an extraordinary powerhouse for talent since it started, actors and directors alike, and they’ve done some fantastic things – just look at Katie Michell’s legendary staging of The Trojan Women, with 20 people on stage. The work’s impacted on the public consciousness, and we’ve got a great reputation for taking work abroad as well.’ He’s quick to praise the writers and actors whose contributions have made the Gate so successful over the years, but also singles out the company’s focus on design, which makes every production unique. ‘The idea is that an audience can come and see a play and not only not know what the stage is going to look like, but not even what door they’re going to enter the theatre through!’
The theatre was founded by an American writer and director, Lou Stein, and his intent was to open up what he saw as an insular British theatre scene, where international work wasn’t produced enough. As Christopher says, ‘this internationalism’s always stuck – we look beyond our borders to most of the work we put on, and overwhelmingly our work comes from other countries. When Lou founded the theatre, it was only us and the International Festival Theatre doing new work of this kind, but now other theatres have taken an interest in doing similar things – the Young Vic, the Donmar…’ The unspoken conclusion to the sentence – ‘where we have innovated, others have followed’ lingers in the air, even as Christopher stresses that their budgets are a fraction of the upstart theatres.
He’s proud that the Gate remains a truly local institution, citing the ‘very strong relationship’ between the area and its major theatre, and suggests that one reason for its continued success is that ‘the area’s multicultural history is mirrored by our focus on international work, but we also reflect the radical history of the area – Orwell lived round the corner, as did Tony Benn.’ His sole regret in terms of working with the local area is that they don’t have any street level accessibility – ‘we remain a room above the pub, we don’t have a foyer or a box office or anything like that, and that means that we can’t relate to the local community throughout the day. But we’re trying! And it’s such a remarkable place round here, with a diverse range of things, and then the parks on your doorstep.’
Christophers’s continued commitment to what he sees as the crucial questions of world theatre ensures that the Gate’s programming remains eclectic and challenging. (It’s also not without some personal risks – he was arrested in Egypt in 2012 as he was researching a play about the Arab Spring.) As he says, a play like Grounded deals with gender politics, surveillance and drone warfare – ‘three very significant contemporary issues’ – and its subsequent tour will bring it to new audiences.
He describes it as ‘a microcosm of what we’ve set out to achieve.’ Later in the season will be the UK premiere of Idomeneus, loosely based on the Iliad, and then there is a season of retrospective events planned for the autumn and themed around the 35th anniversary, culminating in a fundraising gala. It is expected that several of the theatre’s most distinguished alumni will attend. Many of these same alumni will be contributing short pieces about their experience of the theatre and its influence on their careers – ’35 words for 35 years.’ It’s forward-looking, exciting and should establish the Gate as a powerhouse theatre for many years to come, with the more than capable Haydon at its helm.
In fact, the only faint surprise is that the audiences are invariably well-behaved and well-mannered, saving their responses to the often provocative content in front of them for discussion afterwards. When asked whether he can ever remember any heckling, Christopher looks uncertain, and replies ‘No, we don’t really get that here…’ He then grins. ‘We do however get the odd person who seems to think that they’re at a private event, and will say things like ‘Speak up! I can’t hear you!’ Such is the intimacy and the affection that this quintessential Notting Hill institution offers.
Find out more about the Gate’s 35th anniversary celebrations at gatetheatre.co.uk