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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 14:38 GMT
Mendes' Midas touch
Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes: His career struck gold from day one
Sam Mendes has been dubbed the golden boy of British theatre with the ability to attract Hollywood A-list actors to cross the pond to appear in his plays.

After building a reputation as one the country's hottest directors he is now as likely to be seen in tabloid newspapers, thanks to his relationship with Kate Winslet, as he is in the culture or reviews sections of the broadsheets.

Mendes has won a number of prestigious theatre awards as well as the respect of his peers.

But success in the theatre world was not enough for him and he turned his hand to film - striking Oscar gold at his first attempt.

Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes
Winslet and Mendes got together in 2001

Sam Mendes' quest for glamour and success started early.

When he was cricket captain at Magdalen College School, Oxford, during a tour of Barbados, he wrote in the tour programme his interests included "fishnet tights" and that his ambition was to be "remembered by many".

He achieved both schoolboy musings in one go several years later.

'Theatrical viagra'

Actress Nicole Kidman appeared - scantily clad - in The Blue Room, when the star made her stage debut.

The production made national headlines, with one newspaper describing the performance as "theatrical Viagra".

Now it seems Sam Mendes is in no danger of being forgotten.

His dedication to drama took root at Cambridge University. Schoolfriend Tom Piper, involved in set design at the same time, recalls Mendes was "seduced by the fun and excitement" of theatre.

"Despite the absence of any drama course, there were 130 student productions in a year run by people studying English and History or whatever. So everyone was an expert," he says.

Nicole Kidman and Iain Glenn in The Blue Room
The Blue Room, described as "theatrical viagra"
Mendes achieved a first in English, but also managed to develop the entrepreneurial skills needed to make it as a director.

He took on several projects, including forming new theatre companies, one of which went to the Edinburgh Festival and included comedian and scriptwriter David Baddiel.

'Brilliant boy'

But the big break came in 1987, when he stepped in to replace an absent director at a play in Chichester.

He forged success with it in the West End, which then led to work with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company.

Highly acclaimed productions followed, including Troilus and Cressida with Ralph Fiennes, and Richard III with Simon Russell Beale.

Russell Beale puts a large element of Mendes' success down to man-management.

"He understands the needs of the people he works with," he says.

Donmar Warehouse exterior
Mendes transformed the Donmar Warehouse
"A good director needs to instil in his actors that they're good actors. Sam makes me feel he loves my work even if at times he can be quite savage".

His work in London continued with such successes as The Rise and Fall of Little Voice with Jane Horrocks, with whom he shared a long-term relationship. The play went on to be a film hit, with Horrocks taking the lead role.

Dame Judi Dench, who described Mendes as a "brilliant boy", worked with him in The Sea and The Cherry Orchard.

Audience empathy

By 1992, Mendes was well-established, and became artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, then a struggling West End fringe venue.

He revamped its reputation with productions of stage classics such as The Glass Menagerie, Company, Cabaret and Habeas Corpus.

"Sam has pitched his market perfectly at the Donmar," said Tom Piper. "He has managed to create an appetite for interesting plays but ones that people already know."

Simon Russell Beale agrees. "He has an eye for what an audience will accept," he said. "He pitches it right. American Beauty pitched right into the American psyche."

Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey as the increasingly fraught Lester Burnham in American Beauty
The Hollywood adventure came about after Steven Spielberg had seen Mendes' production of Oliver on the London stage while filming the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan.

"I banked his name in my mind," Spielberg said.

In the spring of 1998, Spielberg took in another of Mendes' musical hits, Cabaret, in New York and was impressed not least by his visual sense.

Within days, he had offered him the script of American Beauty, and, within a few more days, Mendes had agreed to direct it.

Another big Hollywood name, Kevin Spacey had been playing in the Ice Man Cometh at the similarly small Almeida Theatre. The timing was perfect and Spacey agreed to star in the bitter-sweet film as a man suffering a mid-life crisis.

The film went on to win critical acclaim and five Oscars, including best director.

See also:

23 Nov 01 | Arts
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