Stage struck: Tom Stoppard, Cush Jumbo, Brian Cox and more on the magic of theatre

Chris Wiegand
·13 min read

Nicholas Hytner
‘We were in a state of panting ecstasy!’

Palace theatre, Manchester. Some time in the mid-60s. A variety bill (or it may have been a panto) headed by Morecambe and Wise. Towards the end, they divided the audience into three and taught us to sing Boom Oo Yata-Ta-Ta, group by group. We were already in a state of panting ecstasy just because they were Eric and Ernie. Once we were good enough, they sang Are You Lonesome Tonight on top of us. I remember almost physically levitating. I couldn’t believe how brilliantly it all fitted together. It was the best thing ever. My only regret, and I feel it to this day, is that I was cast in the Boom group, and Yata-Ta-Ta was definitely the better part.

  • Nicholas Hytner is co-director of London Theatre Company, based at London’s Bridge theatre

Cush Jumbo
‘My first standing ovation – I was 17’

I was 17 and, as part of our final exams at the Brit School in London, we’d been asked to form a theatre company and produce a new play. I got together with three of my best friends (Vivienne Acheampong, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Martin Blakelock) and formed a company called Marmod because we thought we were super cool. It was a multi-monologue piece about the killing of a child due to the mental health of one of the characters. It sounds depressing but it was also very funny. The night we shared it with our teachers and families, they gave us a standing ovation – my first. That was 20 years ago but the memory is still one of my happiest.

Tom Stoppard
‘A season of O’Toole’

The way I like to tell it, at the Bristol Old Vic I saw Peter O’Toole play Hamlet, Jimmy Porter, Vladimir and the dame in panto, all in one season. Telling it now in print, I couldn’t swear to “all in one season” but, true or nearly so, it’s a genuine memory from happy days in 1958 or 59. I thought all theatre was like that.

Jasmine Lee-Jones
‘A moment of spontaneous solidarity’

It was during the run of my play seven methods of killing kylie jenner and halfway through a show. Cleo had just bemoaned both her rage at her ex-boyfriend’s infidelity and her sadness at missing his physical presence in her life. Kara – her best friend – was struggling to understand the hold that he still had over her until in a moment of discovery she declared the source of his magical draw: “He’s Nigerian innit.” Instantaneously, a woman – presumably black – from the audience exclaimed in response and recognition: “Oh my God!” Twice as much laughter immediately rattled through the audience. My heart raced and a smile beamed across my face. It felt like a moment of spontaneous solidarity. Suddenly the space seemed completely for black womxn.

Brian Cox
‘Getting permission to be truly free’

In 1981 I was on tour in India with the Scottish play [Macbeth]. We were playing in Bombay, now Mumbai. I had been assigned a 16-year-old kathak dancer as my dresser. The production was pretty conventional apart from the use of magic tricks which were pretty clumsy and unwieldy. This young dancer would come into the wings and observe my movement on the stage. She could detect an inner frustration I was having in playing the great role. Finally one day she ventured an opinion, focusing on both the soliloquies before and after the death of Duncan.

“Mr Cox, may I say something?” “By all means,” I replied. “I feel your movements, to be very inhibited. And that you want to break free physically in your role. You have to give yourself permission. But something stops you.”

I was shocked at how painfully accurate this young girl’s assessment of my situation was. I had indeed found myself bound in my playing. Bound by the boundaries of “good taste” which completely limited my physical choices. I decided to put myself totally in this young lass’s hands. At every performance she would stand in the wings, encouraging me to go further, until I found myself at one point virtually crawling over the stage mimicking Tarquin’s “ravishing strides”. I can never be grateful enough to that 16-year-old dancer for giving me the permission to be truly free as an actor.

Lulu Raczka
‘It wasn’t terrible at all!’

