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Jonathan Kent on directing Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins in a slippery new drama about memory
Jonathan Kent started out as a painter and actor, but everything clicked into place for him once he took up directing in his forties. Now, after nearly 30 years in this vocation, the Tony-nominated Brit is back in New York helming The Height of the Storm on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Kent has his outspoken nature to thank for his change in trajectory. In 1990 when he was still acting, he and fellow thespian Ian McDiarmid took over as the artistic directors of London's Almeida Theatre. They ran it for 12 years, transforming the small fringe venue into an internationally renowned institution.
It was there that, after meddling so much in one production, Kent recalls McDiarmid saying, "'Oh for God's sake, why don't you just [direct] it?' And actually, that's all I needed. I needed somebody to say that."
With that push, he has gone on to stage dozens of shows and operas on both sides of the pond, earning a 2013 Olivier Award for Sweeney Todd in London, and a 2016 Tony nomination for his last Broadway outing, Long Day's Journey Into Night with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne and Michael Shannon.
Kent originally directed The Height of the Storm by Florian Zeller in London last year. The Broadway transfer retains that production's central stars, stage legends Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce as a married couple struggling in the later years of their life. Kent describes it as "a play of dream and of memory." Like many of Zeller's other works -- notably The Father, which ran on Broadway with Frank Langella in 2016, and The Mother, seen at Atlantic Theater Company with Isabelle Huppert earlier this year -- The Height of the Storm blurs time and events, characters and reality.
According to Kent, the inspiration for the 90-minute drama struck on the day of Zeller's nuptials. "He was in his hotel room in Paris and he was getting dressed for his wedding," Kent explains. "He looked out of the window and he saw an old couple crossing the road. And, I suppose, thinking about what his life would be like if he [stayed] married for a lifetime made him think of it."
Pryce plays a famed writer whose memory seems to be deteriorating. Atkins is the wife whose unyielding support made his life and career possible. With his illness, his family struggles to adapt and make sense of this new dynamic. A feeling of tragic loss hangs over the proceedings, but it's balanced against the strength of the couple's long union.
Kent thinks this "profound" play "calls on the audience's imagination as much as it calls on the performers'." As its director, he says the trick is "encouraging the audience to let go of their linear perception of what life is like" as characters "sometimes emerge from the past or imagination."
Kent, who is 70, wanted to work on the play because "it deals with all the best elements of our existence. It deals in love, death and the loss of loved ones. But above all, it deals in the various qualities of love. Although it's centered on two older people, it's something we all understand."
He also couldn't pass up the chance to collaborate with Pryce and Atkins. Even though Kent has seen The Height of the Storm at least 50 times, he says watching them never fails to move him. "These are great stage actors," he says. "It's a privilege to work with them and persuade them to take the risk of appearing on stage, which is a frightening thing, at any age. Blimey, I wouldn't do it anymore!"
Nicole Serratore is a freelance theatre journalist and critic. She is the Broadway editor of Exeunt magazine's ExeuntNYC.com, and has also written for The New York Times, Variety, The Stage and American Theatre magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @mildlybitter. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm. Photo by Joan Marcus.