‘The mistake is to pretend you have all the answers’: Richard Eyre on what makes a good theatre director

What makes a good theatre director? How do you learn to be one? What do you do on the first day of rehearsals? Sir Richard Eyre reflects on the director’s elusive craft in his foreword to a new book, Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth…

Most of us have an indecent curiosity about what other people do in private. Sex and tax, for instance: ‘What do you do in bed?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ are the questions that underlie all profile journalism and most biography. My own particular corner of prurience concerns the working habits of directors: I’m inordinately fascinated by what they are. Directors are not very gregarious creatures, at least among their own kind, and if you were to search for a collective noun for them it would probably be a ‘solitude’. When we do gather together, we’re wary of discussing each other’s work, and warier still of asking how it was achieved. Rehearsals are a private province; no one likes to be observed, so it’s hard to see enough to imitate, even if you have a model to follow.

Directors are often self-effacing, often surprisingly lacking in the gift and appetite for self-promotion, and, in spite of a high estimation of their own importance, are often reluctant to capitalise on it by making public pronouncements on their craft. It’s all the odder therefore that directors occupy such an elevated status in contemporary mythology, often, like conductors, placed somewhere between the maestro and the magus, when in fact they’re more like teachers or doctors. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it’s better to be more like the pupil or the patient than the teacher or the doctor. The mistake is to pretend that you have all the answers.

Which is one of the reasons that I’m consistently reluctant to recommend my ‘process’ to any director, and suspicious of any young director who asks to be an assistant of mine in order to learn about it. If I chose to rationalise the way I work I suppose it would amount to a ‘process’, but it is so idiosyncratic and personal that I wouldn’t dignify it with that description.

A rehearsal has to be a time when actors can experiment, invent, explore, discuss, dispute, practise and play, and it is the job of a director to create a world – private and secure – where this activity can go on without fear of failure. There is no method that guarantees a good rehearsal. It’s as hard to know why some highly articulate, learned and intelligent directors seem unable to animate a cast of actors, as it is to understand how the same orchestra can be inspired by some conductors but seem commonplace in the hands of others.

Richard Eyre directing Liolà by Luigi Pirandello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

If you ask me, ‘What do you need to be a director?’ I’d have to say this: you need to be somehow assertive and yet self-effacing, to be dogged and yet pliable, to be demanding and yet supportive. And if this sounds like a prescription for a perfect marriage partner, it’s because directors are ever hopeful of making a successful marriage of actor and character, of text and design, of play and audience, so perhaps, if they look hesitant, doubtful, and diffident, it’s because they know just how difficult it is – as in real life – to make a marriage work.

And if you ask me, ‘How do you learn to be a director?’ I’d recommend a poem called ‘Garden Hints’ by Douglas Dunn, which begins with the line: ‘Only a garden can teach gardening.’ Directing is like that: only working with actors in a rehearsal room can offer a real insight into the craft.

The start of most rehearsals resembles others more than it differs from them. Rehearsals have to begin somewhere – usually it’s a meeting of the cast and a reading of the play. The director stands like a heron, rigid with anxiety, talks a little – or a lot, depending on temperament – and his or her words drift like incense over a group of actors who, regardless of their mutual familiarity, are united only in their nervous anticipation and social unease. It never works to give the actors – who are always numbed to deafness by nerves – a lengthy lecture about the background to the play and its meaning: it doesn’t encourage actors to be made to feel that the director holds all the cards and they hold none.

So how do you start rehearsals? It’s always a problem: how do you get a disparate set of individuals to work as an ensemble within a few days? British actors are good at this, but you still have to find means of mutual familiarisation, ways in which they can legitimately sniff each other out. I change my approach for each production. Sometimes we just sit around a table and I encourage everyone, regardless of experience and size of part, to talk about the play, about their parts, about themselves. Sometimes we do physical and vocal exercises. Sometimes we do improvisations connected with the play. And sometimes we even play games – and many of them are in Thomasina Unsworth’s new book, Drama Games for Actors. In it, Thomasina gives you a mass of invaluable ideas for drama exercises for all ages and all types of actors, amateur or professional. It’s hard to imagine anyone involved in theatre who wouldn’t find it useful.


The above extract is reproduced from Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth, out now from Nick Hern Books.

This dip-in, flick-through, quick-fire resource book offers dozens of games to serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration for all actors – and those teaching or directing them.

To buy your copy with a 20% discount (just £7.99), click here.

Alongside the bestselling Drama Games series, Nick Hern Books also publishes a wide range of titles for aspiring and emerging theatre directors, including So You Want To Be A Theatre Director? by Stephen Unwin, Getting Directions by Russ Hope and The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan. All available with a 20% discount from Nick Hern Books.

Sir Richard Eyre is a theatre, opera and film director, and was Artistic Director of the National Theatre from 1988 until 1997. He is the author of several books, including Talking Theatre and What Do I Know?, both published by Nick Hern Books.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by Andrew Hasson. Photograph of Richard Eyre directing Pirandello’s Liolà by Catherine Ashmore.

‘Leave me my name’: Richard Eyre on the importance of Arthur Miller

Richard Eyre directed the first Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. With several major productions of Miller’s work opening in this, his centenary year, it’s a time to reflect on why plays such as Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge and The Crucible speak so urgently to us today. Here, in an article written shortly after the playwright’s death in 2005 and reproduced in What Do I Know? People, Politics and the Arts, Eyre recalls Miller’s wit and humanity… and what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman.

