National Theatre at 50 – National Histories – Sara Kestelman & Adrian Lester – The Shed 8th October 2013


Tonight’s platform saw Sara Kestelman and Adrian Lester (fresh from his role in Othello) share their memories of the National Theatre, as part of the venue’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The format for this series of platforms is simple – each actor is asked to consider the same questions, which are then shared with the audience during the event.

Sara Kestelman has a long history with the National Theatre, performing in Hamlet, Copenhagen, Square Rounds, Dalliance, The Threepenny Opera, Love For Love, Undiscovered Country, As You Like It, The Double Dealer, Bedroom Farce, State of Revolution, The Lady From Maxim’s, Strife and All About Me.

Adrian Lester has of course just finished playing Othello in the Olivier theatre, took the title role in Henry V and played Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd.

Question 1 – What were your first memories / experience of the National Theatre? 

Sara’s first memory of the National Theatre is seeing Uncle Vanya, directed by Olivier and starring Michael Redgrave, at the Old Vic in 1963. She spoke warmly of Michael’s extraordinary vulnerability in the production.

Adrian’s first memory occurred when he moved to London to attend drama school in 1986. He only knew one route from South London to Gower Street and so bought a travel card and wandered around getting to know the city and ended up walking along the Southbank on a Sunday afternoon. The National Theatre was closed, but he spoke fondly of peering through the windows of the building, reading the posters of the productions. He remembered that the building was empty, still and capable of anything at that moment. He also of course said that, starting out as a student, he did wonder at the possibility of performing there one day.

Question 2 – Who is/are your unsung heroes of the National Theatre? 

Sara spoke about the wonderful Michael Straughan, former box office manager at the theatre, who she said knew everyone in the building, both actors, staff and audience members alike and was incredibly generous with his time. She said he was sorely missed from the building.

Adrian spoke of the wonderful job done by the stage door and security staff and that they do far more than their job description. He recalled his first call from the stage door when they asked “Is Mr Adrian Lester there? There are guests for him.” On his reply that he was Adrian Lester, the stage door responded “if you could tell Mr Lester if you see him that his guests have arrived.” He recalled how at first he didn’t understand what they were doing, until he realised they were speaking in that way in front of whoever had asked for him in case he did not have guests he was expecting! He also spoke about how they lock up around you and accommodate you. 

Question 3 – Which individual performance at the National Theatre has left a lasting impression on you? 

Sara’s choice was Michael Bryant. She hilariously spoke of how naughty he could be, for example holding up signs in the wings saying “5 out of 10”. Both Sara and Adrian also spoke about “the Bryant spot” on the Olivier stage, a spot at which the actor can hear the acoustics perfectly in the theatre. Adrian described the incredible feeling of hitting that spot during the scene where he approaches Desdemona to kill her and how even though the lines were whispered, he could hear them perfectly because of the acoustics in that spot. Adrian also had Michael’s old dressing room during Othello, which only ever has a piece of paper with your name on the door, next to a plate with Michael’s name.

Adrian’s own choice was Julia McKenzie, who he worked with on his first production at the National Theatre in 1993’s Sweeney Todd. He recalled observing her rehearsing the song where Mrs Lovett first sees Sweeney Todd and how she went over and over it, ensuring each motion and action matched the song perfectly. He spoke of going to the very back of the Cottesloe space during tech week to watch her do this again and seeing how each action, no matter how small, was conveyed perfectly and how incredible that was to him. 

Question 4 – What was the most fulfilling National Theatre production you have been a part of? 

Sara said this was a very difficult question and referred to The American Clock and Copenhagen, which was an extraordinary event. However she chose 1978’s The Double Dealer, directed by Peter Wood and starring Ralph Richardson. She spoke of how Ralph always knew how much space he needed and that that may have felt controlling to some actors but that she thought he was incredible. She said Peter was a great teacher of the text and that she had probably learnt more from him than anyone else in her career and that she was possibly more frightened of him than anyone else too!

Adrian joked that he didn’t have a lot to choose from and that his choice was Othello. It was the hardest job he had done and cost a great deal emotionally, due to the emotional journey the character takes. He said how everything he had ever learnt had been put in to the character. He also spoke about how he thought it was difficult to believe how quickly Othello believes Iago’s suggestion that his wife is unfaithful during Act 3 Scene 3 and that selling that scene is so important. He also said he was still letting go of the character and although he missed it, he was relieved in part it was over. Sara, with a smile, said he would definitely play the role again! 

Question 6 – Which production do you most regret missing at the National Theatre?

Sara’s choice was A Flea In Her Ear directed by Jacques Charon at the Old Vic in 1966, as it is a production everyone always talks about. She explained how it only had a three week rehearsal time and how difficult farce is to do – it is a dance without music.

Adrian mentioned Copenhagen, 1985’s Pravda starring Anthony Hopkins and also the recent production of Frankenstein. He jokingly added that he and Rory Kinnear had promised to swap roles each night in Othello but it hadn’t quite happened!

Question 6 – Which of your National Theatre costumes would you choose for a fancy dress party? 

Sara chose one of her costumes from Undiscovered Country, which was an all black outfit with a huge black hat.

Adrian said it was an easy choice for him – his sailor outfit from Sweeney Todd, which he said seemed to be mentioned by everyone when talking about his performance in the production! 

Question 7 – Where is your secret / special spot in the building? 

Sara mentioned the balcony from the green room leading to a pass door up to the top of the Cottesloe, where she used to enjoy watching the opening minutes of the production in that space whilst waiting for her own call in one of the other theatres.

Adrian said his was the route you could take from the bar in the green room under the stage, which could lead you to the entrance foyer on the mezzanine level and that he could pick guests up from the green room and take them that way to have a drink without being disturbed. He said how the security staff would simply lock up around you, as you can use your pass to go back that way and exit through the stage door without a problem.

Adrian also referred to the Quad and the tradition of banging on the walls on opening night of each show and how for Othello this had also been done on the night of the NT Live broadcast. Sara also fondly spoke of “Ralph’s (Richardson’s) Rocket” and it was hinted that this may make a return on 22nd October…

Question 8 – What would be your fantasy programming for a day at the National Theatre? 

Sara’s day would begin with Lark Rise and Candleford, which she said had been a wonderful promenade theatre experience. Her matinee would be David Hare’s Plenty, which she first encountered through the speakers of the theatre when it was in rehearsal and how incredible it sounded. Her evening would be spent watching The National Health by Peter Nichols.

Adrian would like to start his day of theatre with Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which he thought was a beautifully observed study of people that he’d found heartbreaking. His matinee was August: OsageCounty and he spoke of the wonderful set and how important it was to have female centric productions with strong roles for older women. On being asked whether he would see the upcoming film, he said for him the play was still very fresh and he wasn’t sure if it would translate. His evening production would be by the physical theatre company DV8 entitled Just For Show, in which the performers displayed how emotions can be used to effectively convey feelings through performance in a unique way.

Question 9 – What makes an evening in the theatre for you?

Sara spoke of her appreciation of detail and that, although she is easily moved, she needs to find truth in a production or performance, otherwise it feels empty.

Adrian became visibly moved when answering this question and said for him, he can tell when an actor is lying, or busking it, or taking it easy during a matinee and that it is the use of intelligence, awareness and skill in order to share something human about yourself as an actor with the audience, using the words you have been given. He said the immediacy of sharing that real human connection and emotion was what theatre was really all about.

This again was an insightful and entertaining platform event and I continue to encourage anyone interested in theatre to pop along to one of the other scheduled National Histories events. Details can be found on the National Theatre’s website and I understand recordings of past platforms in the series will be available via the website as well.


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