Saturday, 4 June 2011

Interview with Sir Richard Eyre, Hay Festival, May 28th 2011

While working and speaking at the Hay Festival last week I interviewed Sir Richard Eyre, who ran the Royal National Theatre for ten years, published excerpts of his diaries of his time there in his National Service, and was at the Festival to interview his wife, the producer Sue Birtwistle, on the challenges of adaptation. I grabbed half an hour with him...

There was a look in his eyes that made me speechless. Not a good way to start an interview, I grant you, but goosebumps shivered up my arms, I put down my pen and forgot about the dictaphone in my bag.

He stared into the middle distance, watching the scene play out in his memory. "Heart-breaking..."

We'd been talking about his last production as artistic director at the National Theatre, directing Ian Holm in King Lear. As a student, I'd queued for hours to get a ticket on the last night. It remains one of the best Shakespeare productions I've seen. What is his favourite line from the play? That look again. "There's something about 'it smells of mortality.' And the simplicity of Lear's lines to Cordelia at the end, 'So we'll live / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales... Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out'..."

A table away from us, in the green room of The Telegraph Hay Festival, his wife, the producer Sue Birtwistle sits talking with a friend of theirs. Richard had spent the last hour interviewing her about the task of adapting the phenomenally successful Cranford series and the Pride & Prejudice that brought the world's attention to Colin Firth.

"I'm a gentlemen, so I'm not going to say how long ago it was, but she was wearing suede trousers... so I suppose I'm saying it was her legs I noticed first. And I was her landlord," he grins. "And we've been together ever since."

Do you often work together? "No. We did once on the film of Lear we made after the run at the Cottesloe Theatre had ended. I directed and Sue produced." Was it difficult? "No," he says, flicking a smile over towards her, "but the thing is, it's impossible to get away from it. It's there at the breakfast table, at dinner..."

Their paths cross, artistically though. In their talk, Sue had described one of the joys of producing Cranford had been forming a Company of stellar actors that had to be kept on contract, sometimes for up to 17 weeks, taking turns to play the lead and the background artists in each others' scenes. "Her experience reminded me of my ten years at the National," he says. "Keeping a Company, working with actors you trust again and again."

I cautiously ask him if he misses the building. "Yes, everyday." In his diaries of his time there, National Service, he described the task of planning a repertoire of 17 shows a year for three theatres as 'three-dimensional chess in the dark', and writes starkly of the pressures such a task brings.

"Yes, but what was it Diderot said? Happiness is white? When you keep a diary you don't feel the need to capture all the moments of pleasure, 'Oh what a wonderful day,' that sort of thing. You use it to unload. But it was a wonderful time, I loved it, that creative freedom."

And ending your tenure with King Lear? "It's his greatest play." But you staged it in the smallest space. "I'd always planned to put it on in the Cottesloe. And Ian hadn't acted Shakespeare for 28 years - we wanted it to be an intimate experience for the audience."

Is there a Shakespeare you haven't done yet that you'd like to? He stares into the middle distance again. A few moments, as the wind whips up and rattles the green room tent. "Twelfth Night... I will do it... But you need the perfect cast."

I admit I used to severely dislike that play, until I was cast in it. Now, I love it. It's a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. He agrees. Then turns the tables. "Who did you play?" It was my first professional Shakespeare gig, and I had the immortal line of Orsino's servant, agonising over how I should phrase 'Will you go hunt, my Lord?'

He laughs. "When I started out as an actor I played Mountjoy in Henry V. I had to give a speech to the army, standing onstage with the audience beyond, who couldn't see the hand gestures my troops were making, trying to put me off my lines..." He pauses. "You know, I think Shakespeare might have spent some time in the army, in Europe."

You mean during his 'lost years'? "Yes..." Shakespeare goes off-record in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1585 and surfaces seven years later in London, a working actor and playwright about to hit the big time. The theories of what happened to him are legion. "I'm fairly sure there are army references in every play." And there's that curious character, Parolles, in the somewhat odd play All's Well That Ends Well. "Exactly. There are little details scattered throughout the canon. It fits."

What about the conspiracy theorists? With the epic blockbuster director Roland Emmerich bringing out Anonymous later this year, a Da Vinci Code type of film revealing the hidden 'truth': that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, and others were responsible for the works. He leans back in his chair, sweeps a hand through white locks. Glares now at the middle distance. "Ha, it infuriates me. It's ridiculous. Just because Shakespeare wasn't of the right stock, he can't have written these plays. It's maddening."

And in 400 years time they'll doubt a desk clerk came up with the theory of relativity? He laughs, the glare gone. "Quite."