A large part of my luck over the past twenty years was getting to know Arthur Miller, so when I heard in interviews—or was asked myself—the question ‘Will Arthur Miller be remembered as the man who married Marilyn Monroe?’ I felt a mixture of despair and indignation. The motives of the questioners—a mixture of prurience and envy—were, curiously enough, the same as the House Un-American Activities Committee when they summoned Arthur Miller to appear in front of their committee. I asked Arthur about it some years ago. ‘I knew perfectly well why they had subpoenaed me,’ he said, ‘it was because I was engaged to Marilyn Monroe. Had I not been, they’d never have thought of me. They’d been through the writers long before and they’d never touched me. Once I became famous as her possible husband, this was a great possibility for publicity. When I got to Washington, preparing to appear before that committee, my lawyer received a message from the chairman saying that if it could be arranged that he could have a picture, a photograph taken with Marilyn, he would cancel the whole hearing. I mean, the cynicism of this thing was so total, it was asphyxiating.’

The question that lurked then—and lurks now—is this: why would the world’s most attractive woman want to go out with a writer? There are at least four good reasons I can think of:

By 1956, when he married Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller had written four of the best plays in the English language, two of them indelible classics that will be performed in a hundred years’ time.

He was a figure of great moral and intellectual stature, who was unafraid of taking a stand on political issues and enduring obloquy for doing so.

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC's production opening this week. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC’s current production. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

He was wonderful company—a great, a glorious, raconteur. I asked him once what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman when it opened on the road in Philadelphia. He must have told the story a thousand times but he repeated it, pausing, seeming to search for half-buried details, as if it was the first time: ‘The play ended and there was a dead silence and I remember being in the back of the house with Kazan and nothing happened. The people didn’t get up either. Then one or two got up and picked up their coats. Some of them sat down again. It was chaos. Then somebody clapped and then the house fell apart and they kept applauding for God knows how long and… I remember an old man being helped up the aisle, who turned out to be Bernard Gimbel, who ran one of the biggest department-store chains in the United States who was literally unable really to navigate, they were helping him up the aisle. And it turned out that he had been swept away by the play and the next day he issued an order that no one in his stores—I don’t know, eight or ten stores all over the United States—was to be fired for being overage!’ And with this he laughed, a deep husky bass chortle, shaking his head as if the memory were as fresh as last week.

He was a deeply attractive man: tall, almost hulking, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with the most beautiful large, strong but tender hands. There was nothing evasive or small-minded about him.

As he aged he became both more monumental but more approachable, his great body not so much bent as folded over. And if you were lucky enough to spend time with him and Inge Morath (the Magnum photographer to whom he was married for forty years after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe), you would be capsized by the warmth, wit and humanity of the pair of them.

It’s been surprising for me—and sometimes shocking—to discover that my high opinion of Arthur Miller was often not held by those who consider themselves the curators of American theatre. I read a discussion in the New York Times a few years ago between three theatre critics about the differences between British and American theatre:

first critic. Arthur Miller is celebrated there.

second critic. It’s Death of a Salesman, for crying out loud. He’s so cynical about American culture and American politics. The English love that.

first critic. Though Death of a Salesman was not a smash when it first opened in London.

third critic. It’s also his earnestness.

If we continue to admire Arthur Miller, it’s because we have the virtuous habit of treating his plays as contemporaneous and find that they speak to us today not because of their ‘earnestness’ but because they are serious—that’s to say they’re about something. They have energy and poetry and wit and an ambition to make theatre matter. What’s more, they use sinewy and passionate language with unembarrassed enthusiasm, which is always attractive to British actors and audiences weaned on Shakespeare.

In 1950, at a time when British theatre was toying with a phoney poetic drama—the plays of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry—there was real poetry on the American stage in the plays of Arthur Miller (and Tennessee Williams), or, to be exact, the poetry of reality: plays about life lived on the streets of Brooklyn and New Orleans by working-class people foundering on the edges of gentility and resonating with metaphors of the American Dream and the American Nightmare.

The Depression of the late twenties provided Arthur’s sentimental education: the family business was destroyed, and the family was reduced to relative poverty. I talked to him once about it as we walked in the shadow of the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge looking out over the East River. ‘America,’ he said, ‘was promises, and the Crash was a broken promise in the deepest sense. I think the Americans in general live on the edge of a cliff, they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t care who they are. It’s part of the vitality of the country, maybe. That they’re always working against this disaster that’s about to happen.’

He wrote with heat and heart and his work was felt in Britain like a distant and disturbing forest fire—a fire that did much to ignite British writers who followed, like John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker; and later Edward Bond, David Storey and Trevor Griffiths; and later still David Edgar, Mike Leigh, David Hare. What they found in Miller was a visceral power, an appeal to the senses beyond and below rational thought and an ambition to deal with big subjects.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge, currently in the West End. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

His plays are about the difficulty and the possibility of people—usually men—taking control of their own lives, ‘that moment when, in my eyes, a man differentiates himself from every other man, that moment when out of a sky full of stars he fixes on one star.’ His heroes—salesmen, dockers, policemen, farmers—all seek a sort of salvation in asserting their singularity, their self, their ‘name’. They redeem their dignity, even if it’s by suicide. Willy Loman cries out ‘I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman…!’, Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge, broken and destroyed by sexual guilt and public shame, bellows: ‘I want my name’, and John Proctor in The Crucible, in refusing the calumny of condemning his fellow citizens, declaims ‘How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’ In nothing does Miller show his Americanism more than in the assertion of the right and necessity of the individual to own his own life—and, beyond that, how you reconcile the individual with society. In short, how you live your life.

