Behind the scene in luvvie land

On Directing
April 7, 2000

There is a strong argument that, in contemporary theatre, the director is God. After all, we habitually refer to Peter Brook's Marat/Sade , Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto or Stephen Daldry's An Inspector Calls . As a form of shorthand, the notion of director's theatre individualises what is usually a collective activity.

Yet, as Brook points out in his brief foreword to Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst's collection of interviews, directing is only one century old. Brook gnomically describes directors as dealing with the whys and hows of theatre. More usefully, he points out that while dictators have become politically unacceptable, the myth of the director as "supreme boss" lives on. It is an illusion he firmly scotches.

After a short introduction that sketches the history of directing, from the Meiningen company to the present, the main body of the book comprises interviews with 21 directors, from Peter Brook to Deborah Warner, Declan Donnellan to Ian Spink, and Annie Castledine to Garry Hynes.

The problem with talking to directors is that, partly because theatre-making is such a practical craft, their answers to general questions such as "How would you define theatre?" tend to be abstract and unhelpful. For example, Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment defines theatre as "going somewhere to watch something", which could equally apply to a football match, a public execution or a stroll around the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

But if replies to big questions about the role of the direéctor tend to disappoint, much more interesting are the concrete examples of a director's craft. While watching performances of Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son , which she directed for the National in 1994, Katie Mitchell realised that the audience identified too much with the capitalist, so she worked with actor Bob Peck, who stopped "dwelling on certain lines", and undercut audience identification with his character.

DV8's Lloyd Newson remembers a lawyer watching the dress rehearsal for MSM (1993) in case the show had anything "illicit or obscene" in it. During Julia Pascal's Theresa , a Nazi soldier seduces a young Guernsey girl. In rehearsal, he was far too nice. So she told him: "You're 40 and don't smile". He understood.

But if rehearsal rooms yield few secrets, directors are more forthcoming about theatre in general. Phyllida Lloyd compares Russian and British approaches, Complicité's Simon McBurney shows how to turn stage disasters into triumphs, Ewan Marshall describes working with the disabled, and Jatinder Verma points out that lack of ensemble work leads to the "luvvie syndrome" - where people are "delighted to see you darling" because they meet so rarely.

What is refreshing about the book is the sheer variety of the theatre it celebrates, from text-based classics to devised work and from physical theatre to dance. But there is a cost to this emphasis on diversity. Many mainstream figures - such as Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre - do not get a look-in. Reading this book, students might get the impression that in Britain no one directs musicals or commercial West End plays.

So while it is laudable to include so many female directors, it is odd that in a decade that saw a renaissance of writing in British theatre, less than a handful of those included here are concerned with new plays. Where, for example, is Max Stafford-Clark? Such gaps throw the emphasis on physical theatre and live art at the very time when British theatre rediscovered the word.

Nevertheless, this useful book will introduce students to the enormous range of possibility in theatre-making. Although it says little about the technicalities of directing, it does give an appealing picture of British theatre in all its multiplicity.

Aleks Sierz teaches journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

On Directing: Interviews with Directors

Editor - Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst
ISBN - 0 571 19149 5
Publisher - Faber
Price - £9.99
Pages - 142

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