A pertinent and unique voice

A conversation with Michael Billington

Pillar of UK theatre criticism Michael Billington and Portuguese director and critic Jorge Silva Melo met in early June 2008 to talk about plays, playwrights, and theatre critics. “For me, Billington is the definition of a theatre critic: alert, sharp, informed, more than an enthusiast”, writes Melo.

On a Saturday in June 2008, Michael Billington came to meet me at a small hotel on Gower Street in London’s West End. It was a beautiful day in which the Bloomsbury Gardening Club allowed visits in the neighbourhood gardens. And around us there were hundreds of ladies and gentlemen of an England we thought extinct, talking about roses and other flowers.

It was late morning, and we sat in the gardens. Michael Billington had a cricket match scheduled for the afternoon.

For me, he is the definition of a theatre critic: alert, sharp, informed, more than an enthusiast; a lover of his chosen field. I have read him from the very first, and he has been my adviser since 1969, when he started…

It has been 40 years so far.


Michael Billington: I took over from a man called Philip Hope-Wallace that had been on The Guardian since the 1940s. He was a loved institution, and for the first couple of years I think people resented the fact that I wasn’t Philip Hope-Wallace because I was the new boy, and they didn’t know who I was and what I stood for. So it takes time, if you’re a critic, to make your mark and establish your identity.

Jorge Silva Melo: I used to read The Guardian almost weekly. Now, with the Internet, I follow you on a daily basis…

MB: Well now, the Internet has changed the game because obviously – one forgets this – one writes reviews on a Tuesday night in London, and by Wednesday morning it’s accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world, basically. I do find it hard to believe, sometimes. One gets responses to reviews from everywhere now.

JSM: I come to London often, and I follow your advice on what to see and what not to see because I’m very interested in contemporary drama. I am sorry I will not be able to see Rosmersholm by Ibsen this time, directed by Anthony Page at the Almeida Theatre. You liked it so much…

MB: Well, it’s a very good production because it gets away from gloom and darkness, literal gloom and darkness which that play always seems to invite, and places it in a vague bright light. And Rebecca is played as a startlingly attractive blonde which takes away that air of sort of doom and predestined misery, as if they know from the beginning that they’re going to kill themselves at the end. And in this production they slowly come to that conclusion. It’s the first time I think I’ve actually even understood that play. I’ve always found it a very impenetrable piece of work. But there are many other things to see. The National, as you know, has a whole range… this new Michael Frayn play about to open next week called The Pitmen Paintersis very good. It may be too English a play to translate; it’s about a group of miners in the 1930s who start an art appreciation class. And their teacher says, “there’s no point in my teaching you about Raphael and all these artists…” So, they go and paint their world of coal mining, and they turn into very good painters. They become quite celebrated, get exhibitions in London, and they become a group. Middle-working-class men from the Northeast of England. It’s about, I suppose, the talent that lurks inside people all over, in all levels of society. It’s by Lee Hall, the man who wrote Billy Elliot, the musical.

JSM: But when you started in The Guardian, there had been Kenneth Tynan.

MB: There had been Tynan, yes. There always will be Tynan. He’s the sort of shadow that hangs over still, I think.

JSM: An amazing man, and writer.

MB: He was an inspiration to all of us. And he was personally helpful to me in several ways. But at the same time one was always working, as I say, in his shadow, and we all still quote him. He’s still regarded as the authority. He was the ideal critic I think. He made criticism seem a glamorous, sexy and exciting profession to be in. He wrote superbly. And even when his opinions were wrong – whatever that means – they were so beautifully expressed that it didn’t matter. I mean, his tastes were sometimes bizarre, and if you look at his records he often missed quite significant dramatists. Pinter is the most famous example; he didn’t get Pinter the first time round. Harold Hobson did when he saw The Birthday Party. But it doesn’t matter because his prose was so subtle and fluid. It was just beautiful to read, really. And that’s why he was a great critic. He is one of those critics who come along once every… century, if you’re lucky. And he had this sort of right equipment for a critic: a) he could write but b) he responded, to a play, a performance with emotion and intellect. And his writing became an extension of the performance in a strange way. When he writes about Laurence Olivier, you feel that Olivier inspired Tynan to write with even more eloquence. I think that’s one difference between then and now. I think when Tynan started, theatre was dominated by great actors, and many of Tynan’s best reviews are about performances. If you want to know what a performance is, he would describe it. Interestingly, when Tynan was sort of phasing out, the theatre was changing, becoming much, much more a writer’s theatre. And I think sometimes he was shaky on dramatists. He got Beckett obviously straight away, he got Osborne straight away, but he was dismissive about Pinter initially, about John Arden – whom he didn’t like much. He wasn’t always reliable about the writer, but he was always exciting to read.

The rebirth of the author

JSM: And for you the most important thing is to follow a writer.

MB: Well, you can gather from my book, especially because of the period in which I grew up, getting interested in theatre in the ’50s, I saw that sort of rebirth of writers’ theatre. And yes, I love the classics but sometimes it’s the challenge of interpreting a new play that I find the most stimulating thing about the job. It’s exciting to go to a new Pinter or a new Stoppard or a new Carol Churchill or whatever and being the first person to write about it. And trying to explain it and evaluate it and interpret is very exciting. And next there’s a new Michael Frayn. I’m excited by the prospect of seeing it and getting to grips with it in some way.

JSM: And you follow the author. Your book on Harold Pinter is a beautiful book.

MB: Thank you.

JSM: There’s kind of a critical friendship through the years, and we feel it, that you are a companion to the writer, not only a critic.