If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society, and art ought to be used to change it. Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern. When I saw the New York revival five or six years ago [the 1999 Broadway revival starring Brian Dennehy], I came out of the theatre behind a young girl and her dad, and she said to him ‘It was like looking at the Grand Canyon.’

A few years ago I directed the first production of The Crucible on Broadway since its opening nearly fifty years previously [Eyre’s production opened at the Virginia Theatre on 7 March 2002]. He loved our production and was closely involved with rehearsals. I never got over the joy and pride of sitting beside Arthur as this great play unfolded in front of us while he beamed and muttered: ‘It’s damned good stuff, this.’ We performed it shortly after the Patriot Act had been introduced. Everyone who saw it said it was ‘timely’. What did they mean exactly? That it was timeless.

‘There are things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth,’ is what Huckleberry Finn said of the author of Tom Sawyer. And the same could be said of Arthur Miller, which is perhaps why it’s not a coincidence that my enthusiasm for his writing came at the same time as my discovery of the genius of Mark Twain. And it’s not a surprise that what Arthur Miller said of Mark Twain could just has well have been said about him:

‘He somehow managed—despite a steady underlying seriousness which few writers have matched—to step round the pit of self-importance and to keep his membership of the ordinary human race in the front of his mind and his writing.’


This article is published in What Do I Know? People Politics and the Arts by Richard Eyre, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by John Haynes.

Antony Sher appears as Willy Loman in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Death of a Salesman. His book, Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries, is published by Nick Hern Books on 30 April 2015 – to buy your copy at a 20% discount, click here.

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim , 1930–

In the fifth and final part of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim’s shows include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd,Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Assassins, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. I interviewed him in a hotel room in New York. He had a show in workshop—Wise Guys, later renamed Road Show [currently receiving its European premiere in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory]—so he was writing at night and rehearsing by day, but his energy seemed undimmed.

You met Oscar Hammerstein when you were around thirteen?
I was thirteen exactly. When I was fifteen he took me to the first night of Carousel in New Haven. He took me and his son Jimmy, who was a year younger than I, and it was during our spring vacation at school so we were able to do it. I don’t even remember when I saw Oklahoma!: it certainly wasn’t on the first night, and I’m not sure how close I was to the family by the time Oklahoma! opened. I was close but not as close as I was in Carousel, because I remember that one of the high points of my childhood was being asked for advice on Carousel, when he and Rodgers were writing it. They wanted the opening of the second act to be this treasure hunt on the island, and I was into treasure hunts, so I was the treasure hunt consultant.

He’d give you brilliant advice subsequently.
Yes, he—that dreadful word—he critiqued my work. I showed him everything I wrote from the age of fifteen on, and he treated it absolutely on a level with professional work. He never pretended for one second that I was a child: he just treated it seriously, and I learned a great deal very quickly. I’ve said before: as a result of Oscar I think I probably knew more about writing musicals at the age of nineteen than most people do at the age of ninety.

What was he like?
He was exactly the reverse of the image of his lyrics. He was a very sharp city boy, as opposed to somebody who sat on a porch with a stick of hay in his teeth and looked at the cattle. Which he also did. But he was a very good critic and very sharp-tongued. Not mean but sharp. He was in fact a sophisticated man. I once asked him why he didn’t write sophisticated musicals, and he said: you mean musicals that take place in penthouses with people smoking with cigarette holders? I said: well, yes, if you want to put it that way. He said: because it really doesn’t interest me. And in fact it didn’t: what interested him was quite the reverse of what his life was like. Not that he was a partygoer or anything like that, but he was a sophisticate. He was enormously kind and generous, and a true idealist and a true optimist. What he writes about often in his lyrics, that did fit him: he was an optimist. I won’t say he always looked on the lighter side, but he believed in the better part of mankind not in the worse. And he did not die a disillusioned man.

Did the book musical come into being as a result mostly of Oscar Hammerstein’s work?
Prior to Showboat, musicals were essentially collections of jokes and songs, and even after Showboat most of them were. Hammerstein virtually alone pioneered the idea of trying to tell a story through music, trying to meld the European operetta influence and the American freewheeling jazz musical-comedy influence—I shouldn’t say influence, but, he melded those two streams of presentation into one. Which resulted in a kind of American operetta. From Showboat to Music in the Air and through the 1930s, his star rose and fell, and he resuscitated it with Oklahoma! when he teamed up with Richard Rodgers, who brought a different kind of sensibility. Jerome Kern, with whom he did most of the shows, was very much a European composer. Rodgers was much more a kind of American vernacular composer. And the result of that was Oklahoma! And Oklahoma!, though today it seems very naive as a story and rather naive in terms of the depth of the characters, nevertheless, because of its enormous success, influenced musicals ever since. Innovative musicals mean nothing if they aren’t successful, because nobody pays attention to them. If, for example, Threepenny Opera had been a success in this country, musicals might have matured much more quickly. It was only when it was done off-Broadway in the early fifties that the Brechtian musical came into being. But the book musical really can almost solely be attributed to Hammerstein’s efforts.

Is it a question that can be answered with the book musical whether the music or the book comes first?
No, I think the book always comes first in this kind of musical. It has to be the story and the characters that propel both the song aspect and the need for song. Why should they sing? It has to be a group of characters and a story that you’re not just enhancing by adding songs but in which musical expression becomes intrinsic. I think any good musical starts with the book, the libretto, the idea, the story, the characters. I can’t work on anything until I’ve discussed for weeks and sometimes months with my collaborator what the story is, why is music needed, why is music intrinsic as opposed to decorative, and what will music do to the story. When I was writing Sunday in the Park with George, I was really frightened that the music would tear the delicate fabric of what James Lapine was trying to get at in terms of the creation of a painting. You must start with libretto, all the strong musicals have strong stories. One of the reasons that West Side Story attained its popularity—apart from the success of the movie, because it was not all that popular when it was done on the stage on Broadway—is that the story is such a good story. Something happens all the time.

