The prestigious celebration of West End theatre, the Olivier Awards, took place at London’s Palladium yesterday. Well, sort of. As with much of theatre this year, the Oliviers were an odd mix of the live and not-quite-live. Some awards had already been given out, with the winners sworn to secrecy, and the full ceremony streamed online, while an abridged version was broadcast on national UK television in the evening.
Unlike their American cousins, this year’s Olivers were at least able to consider a full season’s worth of shows, with the eligibility cut off being February 18th 2020. This did add a certain sense of normality to the proceedings, and a much-needed reminder of what British theatre is capable of creating. A theme that ran through the evening’s acceptance speeches.
The musical theatre categories were dominated by Broadway import Dear Evan Hansen and the new British work & Juliet, with the latter picking up awards in the supporting acting categories for David Badella and Cassidy Jansen, as well as for their lead Miriam-Teak Lee. One weird quirk of the cut-off date also meant Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson’s Waitress, which just missed the 2019 nominations date, was also nominated in several categories. Given that the production was forced to close early, with Bareilles in the lead role, it seemed fitting that it got some recognition. It was Benji Pasek and Justin Paul adding to their already substantial number of awards for Dear Evan Hansen who won for both score and best new musical, with newcomer Sam Tutty—picked fresh from drama school for the role—also winning for his performance as Evan (or ‘Dear’ as RuPaul would call him…). This celebration of new musicals, that will hopefully come back just as strong as before, felt like a much needed light in the dark.
The musical categories for the Oliviers contained no great controversy or upset, and the only down note was the lack of the usual showcasing of our musical theatre talent at the ceremony. Given the TV broadcast, this is usually a chance to highlight the brilliance of West End performances nationwide, and beyond. And of course help boost ticket sales. While there was thankfully a chance to see some solo performers—including Sam Tutty singing Waving Through a Window—it was the only element of the night that felt stilted by the 2020 constraints.
The nominated plays showed the true spectrum of what British theatre can do. From the international phenomenon Fleabag, back in its original stage version, to the Noël Coward comedy classic Present Laughter, to classic with a twist, Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Performance awards went to Andrew Scott and his co-star Indria Varma for Present Laughter, recognition of the skill required for a first rate comedy. Elsewhere in the acting awards, Sharon D. Clarke was rightly rewarded for her work in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the moment in which she thanked her wife in her speech was also a touching reminder of how the smallest seeming acts of visibility can still feel incredibly profound, particularly perhaps in these strange isolated times, when many LGBTQ+ people are feeling cut off from the refuge of the theatre community.
Death of a Salesman reimagined a classic in a way that was so fitting it seemed astounding nobody had thought of it before. Miranda Cromwell and Marianne Elliott’s staging of the Miller classic with a Black Loman family, shone new light on both the play, and the contemporary society in which it was written. In addition to Clarke, the production received awards for the directors. Wendell Pierce and Elliott & Harper Productions have already announced plans to bring this astounding production back once they are able to. It was a production that assembled the best of British and American acting talent to offer a fresh, vital take on Miller’s classic. Perhaps equally important is what Marianne Elliott, a leading figure in British theatre used her speech to say. Reflecting the mood her industry, she talked about the joy of theatre reminding everyone that, “What we did touched hearts minds and souls. All of us in the theatre family across the country, across the globe, touch millions of hearts, minds and souls every day. Who else can say that?”
Her words, along with the awards ceremony itself, served as a powerful and necessary reminder of what theatre does, what it can do, and what it will do again. What Elliott also reminded anyone who cared to listen, and hopefully those with the power to change things, was that theatre is an industry that is in a state of abandonment in the UK currently, yet still something we can all be proud of. Talking about the power of theatre, Elliot added: “This year we should all join together, stand tall, remember our worth and know that one day we’ll be seen as key workers because we’ll have exactly the medicine that is needed to bring people together again; sharing, communing, experiencing, purging, purifying, reflecting, understanding and feeling the electric joy that only the live arts can give you.”
She spoke to an industry not only feeling the loss of the artform they built their lives around, but also, to a nation missing what that artform gives them; shared experience. Right now, our government has entirely neglected our industry, destroying livelihoods along with it, and is threatening the future of theatre. But what Elliott captured so eloquently is the bigger picture, what we would truly lose without theatre. And that was a message that recurred in other acceptance speeches. Sir Ian McKellen for instance, who received a special Olivier Award, spoke of the power of his national tour in reaching theatres and raising money, and urged others to do the same when they are able. The Olivier Awards’ Royal patron, the Duchess of Cornwall, said that she believes theatre is “a cornerstone of a fertile cultural life, a forum for debate, a powerful means of building community,” urging theatre makers to remain resilient, “We need you, and we’ve missed you.”
It seems fitting then, despite the air of celebration, that there was also an atmosphere of resilience and defiance in the air at the Oliviers. As the ceremony went on Emilia became a big winner, a play that tells the story of Emilia Bassano Lainer, a contemporary and inspiration of Shakespeare’s, but more importantly in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s telling, a poet, and a woman of significance in her own right. Told through three incarnations of Emilia it is a rousing, fiercely feminist play that transferred from the Globe to the West End, and has now been recognised as the Best Entertainment or Comedy play by the Oliviers. And it’s important actually that it was in that category. In the best of times we tend to dismiss ‘entertainment’ and we have hopefully learned the value of it in our lives in these long months of isolation. But we also often dismiss the power of ‘comedy’. That Emilia is a profoundly funny play there is no doubt; it’s the kind of comedy that literally brought audiences to their feet. The kind of comedy that educated as it entertained, and had audiences shouting in rage and solidarity with the women on stage. Of all the nominated plays, it feels like it is the one we should turn to when reflecting on where theatre has been left in 2020.
Emilia ends with a call to action from the title character. It’s a call to arms for all women, but in this case we might borrow it for our theatre makers:
“Look how far we’ve come already. Don’t stop now…The stakes we have been tied to will not survive if our flames burn bright. And if they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down!”
The stage direction following it reads A song, a dance, a celebration.
Following the celebration, with little song or dance for our theatre community last night, hearing the words of our theatre makers, fighting so hard to keep going, may indeed our fire be stronger than those who try to stop us. Don’t stop now, theatre needs to live and dance, and celebrate again.
Emilia is streaming online worldwide for two weeks from November 10th, in a pay-what-you-can format, with money raised supporting the freelancers who made it. Book via EmiliaLive.com.
A full list of this year’s Olivier Award winners can be found here
By Dr. Emily Garside