As a writer, I’m usually working alone, and I feel the pressure of that. With my recent show Antigone, halfway through writing I just thought: this is terrible. I wrote and rewrote, but I couldn’t make it work. Then rehearsals came, and I had to hand it over, terrible or not. But luckily in theatre, it’s never just me. There were the actors, the costumes, the set, the lights, the sound … Somehow, with everything together, it wasn’t terrible at all. That’s always my happiest moment, when it all comes together, and you think, wow – this might actually work!

  • Lulu Raczka’s new version of Gulliver’s Travels will be staged at the Unicorn theatre, London

Tracy-Ann Oberman
‘I was about to walk on with Branagh’

I spent my childhood being taken to the theatre. The productions that stood out most were at the National. When I was a student in the mid-80s I would save up my grant and go to see everything. Some of my most seminal theatrical memories were there: Ghetto, Antigone, Carousel. As an actor, it’s very hard to get into the National Theatre – it sometimes seems like a closed shop. I spent my career nagging my agent along with the rest of my profession to ask them to consider me. I finally managed it – Nick Hytner’s first glorious season back in 2003, and I met Ed Hall and Kenneth Branagh in a rehearsal room in the bowels of the building to talk about their forthcoming production of David Mamet’s Edmond. Ed was staging it in the Olivier with Ken back on stage as an actor for the first time in years. I met to talk about playing Prostitute and they said while I was there, would I read for Wife opposite Ken. Five minutes after I left the room my agent called to say it was an offer for the Wife – a part I found infinitely more interesting. I was so happy I cried.

Standing backstage on my own in the Olivier to go on for that first scene will always stay with me. Packed house. Young buzzing audience. A play and production that was innovative and groundbreaking. A director I admired. A cast I adored (many still close friends) with a leading man who was exceptional. The National Theatre meant everything to me and now I was about to walk on to it with Kenneth Branagh to tell a rollercoaster of a story. I felt the theatrical gods had given me a personal blessing.

Nikki Amuka-Bird
‘We put shades on … the lights came up’

One of my happiest moments? Performing Simon Stephens’s Birdland at the Royal Court starring the brilliant Andrew Scott as a rock star in decline. The whole cast was on stage pretty much beginning to end, styled in bright popping colours, with a retro nod to the days of Andy Warhol and those precarious 15 minutes of fame. We started the show every night, pumped up, clambering backstage in the dark to find our starting positions. Then we each put on a pair of sunglasses, the lights came up, accompanied by the sound of a roaring crowd, and for a moment we were all rock stars, striking poses in the flashing lights before the real drama began. Andrew’s chemistry with the audience was electric – I’d never seen anything like it. The playfulness and camaraderie of that experience has always stayed with me, reminding me that beyond the nerves and fear of live performance is the pure joy of getting to do what you love.

Cora Bissett.
Cora Bissett. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Cora Bissett
‘Sodden but joyous faces’

It was when we launched the National Theatre of Scotland’s production Adam, one painfully early morning press performance at the Traverse theatre in 2017. Adam was the real-life story of a young transgender man who had fled his home country of Egypt under persecution and found himself in a tiny flat in Glasgow of all places, searching for a way to live, to transform and ultimately survive. The title role was played by the real Adam himself, who had never acted professionally. We had spent a year connecting with 150 other trans people across the planet who had formed a virtual choir which sang back to Adam as the internet embodied, his online community, the only place he found others like himself. At the end of the show, the choir swelled, projected massive on the screen, all these little human faces with headphones on, singing from their bedrooms, in one great act of solidarity. The entire audience stood like a wave – you could feel the surge of emotion, of empathy, of relief for him. Everywhere I looked were sodden but joyous faces. I felt deeply happy that a show I’d helped shape was having that visceral effect on so many people.

