‘There’s just some lioness inside me that says: “We are going to find a way to do this and nobody is going to stop us,”’ says West End superproducer Sonia Friedman.
That, in a nutshell, is what makes her tick, and if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ll know the work. Over the last 20 years Friedman has steadily fought back against the jukebox musical mediocrity that once threatened to drown the West End. She produced the most acclaimed play of this century, ‘Jerusalem’, and the most popular one, ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’. She doesn’t do many musicals, but you’ll know ‘The Book of Mormon’. She produces a lot of stuff because she’s a fan who takes risks to stage the work she loves, and while some of it is intensely profitable, much of it absolutely isn’t. She just wants people to see it.
We meet to discuss the year ahead. Even by her standards it’s a heaving 2020: as well as a couple of acclaimed transfers – Laura Wade’s ‘The Watsons’ and Robert Icke’s
‘The Doctor’ – she’ll be staging four huge London premieres.
First up, it’s Chekhov’s classic ‘Uncle Vanya’. Adapted by Conor McPherson and starring Toby Jones, it marks her fourteenth collaboration with director Ian Rickson. When we speak in mid-December she hasn’t seen a rehearsal or a read-through. Some producers are famous meddlers: is she not at all worried it might fall apart in her absence? ‘I don’t need to be there every day,’ she shrugs. ‘If I wanted to do my version of “Uncle Vanya” then I’d be the director but, thankfully for British industry, I’m not very good.’
‘Vanya’ has come together quickly, unlike Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’, which has been gestating for four years. The 82-year-old theatre legend promised Friedman he’d write her his next play for her, but it was only in 2018 that he started sending her teaser messages: ‘I’ve written five pages’; ‘I’ve written ten pages.’ She still had no idea what it was about. Finally, a year ago, ‘he said it was about “being Jewish”. And the hairs on my arm literally stood on end.’ It’s an epic about the rise and fall of Vienna’s Jewish community, and has a cast of 41 – something Friedman notes would send other producers running, but she wryly points out she just has to roll with it.
After that it’s Aaron Sorkin’s hit Broadway adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. She’s cautious about whether it’ll be the blockbuster it’s been in New York – where it has the highest weekly gross for a play, ever – but there’s a lot of buzz, and Friedman is extremely enthusiastic about Rhys Ifans, the unconventional choice to play upstanding Deep South lawyer Atticus Finch.
Finally, Brit auteur Robert Icke will adapt his European hit ‘Oedipus’ for the West End, with Helen Mirren and Mark Strong. ‘Rarely do you go to a piece of theatre and know you are watching one of the great artists, not of the future, but now,’ she says of Icke, every inch the fan. ‘I would do anything with Rob and I would do anything for Rob’.
Also in 2020: the little matter of Brexit. Philosophically, she is opposed: ‘I think Brexit is a terrible thing – I don’t want our country to become insular.’ Pragmatically, she accepts it is happening and hopes we can make the best of it: ‘I know Boris attends a lot of theatre; our job now is to make sure the Conservative government supports the arts.’
One last thing: will ‘Jerusalem’ ever return? Both writer Jez Butterworth and star Mark Rylance have indicated they would be amenable to bringing Rickson’s 2009 production back. A revival is a prospect roughly akin to the idea of The Beatles getting together for a tour in the ’70s. When asked, Friedman answers with a delicacy that suggests there are ongoing conversations.
‘Erm. How do I answer this? I can’t tell you if it will happen. But I will do my best to get everybody back together, try to get the band back together. If it’s going to happen, I will be producing it.’
‘Uncle Vanya’ is at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Until May 2.
‘Leopoldstadt’ is at Wyndham’s Theatre. Jan 25-Jun 13.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is at the Gielgud Theatre. May 21-Sep 5.
‘Oedipus’ venue and dates TBA.