If all the world’s a stage, does the reverse apply? In the traditionally exclusive milieu of London theater—for decades overwhelmingly privileged and white—what audiences see on the stage has not always fully reflected the world beyond it. At last night’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards, however, an eclectic and diverse audience saw a cast of presenters, nominees, and winners who together comprised an ensemble emblematic of progress, positivity, and pluralism.
London is (arguably) the greatest theater capital of all, in terms of both depth of history and consistency in innovation. Yet at last night’s awards, cohosted by E.S. proprietor Evgeny Lebedev and Anna Wintour, one of the most rapturously applauded winners was a Brooklyn import. Double Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage added the Chanel-sponsored Evening Standard best-play award to her roster of accolades thanks to the Lynette Linton–directed Donmar Warehouse production of Sweat. Accepting her award from Olivia Colman, Nottage said, “This is such a glorious moment for me. Because I remember coming to London when I was 20 years old because I wanted to be a theater artist, and I survived on ramen bowls and porridge and I didn’t starve to death. So to all of you up there…” At this point, wild cheering washed over Nottage’s salute. Its source was the hundreds of drama students who filled the dress circle, upper circle, and balcony of the Coliseum, and who injected wave after wave of raw enthusiasm into the evening.
From the start, master of ceremonies Cush Jumbo had us laughing, but also made a serious point when she observed that last night she became the first person of color to host these awards in its 64-year history. More positively, presenting the Charles Wintour Award for most-promising playwright, the super-producer Sonia Friedman noted, “In [the last] 10 years, nine women have won this award.” The run continued when Friedman announced Jasmine Lee-Jones as this year’s winner for her produced play Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. Accepting her award, Lee-Jones paid tribute to Lorraine Hansberry and added, “I think plays should be dangerous…I want to urge the audience…to allow artists to be dangerous. Especially those who have existed, like myself, outside the definitions of normality…Seriously, I didn’t think [my play] was going to happen. If I’d walked into most theaters to say I wanted to write a play about two black women, half on the internet, half in real-life, with warring identities, speaking deep South London slang, most people would have laughed in my face.” Happily, she added, the Royal Court Theatre’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, embraced her pitch with gusto.
Lee-Jones’s award is named in honor of Charles Wintour, former editor of the Evening Standard. It’s fair to say that the part played by his daughter in cohosting these awards has encouraged her fellow fashion luminaries to embrace supporting roles too. As well as Chanel, last night’s sponsors included Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Christian Louboutin, and David Morris: In the audience were Daniel Lee (accompanied by the brilliant, Bottega-clad Little Simz), Sarah Burton, Erdem, and (a welcome blast from the recent past) Christopher Bailey, as well as British Vogue’s editor in chief Edward Enninful, Jourdan Dunn, and Poppy Delevingne. The main sponsor was Michael Kors, who alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw presented the best-design award to Bunny Christie for her A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Good design changes our view of the world,” said Kors: “It helps us to see things more clearly.”
Key moments of clarity that followed included the audience’s passionate applause for Sir Ian McKellen’s rousing and often microphone-free clarion call for the revival of touring theater as he accepted the editor’s award. Equally effusive approval marked the acceptance of the Lebedev award on behalf of Peter Brook by his daughter Irina, from Glenda Jackson. Then there were the room-filling whoops as Dame Maggie Smith, accepting her record fifth best-actress award for A German Life said, “I have to say the script was much easier to learn than Downton…umm…Abbey?”
The well-received—although variously reviewed—winner of this year’s Milton Shulman award for best director was Robert Icke for The Doctor and The Wild Duck. Andrew Scott did nothing to shake his Fleabag-earned “sexy priest” mystique as he accepted best actor for his role in Present Laughter with a hymn to the hotness of his fellow thespians. Laurie Kynaston won the emerging-talent award—a prize that has previously come at the beginning of the careers of Andrew Garfield, Eve Best, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tom Hardy.
As Anne Marie-Duff said of contemporary London theater while accepting her best musical performance for her part in Sweet Charity: “We talk about diversity and we talk about gender politics now, which is wonderful. Hopefully we will crack the world open.” Shortly before, Taron Egerton had presented the best-musical award to director Jamie Lloyd for his revival of Evita at the must-visit open-air theater in Regent’s Park. Lloyd said of his cast: “They were all different backgrounds, from all different walks of life and skill sets…Representation and diversity…is not a box-ticking exercise. Diversity and representation make productions more dynamic, more exciting, and more interesting.” For actors, directors, producers, and audiences alike, there can be no better incentive than this for presenting theater that is diverse and inclusive: Better representation makes theater better.