Stars of stage and screen including Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, David Suchet, Dame Penelope Keith, Timothy West, Jamael Westman, Tobias Menzies, Aimee Lou Wood, Grace Saif, Dame Penelope Wilton, and Julie Hesmondhalgh have joined forces to perform Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets for Jermyn Street Theatre, a 70-seat studio in London’s West End.
The Sonnet Project launched on the theatre’s social media channels on 21 March, when Hannah Morrish performed Sonnet 1. One sonnet has appeared every day since then, with the cycle due to complete with Sonnet 154 in late August. David Suchet, star of Agatha Christie’s Poirot but also a veteran of numerous Royal Shakespeare Company productions, performed Sonnet 34 on Shakespeare’s birthday.
Alongside a host of famous faces performing from their bathrooms, gardens, bedrooms, and daily walks, 55 sonnets will be performed by this year’s graduating drama students, denied their normal showcases. Besides Shakespeare’s original texts, there are also performances in fifteen languages including Russian, Urdu, Greek and British Sign Language.
The tiny Jermyn Street Theatre has been facing financial ruin since coronavirus closed its production of The Tempest, starring veteran Shakespearean Michael Pennington. The Telegraph’s Claire Allfree called its sixth and final performance on 16 March ‘an unforgettable evening of Blitz spirit as theatreland closed around us’, and Quentin Letts of the Sunday Times described ‘tears at the curtain call, onstage and off. Theatre, with its own rough magic, had seldom felt so vulnerable or so necessary.’ The theatre’s Artistic Director, Tom Littler, wrote in industry newspaper The Stage of huge financial losses.
Worse followed on 8 April, when the theatre, situated in a basement just off Piccadilly Circus, was badly flooded. After a pipe burst in an empty neighbouring building, the theatre’s workshop, technical stores, office and dressing rooms were destroyed by five feet of water. The Guardian’s former critic, Michael Billington, wrote ‘London needs Jermyn Street Theatre as much as any of the larger playhouses.’
Although the flood damage is insured, many losses are irreplaceable. Meanwhile, the theatre’s income during the theatre shutdown is slashed by 95%. Like many small venues, Jermyn Street Theatre is a charity and does not receive any regular funding. Trustees began to fear permanent closure.
But then the tide began to turn. A crowdfunding campaign has raised almost £50,000 so far. Members of the ‘Miranda Club’ – the first 70 donors to donate over £500 each – are promised seats to the reopening gala performance. Since then, a tide of actors have offered to contribute to the theatre’s digital Brave New World Season, which also includes play readings, cabaret performances, podcasts, and a project linking its most isolated audience members with its out-of-work actors.
Jermyn Street Theatre Artistic Director, Tom Littler says –
“When you sit down with a group of strangers in a theatre – especially a tiny theatre like ours – you share something important. Laughing together, crying together, holding your breath together. It’s that shared community that’s helping Jermyn Street Theatre now. We always try to be the smallest theatre with the biggest heart. We’ve been so moved by the generosity of our audience – their financial support but also all the encouragement they’ve sent by email, letter and on social media. The actors involved in Brave New World and the Sonnet Project are just amazing – giving their time and talent freely. The doors are closed, but the theatre is open.“