With the exception of you taking the musical in a different direction, why did the book musical die?
Oh, it hasn’t died it’s merely gotten swollen. The so-called sung-through musicals… Les Mis is a book musical. If you’re talking about the musical in which there’s speech and song, speech and song, it didn’t die so much as become subsumed by the success of the sung-through musicals, mainly stemming from Britain. And audiences now are very used to the sung-through musical. But whatever you think of the book, the Disney musicals have books. And Ragtime is a book. It’s not dead: in fact, more likely, the sung-through musical is on the way to either being transformed or being dropped for a while.

It got disconnected from popular culture with the coming of rock ’n’ roll.
The effect of rock ’n’ roll on musicals is the equivalent of the effect of television on theatre or movies on theatre. It’s made both musicals and theatre in general—I don’t say a cottage industry, but you know, it’s no longer the only game in town, it’s not even the major game in town, theatre. It’s a—I want to avoid the word ‘elitist’—but it does appeal to and attract fewer people, at least in this country [USA] than it used to. I mean, what’s deplorable about the American theatre on Broadway is: you look at the list and it’s twenty-four musicals and two plays. And in London the last time I counted it was fourteen musicals and eight plays. That’s not good. Now the off-Broadway theatre and the fringe theatre is very much alive, and people are writing plays, but not an awful lot of people can fit into a two-hundred-and-fifty-seat house—two hundred and fifty people can fit in—for six weeks, which is what you have in London in the fringe theatres. So how many people are gonna get to see that play? Unless it transfers to the West End, which few of them do. And the same thing is true here. So I fear it’s not so much the death of the book musical as the gradual fade of theatre and musical theatre. I don’t think that we’ll ever fade entirely, because I think there’s always a hunger for live storytelling. But it’s never going to be kind of the central entertainment again, it just isn’t.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is the final instalment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre’ special, featuring edited extracts from Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People. The full interview with Stephen Sondheim is published in the new paperback edition of the book. To order your copy at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Alan Bennett

In Part Four of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews playwright and actor Alan Bennett. 

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett, 1934–

He has become part of the (quintessentially English) family, a familiar face, a national institution, adjectival: ‘Very Alan Bennett,’ people say. I interviewed him in the basement kitchen of my house. He wasn’t at his happiest when talking about his own work. He’s revealed a ‘self’ in his plays and his diaries, but when he was sitting in my kitchen uneasily facing the prospect of an interrogation, the ‘self’ couldn’t be disguised as a fictional persona. But he rallied generously and answered my questions with a practised ease.

What were your earliest experiences of theatre? When I was a boy in Leeds I used to go every Saturday matinée and see whatever it was that was on offer. Nowadays that would mean very little, because I think it’s mostly opera now and plays don’t tour in the way they did. But in those days you would get West End plays with their original cast coming round after their West End production. I saw a very peculiar collection of plays there. Of course, in my mind they weren’t distinguished one from the other; they were just things that turned up at the Grand every Saturday afternoon. They were all mixed together in my mind. I didn’t see them as school of this or school of that. They were just plays. I saw some Shakespeare, plays like Black Chiffon with Flora Robson, Daphne Laureola with Edith Evans, a play about a Labour colonial Governor with Eric Portman, His Excellency. And then I began to see plays like Waiting for Godot.

What impression did that make?
I didn’t find it at all mystifying, and I didn’t find it so plotless. I may have found it a bit dull, but then I often found plays dull. I found it quite funny as well.

But did you have any sense that it was a play about post-war Europe?
I was too young probably to think in those terms then. I just thought it was a play about very peculiar people, but then so was Black Chiffon in my view. They weren’t like people I knew.

In the fifties were you at all conscious of the Holocaust and the Bomb?
I remember in August 1945, when we were living in Guildford very briefly, coming back with the Evening News and reading about the first atomic bomb. And also in Guildford I saw the terrible newsreels not of Auschwitz, of Dachau, because I can remember it went up on the screen that children should be taken out of the cinema. And the trouble was in those days you had to queue for the cinema so long that nobody left—they didn’t want to lose their seats. So I saw that. But in a way the consciousness both of the Bomb and of the Holocaust occurred in a way ten, fifteen years after they happened. CND and so on. I once or twice went on CND marches.

When writing your plays, do you simply follow your nose with subject matter?
It seems to me what happens is that you’ve got something that niggles you, you’ve got something that you can’t resolve. In Forty Years On I think it was knowing that I was very conservative with a small ‘c’ and radical in other ways—knowing that these two feelings and concerns existed and not being able to reconcile them. And the play is an attempt to reconcile them. It’s also an attempt to write a funny play about a school. The plays about spies, I suppose, are an attempt to settle my ambiguous feelings about England. Of affection and identification, but at the same time feeling alienated from it. Every play I’ve written seems to me slightly to the side of the play I wanted to write. Maybe if you ever wrote a play that you actually intended to write then you won’t write any more plays. I always think that about The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s an absolutely perfect play, and I know it was Wilde’s last play because of the circumstances, but I think it probably would have been his last play anyway. Most plays are nearly completed circles and the production completes the circle, makes it a whole. The Importance of Being Earnest is completed there on the page; there’s nothing much you can do with it. It’s a wonderful play and absolutely perfect, but for that reason I think it marks the end of his artistic endeavour.