  • Cora Bissett is contributing to the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival programme online

Jude Christian
‘The audience were dynamite’

De-rigging lights in a mobile theatre built by the National Youth Theatre of Wales, after a play we devised in 10 days and toured around the country with a brilliantly talented group of young stage managers, technicians, designers, theatremakers and performers. All the power blew halfway through our show in the beautiful Dowlais Engine House youth centre in Merthyr Tydfil, but our genius lighting designer did a quick fix, the company nailed it and the audience were dynamite. Packing the show away together at the end, it felt properly all of ours, and pure joy.

  • Jude Christian is the associate director of Home in Manchester whose programme of new work, Homemakers, will be available online in April

Brad Birch
‘A seismic Wild Duck’

The making of a show is littered with moments of happiness. But as these can often come rapidly between bouts of dread and wonder they can get washed together, so afterwards you mightn’t remember the specific colours of the feelings themselves but the sense of having felt bloody loads at once. One moment I distinctly remember as being concentrated happiness was in the audience, seeing The Wild Duck at the Barbican in 2014. Its effect on me was seismic: everything clicked about what theatre could be, and it made me reassess everything I was writing. It cosmically pulled my socks up.

  • Brad Birch’s plays include The Brink, Black Mountain and An Enemy of the People. In 2016, he was the recipient of the Harold Pinter Commission at the Royal Court

Jackie Wylie
‘Everyone got to their feet!’

In 2018 the National Theatre of Scotland, in co-production with Birds of Paradise theatre company, premiered My Left/Right Foot – The Musical at the Edinburgh fringe. It’s a comedy production that explores a Scottish amateur dramatics club getting to grips with the equalities agenda through a new staging of the classic Daniel Day-Lewis film. Before opening night I knew we had created something hilarious. What I didn’t know was whether we had got it right in our desire to push to the edges of what could be said: it was show that ridiculed almost every section of society with jokes about the disabled body and sex, the act of “cripping up”, Irish poverty, Scottish class politics. There were lyrics like: “my inner spaz’ll dazzle you”.

I’ll never forget the final moments of the opening performance, sitting in the dark, holding tight to the writer-director Robert Softley Gale’s hand, both of us thinking: ”What have we done!?” The closing musical number ended. The lights came up. There was a pause. Every single audience member got to their feet, in appreciation of Robert’s particular ability to teach humanity through artistic transgression.

  • Jackie Wylie is the artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland

Carrie Cracknell
‘An almost spiritual experience’

I am sitting in the vast rehearsal room at the National Theatre on a Thursday afternoon. Sun is streaming through large overhead windows, making the dust swirl. The company are rehearsing a scene from The Deep Blue Sea really sensitively. My pen rests on my notebook. The room is peaceful. And in the midst of it, it seems to me, Helen McCrory is doing her best work. She plays the scene. Every thought felt. Every line as though for the first time. We pause. We talk. They play again; this time she makes at least 30 different choices, but all as truthful and complex and potential as the last. There is a virtuosic level of deftness and creativity. I remember that day as an almost spiritual experience.

  • Carrie Cracknell’s recent credits include Sea Wall/A Life on Broadway and Julie, The Deep Blue Sea and Medea at the National Theatre. She is developing two feature films with Working Title and Film Four/The Bureau

Rupert Goold
‘Yorick’s skull was a Nescafé mug’

I did a production of Hamlet with my friend Tobias Menzies as my final show at the Royal theatre in Northampton. I knew I’d never see that tiny rehearsal room again as the whole building was being redeveloped. In my heart I probably knew I wouldn’t be back at this theatre either. A beautiful theatre. A theatre I owed everything to. The play was ready and an amazing cast (that improbably included Jane Birkin as Gertrude) didn’t have much need to rehearse on that final Saturday, cold but with watery spring sunshine bleaching the mould and memories. We read the play anyway. The room was bare for demolition, the props had gone, the actors drifted in and out, some read a paper together, others watched smiling. I remember Tobias holding an old Nescafé mug he’d found as Yorick’s skull. It was the simplest thing in the world but when it came to an end I was so emotional I couldn’t speak at all. So I just said thank you. And we closed the door.