Do you care for the recent trend to add big lights and sound, turning Shakespeare's plays into a multimedia event? He raises an eyebrow at me. "It's not my sort of thing... But you can do anything to Shakespeare, I can't bear people who say you should do this with him, and you mustn't do that. Shakespeare will endure, he's resilient. Look around the world, he works in any language. If we don't keep playing around with him, then we'll lose him."

An excited scream goes up from a gaggle of young interns. Rob Lowe is due to arrive soon, I explain, to give a talk. "Yes, I know, he and his wife are friends of ours. I directed him in a film of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. We had dinner the other night. He hasn't spoken at this sort of thing before. He was panicking about what one wears to a literature festival."

Wellies and a scarf? "Definitely."

I ask him where he thinks we are with contemporary theatre, what with all the funding cuts, and entire grants being taken away from long-established theatre companies. He had discussed with Sue earlier onstage the difficulties she had faced raising finance for such an epic undertaking as bringing the Cranford novellas to the small screen, even with Judi Dench attached.

He nods. "It wasn't reality, or a quiz. Drama will always suffer. But I'm hopeful. Incredibly hopeful. Ironically, it seems to be healthier than it was ten years ago. People want immediacy. I mean look where we are," he says, sweeping his hands out around us, "a literature festival, thousands of people coming here, wanting that interaction, that spark."

He stands to leave, they have to get back to London. So we come and we engage and we want our hearts to be broken? Again and again?

That stare again, but softer this time. He nods. "Yes. Well, I hope so..."

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

True appreciation...

The Telegraph's Ed Cumming wrote a piece late last week in response to Dame Helen Mirren suggesting students shouldn't be introduced to Shakespeare by reading. He wrote 
"...a true appreciation can only come from reading the plays... though formally speaking he wrote plays, Shakespeare has his position because he is the greatest poet in our - and possibly any - language... it is baffling that we are still having this argument... After all Shakespeare's colleagues Heminges and Condell had already worked it out when they composed the preface to the First Folio. 'Read him therefore, again and again,' they wrote..."
It is indeed baffling.

I'm lucky that I spend much of my life working with Shakespeare, either as an actor, a writer, a workshop leader or teacher. I shift the focus away from the persistent view of his writings, that they are books to be read, and more seen as plays to be performed. I find ways to make them accessible without dumbing them down, breaking them open by putting them back into context.

When the actors Condell and Heminges in the First Folio (the book containing all of Shakespeare's plays, but not his poems) bid us 'read him therefore, again and again' they could have meant 'take into account', or 'make something of', two equally valid definitions for the word 'read'.

It makes more sense: 80% of people back then couldn't read. They were used to seeing his plays performed, to hearing them; and later with their memories echoing, reflecting on what they had seen and heard. What better way to 'make something of him therefore, again and again' than by providing a manual for future generations to re-stage his plays.

Each one is a guide on how to perform an incredible story. They were written by an actor, for the same group of actors, who worked together for over twenty years. Shakespeare's company became so well versed in their master playwright's ways they would have had no trouble understanding what was written.

They would, after all, be introduced to the new play by receiving only their character's lines, and would have had little notion of what it would be to 'read the whole play'. If they were to, it would be as a skilled chef might describe the taste of a dish from looking only at the recipe, or a musician hearing Mozart's Requiem simply by reading the score. But these skills take years to develop, and require technique, passion, and practice. 

Dame Helen Mirren was on the right track. Reading Shakespeare is hard. It would be wrong to argue that his plays shouldn't be put under great literary scrutiny, but as a means of introducing people to them, it can be off-putting. Shakespeare rightfully holds a fixed position in our English Literature heritage, and on the syllabus, but the balance between literature and theatre has long needed to be redressed. 

Why isn't Shakespeare first introduced to us in schools by drama teachers? There has been a growing move away from teaching Shakespeare first and foremost as a work of Literature, and approaching the plays in their natural environment rarely fails. Meeting characters who are speaking out their thoughts, feelings, and problems, gives students something more tangible to latch on and relate to. 

To really start enjoying his plays we do need to work at them, but 'five minutes reading through some speeches beforehand' isn't enough either. We need to encourage a broader knowledge: become familiar with the theatrical world he wrote in; try to get into the heads of these characters he gave life to; and become fluent in 'Shakespearian' so the words don't take us so much by surprise. 

Being encouraged to speak those terrific words every day, and seeing as many different performances as possible, both on stage or screen, amateur and professional, in English or not, will go a long way to help nurture a fledgling appreciation.

It's sad but true, there are productions that leave young people bored: who hasn't felt that way at some point? Every production and interpretation won't suit everyone. But both on stage and in the auditorium, we need to shake off the notion that these astonishing discussions of the human heart and mind are merely beautiful pieces of poetry; and we must work harder to keep them alive, as plays. 

Yes, he was a wonderful poet, but his life was theatre. Both approaches to his writing need attention - and we must keep trying to find new and different ways to make something of them.