The thing that all your plays have in common is a view about class as the sort of engine of English society. Have you always felt that you’re imprisoned in it?
It’s never bothered me, I don’t long for a classless society. Since my strength is in dialogue, in the sense of hearing the cadences of people’s speech and so on, which is ineluctably bound up with class, you can’t separate the two. Of course, it would be disastrous if everything were flattened out. It used to bother me when I was younger; I’m still very awkward for some reason in the presence of the aristocracy—they reduce me to being seventeen again—but it’s not out of any undue respect for them. [laughs] I don’t know, but there’s something goes wrong there. But class doesn’t really bother me. I’m not a crusader anyway, but it’s not something that I’d want to see the end of. I can’t see how somebody of my generation writes as if one were outside it.

What did the 1945 election mean to you in the fifties? Did you have a sense that life was going to get better?
I was a terrible Tory when I was young. I was awful: conformist and censorious and full of religiosity. I was an awful youth, looking back. But I look back to the period 1945–51 as a kind of golden age. It’s absurd to say that, because it was the most drab and austere period. There was no colour in the world really, and there was no choice in the shops. Life seemed to be very simple then, and people very innocent. Again and again I find that period crops up. The pictures I like are often pictures from the late forties. And then, of course, at the end of the decade there’s this wonderful explosion of the Festival of Britain, when suddenly there was colour and design, and you thought that this was a vision of what the world was going to be like, when it wasn’t quite, of course. But it occurs in Getting On, my second play, where there’s a long speech about what life was like then and about the making of the Health Service. It’s deeply nostalgic, but it is something that I do feel strongly about.

What is it about theatre that attracts you?
I suppose I go to the theatre thinking anything may happen. I mean, quite apart from the play, somebody might collapse on the stage. I know that seems frivolous, but I think that’s an element in what an audience is there for—the possibility of disaster. And the possibility of triumph as well, but it’s the uncertainty. Having performed, I know the sheer terror of it: it is quite a perilous proceeding. If you’re in an audience and something goes wrong on the stage—you know, somebody dries, say, or whatever—the audience is like a cat suddenly seeing a bird: it’s on to it. There’s a huge tension in the auditorium. Quite frightening. I do think of an audience as slightly like a wild beast.

What is it that draws you to writing for the theatre?
I suppose it’s writing dialogue—I mean, plots are far harder to write for me than dialogue. And if you’re writing dialogue then obviously—unless you want to write like Henry Green, say, and write novels entirely in dialogue—you’re drawn to the theatre or to television. It’s as simple as that, really.

Is it also that whatever you do in the theatre it can’t be abstracted? There’s always going to be a human being.
There has to be a human being from my point of view, because they talk, and talk is what I’m interested in, and talk is what I deal in. It seems to me, when you talk about the future of the theatre and so on, it has a future so long as somebody’s going into a room and sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and trying to write lines that somebody else is going to say.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Alan Bennett. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW for the final installment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre special’. Tomorrow’s post will feature celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim pondering ‘the death of the book musical’…

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw, 1958–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews actor Fiona Shaw.

Born in Cork, Fiona Shaw is celebrated for playing many classical roles—Medea, Electra, Hedda Gabler, even Richard II. Most good actors are highly intelligent; few are highly articulate. Fiona Shaw’s fluency never leads her into waffle, but as an actor she has often struggled to conceal her intellectual brilliance, like a great beauty concealing her glamour. With a film crew squeezed round the sofa where I was used to sitting watching TV with my family, I felt as if we were playing an ambitious children’s game. Of the future of theatre she said: ‘The theatre is a fantastic whore and could be anything. If a thousand atom bombs drop, somebody will stand up in the ashes and tell a story.’

Why do all the great Irish writers emigrate?
I suppose until this very decade [the 1990s] the whole nation emigrated, I don’t think it’s just writers that emigrated. Engineers emigrated, doctors emigrated. It’s partially the tragedy of the famine that the country just bred its nation for export. But Joyce of course said that it is the sow that eats its own farrow.

Is all Irish culture underscored by British colonial rule?
I think that temperament is history, and so in that way the Irish temperament has been fundamentally affected by being the baby sister or brother to this big island. The effect of London on Dublin has been enormous. It’s the jumping-off ground, isn’t it? It’s the Ellis Island of Irish culture. Beyond Dublin what made Ireland separate from England is that the Irish had no bourgeoisie. You had an aristocracy and a remarkably kept-down peasantry—in that way, very like Russia: the parallels between Russia and Ireland are enormous. We didn’t produce a Chekhov, but we produced an O’Casey. The other big effect of England on Ireland were the penal laws which forbade Irish people to speak Irish and which caused a sort of surrealism in the country, where people couldn’t own a horse worth more than five pounds, couldn’t own land or hand land over. So the average age of marrying for men in Ireland was fifty. And people attended mass on rocks and in caves and were taught in hedge schools. So the fusion of landscape with the metaphysical, or the fusion of landscape with learning, was not like any other country in the world. Irish English is, on one level, a language forced onto a country that was trying not to speak it, and it then became a sort of tool of revenge: the Irish have attacked the English with their own language. And on the other side you had this rural lost language of people speaking a sort of archaic English forced on them by early settlers, and people struggling with translations from the Gaelic and of course being laughed at by the English for speaking a peculiar English. In Gaelic you say: ‘Toin traich megonair,’ which is ‘I am after my dinner.’ That’s still used as the construction for that kind of sentence.

