Eleven people are looking on as a couple argue in bed on the 39th floor of the Shard tower in London. They are not shooting a porn film but indulging in the latest must-have for the wealthy: a private West End theatre production.
This week the £10,000-a-night Shangri-La suite of the Shard was transformed into a 1930s apartment for the setting of Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30, a cycle of one-act comic plays. Next week it could be Pinter in your living room, Shakespeare at your Hamptons summer house or even Wilde on the deck of your superyacht. If you have the money, production crews promise to transform any space into a theatre set and actors will create “the most intimate play you’ve ever seen”.
The producer Lucy Eaton, 30, said she hit upon the idea of offering the wealthy private performances after putting on a play in a super-rich patron’s house after a theatre pulled out at the last minute. “It was an incredible experience and the guest said they were so sold on the intimacy of it,” she said. “We thought: ‘This could be an absolutely wonderful idea, bringing theatre to you.’”
Eaton and her partners formed the production company Revels in Hand and have put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a walled garden in Chelsea, west London, transformed a private polo field into a living room for Coward’s Ways and Means and flown actors out to New York to put on plays at a wealthy backer’s property in the Hamptons.
“This is theatre in its purest form. Inviting actors to one’s home or to a private gathering was the thing to do in Shakespearean times and it’s our ambition to revive this definitive form of entertainment, so loved by the aristocracy and royalty,” Eaton said. “You and your guests are so up close and personal with the actors you can see the laughter lines.”
The intimate experience does not come cheap. The average price of production is £5,000 and longer or more complex plays can cost a lot more. “It is expensive,” Eaton said. “But it really is an elite luxury experience for lords, sheikhs and CEOs.” She said her company had created productions for all three categories but she was prevented from sharing the details because of non-disclosure agreements.
The weirdest location so far, she said, was a polo field at a country estate near London. “The funniest thing was we were offering two plays at the time – one was set in a living room and the other was A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” she said. “They asked for the living room one, despite the polo field kind of being perfect for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They got their staff to move a vast amount of furniture on to the polo field to make it a living room.”
Other bookings have included weddings, where Revels in Hand performed extracts from As You Like It in the aisle just the after the “I dos”). The production company has also been booked to perform on a yacht in the Mediterranean.
“It should be like a much more culturally sound version of watching a chick flick,” Eaton said. “We’ve joked that we’re competing with Netflix but without a TV screen – it is your living room or garden that the characters are inhabiting.”
Olivia, a 42-year-old executive in the City who did not want to give her surname, said she had twice booked Revels in Hand to perform at her house in Chelsea. For a John Van Druten play arranged for her children, guests were welcomed with canapés and drinks before one of the characters burst into the room with his first line. “There was a palpable sense of excitement and ‘what’s going on here?’,” Olivia said. “In the front or second row you feel so exposed; they are just lying on the bed right there. You could reach out and touch them.”
She said the experience was a lot more exciting and funnier than going to a theatre “and you have champagne and canapés circling throughout the performance”.
The executive also booked the company for her 40th birthday party. “I have seen well over a 100 productions over the last few years in London and New York, and this was the only time I felt part of the play,” she said. “They really draw you in and they make it personal. At the end all of our friends were on their feet.
“And, afterwards they [the actors] stayed for a glass of wine before dinner. How many times have you gone to the theatre and wanted to tell the actors to their faces how great they were. With this you really can.”
She declined to state how much the productions cost, saying only that it was “a lot of money”. She added: “But it is really special. People do all sorts of lavish things with their money but with this what you get really is incredible. It truly is like having the West End in your sitting room.”
Eaton, who studied at the University of Cambridge and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, conceded that the cost was out of reach of the vast majority of people. However, the public can book tickets to see the Coward plays at the Shard for £85, or for £685 (including a one-night stay in the hotel).
She said actors were keen to perform at Revels in Hand productions because it gave them a fresh challenge and a glimpse inside the world of the super-rich. “The joy is we ring established actors having wonderful careers and they’re excited,” she said. “They enjoy performing in stunning homes and gardens with a glass of champagne afterwards.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010