There's life beyond the Oliviers

It's time theatre awards recognised the provinces.

On Sunday, the winners of the Oliviers, "British theatre's most sought after awards" were announced. In an effort to Oscar-cise and Tony-vate the event, organisers even brought on the big show-guns like Angela Lansbury and, er, Barry Manilow. But if the desired glitz was a little undermined by the line-up, it was sunk entirely by the clownish BBC coverage. An over-heated Jodie Prenger ran divertingly amok on the red carpet, but far worse was inflicted on us by the editing: we were denied Nancy Carroll's acceptance speech (for best actress in After the Dance) in favour of an interview with Gok Wan, who hadn't seen any of the shows, but who knows a thing or two about man-scarves.

Responsible for the Larrys and their US-style showbiz revamp is The Society of London Theatre (Solt). Despite the rhetoric, and public perception, "Britain's" most prestigious awards are nothing of the kind: they are London's awards. And covering less than half of London venues at that: Solt members and affiliates only. The small-scale and non-building based - everything outside "Theatreland" - is all but ignored.

The judges are "industry professionals" appointed by Solt, and members of the public, who are vetted by Solt. It puts me in mind of Jean Luc Godard's rebuke to Truffaut: "You say films are trains that pass in the night, but who takes the train, in which class, and who is driving it with a management snitch at his side?" In this case, it is broadly clear who is driving the train, and pouring themselves a big congratulatory glass of Bolly at the same time - though specifics of the professional judges' interest and connection with the shows, if any, are far from transparent.

As far as the Oliviers are concerned, the provinces don't exist. Which is ironic, considering the cogent plea for spending cuts clemency in the regions made by luminaries like Helen Mirren, Mike Leigh and Kenneth Brannagh in the Observer this weekend (part of actors' union Equity's wider campaign). The RSC's smash-hit musical Matilda will only be eligible for nomination if and when it transfers to the West End.

London is pretty well loved-up between the Oliviers and the Off-West End awards (or "Offies"), though there is a confusing intersection: Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith won both an Olivier and an Offie. There are a further three lots of capital-centric accolades I can think of. But apart from the odd bone, in the regions it's still a case of here be dragons.

But the West End is neither synonymous with, nor the "best of," British theatre. Lee Ross was nominated for best supporting actor in Birdsong, and whilst he deserved gongs aplenty, as far as I'm concerned, for supporting the entire rickety play, I infinitely preferred his performance in Marine Parade at the Brighton Festival. It's as if a theatrical experience here is somehow lesser than one on Shaftesbury Avenue; the desired trajectory for an actor or a play is a Dick Whittington one: to move from "the provinces" to the capital. Even the rallying call for funding in the regions cites their role as a training ground for greater, metropolitan things, rather than a legitimate end in itself.

Solt, and its awards to itself, do at least straddle the subsidised and commercial sectors: the Royal Court and the National were big winners on Sunday. Without subsidy Theatreland would be even more risk averse (there'd be no Clybourne Park), and we'd end up with the merry-go-round of musicals that is Broadway. And thankfully there is still room for the odd David to rise through the ranks and slap the Goliaths: Best New Opera went to OperaUpClose's production of La Bohème, which started life at the 35-seat Cock Tavern before transferring to the Soho Theatre. Personally gratifying, also, to see the fragrant Sheridan Smith and Legally Blonde snatch trophies from the Phantom sequel "The Franchise Never Dies".

But, based on an eclectic consumption of theatre around the country this year, I'm not sure I could decide on the relative value of a performance given in a shed in Bath, say, over the rococo excesses of Drury Lane. Some of the most startling shows I have seen have been many, many miles from London. Perhaps we should inaugurate a truly national award, equal to the Oliviers in prestige, that celebrates our regional centres and our caravanserais of nomadic performers: the Noliviers? And the nominations are...?

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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