With the exception of Joyce, Irish writers—Congreve, Farquhar, Wilde, Beckett and so on—choose to write for the theatre. Why?
The theatre is immediate: it needs people. It’s not like a French literary tradition, which would be about intellectual thought. England is a very odd hybrid because I’d say the centre of the English theatre since the seventeenth century, maybe from Shakespeare, is antithesis, isn’t it? The notion that you can declare an argument: ‘To be or not to be’, and at the end of that you could’ve concluded something about the world. The Irish theatre is based on hyperbole and contradiction.

If it’s possible to talk about any national character with Ireland without resorting to stereotype, is there something about the Irish—I mean the Irish-Irish—that is more given to storytelling and to wearing your heart on your sleeve than the English?
Caesar wrote about going to Hibernia, and he said that they just talked and drank all the time, so I suppose it isn’t connected to recent modern history. Perhaps the relationship to alcohol is connected to the climate. There’s also great desolation in Ireland, people who don’t speak from September to springtime because there’s nobody to talk to. Religion is another big part of it.

But is storytelling something to do with having a verbal culture not a written culture?
The culture in cottages that was finally caught by Synge is interesting. Yeats provoked Synge to go to the Aran Islands. Synge went and observed this strange translation of a Gaelic into English and made a sort of heightened self-conscious poetry out of it. But there was a sort of truth in it as well. People were speaking in a language that was self-referential, because they had so little stimulus. I’m not sure that they’re using the language for reality. They couldn’t use it to negotiate, because there was nothing to negotiate, so they had to use it for the imagination.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Fiona Shaw. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW and FRIDAY for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature ‘national institution’, playwright and actor Alan Bennett, explaining what it means to ‘follow your nose’ when writing…

Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Peter Brook

Peter Brook

Director Peter Brook, 1925–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews experimental theatre and film director Peter Brook.

Peter Brook has stimulated British theatre for fifty years—first, in his twenties, in the West End, then with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and for the last twenty-five years from outside the country. He disclaims any desire to escape from the insularity of British theatre, but his self-exile appears to have inoculated him against the infection of self-doubt, the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism, and the mid-life crisis that affects most theatre directors (not always in midlife), which comes from repetition, from constant barter and compromise. But, he always stresses, nothing is achieved in the theatre that doesn’t come from the practical rather than the theoretical. I interviewed him in January 2000 in Paris at his own theatre, the Bouffes du Nord. He was wearing a tangerine sweater with an indigo shirt, and, sitting in the circle of his theatre against the terracotta walls, he glowed with well-being and undiminished enthusiasm. All his sentences had a shape; he spoke with no hesitations—no ‘ums’, ‘ers’, or ‘wells’—by turns grave, impish and passionate.

Is it our marvellous luck in the English theatre to have had Shakespeare?

Oh, I’m sure. Absolutely sure. Although one sees that the plays are still powerful in other languages and are done all over the world, they can never be as powerful as they are in the English language. And because of this it’s become part of the English nature and the English temperament. All theatres all over the world, all good theatres have their hero figures, their pivotal figures, and we’re lucky in having the best.

What’s his particular genius?

The genius is that everything comes together. He’s not a product of Elizabethan times, but he was totally influenced by all that was around him. It was a time of enormous social change, intellectual change, artistic experiment—a period of such dynamic force that he was open to all the different levels of life. He was open to all that was going on in the streets, he was open to all the conflicting religious and political wars of the time, and spiritually he was deeply involved in the vast questions that were there for all mankind at a time when the dogmas, the Church dogmas, were exploding. When there was a spirit of inquiry. And all his plays, which is what makes them so remarkable, correspond to the ancient Indian definition of good theatre, which is that plays appeal simultaneously to the people who want entertainment, people who want excitement, people who want to understand psychology and social reality better, and people who really wish to open themselves to the metaphysical secrets of the universe. Now, that he can do that, not only within one play and within one scene but within one line, is what makes Shakespeare remarkable and corresponds to something hidden in the English character. Of course, foreign views of England are always stereotyped, but from the inside one knows that the cold English are the most emotional people. The English who scoff at anything that’s in any way supernatural are in fact deeply inquiring poetically and philosophically, and are extraordinarily concerned about true ethics, about the truth, reality, and practicality of social structures. And the fact that Shakespeare contains all those questions makes him very English.

What you’ve said suggests that the English should be particularly drawn to theatre as a medium.

All the richness of the English inner life is something that so embarrasses the English that they can’t give light of day in everyday social behaviour to either philosophy, poetry or metaphysical inquiry. So the theatre is the only area where the hidden Englishness can reveal itself respectably.

Yet for three hundred years the Irish dominated the English theatre.

You could almost say the English as a whole daren’t let their inner richness appear in public, and do everything to hide this behind all sorts of facades, which have been heavily implemented by the whole class structure of England over hundreds of years. The Irish are the opposite. The Irish allow their deep natural poetry and imagination to come out, all the time. If you go into an English pub you may meet some enjoyable companions, but you’re not going to hear any sudden bursts of lyricism in the conversation. It’s hard to avoid them in Ireland. Anyone you meet there has at his disposal and on the tip of his tongue all the richness of his natural imagination. And that goes very naturally into Irish writing. Synge famously says that, to capture the extraordinary colourful dialogue that the theatre needs, you’ve only to lie on the floor in an attic and listen to what’s being said in the room below. That is the reason that what is rather condescendingly called the ‘gift of the gab’ is part of the natural healthy exuberance and ebullience of their essentially tragic experience. I’d compare it to what I’ve seen in South Africa. Within a deeply tragic human experience, a people have maintained their capacity to survive joyfully in tragedy, and to turn even the worst experience into something that can be shared with humour, with joy and with vividness. Those are essential theatrical qualities.

What about the ‘revolution’ of 1956 at the Royal Court?

Oh, that was a real revolution. And the revolution can be called social in the sense that there was a very stratified class system in place. Something was emerging in the name of a lower class that was freeing itself from an intermediate class and refused to have anything to do with the establishment. And also freeing itself from what was rigid in the working-class ideology of the time. So this free-moving class, rising up in the social scale, wished to be heard, and in wishing to be heard it naturally wanted to be heard with a different language, with a different dynamic, in a different way from the established theatre. And as the established theatre hadn’t much going for it, there was every good reason to break all the conventions. When I did Romeo and Juliet, which was before that time, I had a very young actor playing Romeo very well. I wanted somebody very young, and during rehearsal he told me about his life, he talked about his origins: poor, working-class boy, who spoke with a regional or cockney accent. He talked about how hard he had struggled at drama school to learn to speak correctly so that he could go one day to Stratford and play a part like Romeo. And this seemed normal and natural because it was quite clear that he would be thrown out of the first audition if he came in and read Romeo with a regional or cockney accent. The big revolution starting with Albert Finney—an actor affirming his right to play the prince without sacrificing his own individuality, his own colour, his own personality, and saying: ‘The hell with it—if I’ve been born talking like this, I’m going to bloody well go on talking like this.’ And this was a big revolution in England.

So with Look Back in Anger what was shocking was the tone of voice and the accent rather than the form?

I think everything. It’s bewildering today to watch the gradual movement from the day when it was daring to say ‘bloody’, to the fact that today, if you don’t say ‘fuck’ every third line, your play most likely won’t be accepted. It was just about that time that ‘fuck’ was said for the first time on an English stage.

But you were constantly at war with the Lord Chamberlain?

Oh yes. I think that I was part of those who managed to get rid of him. And we got rid of him—after a long series of head-on attacks which got us nowhere—by ridicule. In the end we found different ways of making him not only a complete anachronism but a ridiculous anachronism. One day when I visited the Lord Chamberlain, he received me—because he was going on to a reception at the Palace—in full Palace uniform: we were sitting there discussing a play of Genet’s and whether or not these words would be suitable, and the anachronism was complete. But everything was interconnected: when there’s a gradual change it has its influence everywhere. And then there’re the landmarks: Look Back in Anger just was that shock landmark which dramatised the whole process of change that was going on all through the artistic life of the country and of the theatre.

In Britain, I don’t know if it’s true in France, there’s a gulf between people who feel that the theatre is for them and people who feel excluded from it. Do you have any idea of how we can dissolve that division?

I think that these are local issues. They can’t be solved nationally or by decree; they can only be solved event by event if the people are concerned by that. Here it’s been a question that we feel very strongly about, to which the answers are very simple. From the start we tried as best we could within our budget to keep our prices extremely low. And from the start we had the lowest prices in all Paris. When we did Carmen, you could see Carmen for thirty francs. That’s 3p—an incredibly small sum. And every production we do here, we do one or two free performances for the whole of the quartier, who are invited. We put up little notices: people from around are welcome to come. We’ve worked a lot with African and the North African people, around the theatre there’s an enormous African and North African population. We have done a great deal in the past. We’ve gone and played improvisations in hostels round here, and at the end of these things we’ve said: ‘This is theatre, you’re welcome, come to the theatre.’ And hardly ever have we succeeded in this way, although we’ve made very good relationships on the spot. None of the people we’ve invited come; that’s why it’s very good to raise the problem and one always comes back to it. The theatre worldwide has established this reputation that if you go through these doors you’re expected to behave in a certain way. That’s totally untrue. I think that in Covent Garden they’re now trying to make it appear that you don’t have to put on a black tie. Whether this will help to make it more accessible or not, I’ve no idea. I think the best answer is low seat prices, and recognising that the theatre has to pay for its sins. It’s no use saying: ‘Ah, but the same young people who you’re giving seats to at this very low price will go and buy a pair of shoes for three times the price.’ Because shoes haven’t let anyone down over the centuries and the theatre has.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Peter Brook in 2000. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature actress Fiona Shaw on why all the great Irish writers such as Yeats and Shaw flee the homeland…


Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with John Gielgud

John Gielgud

John Gielgud, 1904—2000

Part Two of our week-long Talking Theatre Special is an extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with the late John Gielgud.

Actor and director John Gielgud performed all the major Shakespeare roles, and was instrumental in introducing Chekhov to English audiences. In later life he acted in plays by Alan Bennett, Charles Wood, David Storey and Harold Pinter. I interviewed him on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, well before the start of filming the rest of the interviews—‘in case I drop off the twig,’ as he put it. He seemed then—the summer of 1998—to be eternal. He warned me that he was ‘just an actor’ who’d never had an idea in his head, which was typically self-deprecating. No one could have mistaken Gielgud for an intellectual, but although his conversation was showered with actorly anecdotes, it was impossible to discount his mercurial intelligence and his extraordinary recall of theatre history, even if life outside the theatre had passed him by.

What was the theatre like that you encountered as a child?

Well, it was very much a theatre of stars. Actor-managers were beginning to die out, but I looked for the big names on the marquee, so I got to know the theatre very well because I stood in the pit and gallery and went whenever I could; my parents were very long suffering. They both went to the theatre quite a lot, but they were never in the theatre, although my mother had strong links with all her Terry relations [Gielgud’s great aunt, Dame Ellen Terry, was the leading Shakespearean actress of her times]. I was fearfully lucky because from the very beginning I got my first jobs through personal introductions and so I never had to sort of stand in the queue to get work. I was earning seven or eight pounds a week from quite early times, and I got scholarships at two dramatic schools, so I didn’t have to pay fees, I didn’t cost my parents anything, and I lived at home. I really had a very easy time those first ten or twelve years, and I learned a bit of hard work.

What did you think of what you saw in the theatre in those days?

I didn’t think then what acting really was like. I loved spectacle and I was immediately taken in by colour and groupings, and the childhood drama of the curtain going up and the lights going down, which would vanish from the scene in years to come. I think that it was spectacle and romance and love scenes and people waving capes and looking out over balconies and things that appealed to me so much.

What was the social mix in the audience?

It was very much divided.

Upper-middle-class?

Very much. I mean, the stalls and dress circle were the middle-class and aristocratic public, and then there was the upper circle and the pit and gallery, which were the cheap parts, which hissed and booed or applauded on the first night and were very important for the commercial success. And there were enormous commercial successes: plays that ran a year. And things like Chu Chin Chow that ran three and four years.

Did you see Chu Chin Chow?

Yes, I never stopped seeing it.

The theatre at that time wasn’t was all light comedy, was it? It was also the age of Ibsen and Shaw.

Yes. I was in great difficulty because all my life I’ve been so stupid and flippant. I never cared to think of what was going on in the world or in the two wars, which I in a way lived through. But I had such a childlike adoration of the theatre and of actors and actresses and the ones I met in my parents’ house. My own relations were all very exciting to me and they lived this make-believe world. But when it came to Ibsen and Shaw I rather jibbed; I hadn’t got the appetite for dialogue and I found them very talky. I never got over that. I never have got over it. I’ve never really liked plays that are entirely talk.

You and Olivier must have been fiercely competitive at the time when you first worked together.

I was by then just becoming a leading man; my name was bigger than his, and without knowing it—we were very friendly, always, we got on extremely well—I had a feeling that he rather thought I was showing off, which indeed I was.

Well, he probably was as well.

Yes, but his showing-off was always so dazzling. [chuckles] My showing off was more technical and was more soft and, oh… effeminate, I suppose.

I’m surprised you say that because I would have characterised it the other way round, that his showing-off always seemed to me to be ahead of his interest in playing the truth of a character.

Well, I think his great performances were mostly comedy. I was never so impressed by his Oedipus or the Othello, which were two of his greatest successes. But I was enormously impressed by The Dance of Death and by Hotspur and Shallow and Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic], and Richard III of course. And I loved working with him, the little that I did. But I always thought he went behind my back and directed the actors his way. When he played Malvolio for me at Stratford with Vivien Leigh as Viola, I was certain that he’d gone away and told her how he thought it ought to be played and that she was torn between the two characters trying to work with her.

Did you feel hurt when the National Theatre started and Olivier didn’t bring you into the company initially—and then only asked you to do Oedipus with Peter Brook?

Yes, I was a bit hurt, but I always had so many other sorts of offers. I’m not, funnily enough, very jealous, I never have been. I had great ambitions but I was never jealous. And I was always surprised to find that some actors were very jealous.

When the new National Theatre started, Peter Hall took you into the company.

Yes, but he gave me a very flat year—Julius Caesar and that old part in Volpone—so I really had no fun at all. I hated the National Theatre building: I hated that feeling of being in a sort of airport. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s like a nursing home. [laughs]

It’s hard for us to believe that there was ever a time when Shakespeare wasn’t very popular, in the same way it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Mozart wasn’t very popular.

It wasn’t till John Barrymore came from America and did Hamlet with a complete English cast—except for two characters, I think—that suddenly it was box-office.

You did the film of  Julius Caesar directed by Joe Mankiewicz, which I admire enormously. Do you regard that as a successful translation of Shakespeare to the screen?

I think it’s one of the best. I saw it again after many years. It isn’t bad at all, except for the last part of the battle, which was done for tuppence in the last two to three days. But the main part of the film I enjoyed very much, and they were all very sweet to me. I got on excellently with Brando and with Mankiewicz, and the girls were very charming, and it was very exciting to be in Hollywood and see all the stars and I made quite a lot of money, and it was a new experience altogether.

Did you help Brando with his performance?

One day I did. He only had one scene in which I appeared with him. We worked on that one day, and he said: ‘What did you think of my performance?’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to discuss it.’ And he said: ‘Oh.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ I said. The next week I wasn’t working, and they came to me and said Brando had just done the speech over Caesar’s body and ‘It’s so wonderful you must come and see the rushes.’ So I went and saw them, and I didn’t like what I saw at all, but I naturally didn’t say so. But he then said, would I help him with the speeches in the scene we had together. And so I did. I didn’t know he was really listening, but the next morning he’d put in all the things that I’d suggested to him immediately. He was bright as a button. But I would have loved to have worked with him over some of the rest of it. They were all so pleased with him, but naturally I didn’t interfere. I didn’t want them to think I was teaching them how to speak Shakespeare.

What’s always struck me about the way you speak Shakespeare is that you always let the meaning lead.

You’ve got to be awfully sure of your material. I’ve found a great deal of Shakespeare very hard to follow and very difficult to act. But if a part appealed to me pictorially then I immediately grabbed it and that was all. I’ve never lost my very childish attitude towards the theatre, which is so-called make-believe romance, or pretending to be somebody else and having people round me who were also in the same kind of dream world.

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with John Gielgud. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People! Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring experimental theatre impresario Peter Brook – on why theatre is so important to the English.