MB: It’s interesting that you say that. It was a friendship that was slow to develop because I didn’t know Harold very well, hardly at all. And then when Betrayal first appeared in the 1970s, I can’t remember which year… Well, I was very scathing about it because at that time I wanted all plays to be political… And that was a play about middle-class adultery and I was very rude about it. And Harold, famously, when he was accepting a Best Play Award, he turned to me and… patted me. We had a little coldness between us at a certain point. And then I got to know him quite well because I did a biography on Peggy Ashcroft and I went to see Harold and he was very helpful to me then. And one day, out of the blue, a letter came from a publisher saying, “Harold Pinter would like you to write a book about politics, his politics in theatre.” And it all started from there. So I do have a pretty good friendship with him now, but it wasn’t instant.

JSM: But when you read the book and the new version, one feels that all your life has been dealing with these men, with Pinter, with Stoppard, with Osborne…

MB: Well, I’m very lucky because I am of a generation that dealt with all those writers, and so I’ve seen them all.

JSM: You’re a companion to them, and to the critic.

MB: I think there are writers one is more in sympathy with than others. Also visibly; Pinter, Hare, Ayckbourn, Frayn, Bennett. The one I fluctuate on is Tom Stoppard. I mean, I like the man, well, some of his plays, but others I don’t feel in tune with. And I feel about some of Tom’s plays that there is a sort of bright cleverness that doesn’t survive a second or third or fourth viewing. Not all his plays, but some. I mean, Arcadia I think is a magnificent play. But others, the first time you see them… Jumpers, for example. Travesties… Brilliant, brilliant! But then it… I mean, Travesties, as I remember it, had a fantastic actor, John Wood, who played…

JSM: John Wood, I saw the production.

MB: You saw that? And with John Wood it was a miraculous evening. I then saw the play in Coventry, in a repertory theatre, at a Thursday matinee, with a not very prime actor and an audience that was baffled and bored, and suddenly the play seemed to sink. Tom requires a sort of brilliant performance to make his work come across and reveal it directly.

JSM: With Harold Pinter you must do what he has written.

MB: Exactly. I think if you follow Harold’s directions, I think… At the moment – not many people know this, my employers don’t even know it – but I’m negotiating to direct a Pinter play with drama students. Every ten years I seem to direct a play. Having got a book out of my system, I go “What do I do now? I don’t want another book at the moment.” But I’d like to do something. So I let it be known I’d quite like to direct at a drama school, and Lamda has invited me. And I’m trying to persuade them to let me do The Homecoming. They’re nervous because they said, “Can actors in their early twenties play The Homecoming?” I said, “I’m sure there must be someone in your drama school with weight and presence.” I mention this because you have to work on a Pinter play – because, as you rightly say, Pinter gives you so much information about how to stage the play.

JSM: And you cannot do otherwise. I tried to do otherwise but…

MB: You’ve done Pinter?

JSM: Quite a lot. I even played The Caretaker.

MB: Did you? How hard. But even you tried to go against the…

JSM: Well, you try when you feel that you could. For instance, I tried to do The Caretaker without an interval… You cannot.

MB: No, that’s structure. It’s a three-act play. It’s very tiring without an interval, for the actors and the audience.

JSM: But don’t you miss some of the authors who disappear? Because in Britain some authors write for five years, and then they disappear. I miss David Storey, for instance.

MB: Yes. It’s a bit longer than that, but I know what you mean. Young writers disappear because television very quickly claims them these days, or films if they’re lucky. I think we’re fortunate in that a lot of dramatists have stayed loyal to theatre. Alan Ayckbourn, a classic example, David Hare… It seems extraordinary, because he has done film and television and he always comes back to theatre. As if theatre is how he makes his statements about life. David still went on, I mean, he had a great period at the Royal Court working with Lindsay Anderson. Yes, it’s a strange business, isn’t it, playwriting? Because some writers seem to have expressed their vision in their early plays, and there’s nowhere then left for them to go, so they turn to fiction or something else, don’t they? But other writers, the ones I’ve mentioned…

JSM: What happened to Ted Whitehead? He was so interesting.

MB: He’s a very good example, yes. I know Ted, and basically he went into television, had a very satisfying career writing television plays, adaptations and so. But he would love to get back into the theatre, and he did write a play, which was on the radio, and he desperately wants it to be done in Liverpool. But he’s sort of fallen out of fashion. And even his early plays are not revised. When the Royal Court had its fiftieth anniversary I kept thinking they ought to go back and just do some classic plays of the last fifty years. Alpha Beta is a play that no one has done, in my recollection. Ted’s been writing, he hasn’t stopped working; he has just worked in a different medium. There are so many stories… Each writer has a different story, but the most famous one is Edward Bond, of course. I went to interview him last December, I think, because The Sea was going to be revived, and Edward Bond lives in the countryside and gives the impression that he’s been neglected and ignored by the British theatre, that he’s in exile… And he goes on that only in Paris do they do his plays… But then I talk to people in the theatre and they say: “We would love to but Edward keeps saying no.” The Royal Court would like to revise Saved, Edward says no. So, he denies theatre…

JSM: He’s a self-created martyr.

MB: Exactly. He’s a self-created martyr. JSM: You wrote that you search for authors with a sharp, individual vision. And you too, you try to a have a sharp, individual vision of the performance and the play.

MB: Well, I suppose one doesn’t often analyse how one writes. But I’ve just written a review on The Pendulum by Alexander Fiske-Harrison, a new play by a young writer, and I wrote: “What does one look for in a new play?” And I said exactly that: “An individual vision and a distinctive tone of voice.” My complaint about this play that I’ve just seen, on Thursday, was that it looked to me like… I thought it was a lost play by Schnitzler because it was set in Vienna, 1900. And it was in that style, you know, La Ronde, etc. It’s all very well, but you want to write to tell something about yourself, not simply imitate other writers. So yes, I will forgive a lot of technical flaws in a play if there is a vision and imagination, a style of utterance.

JSM: I also like the adjective “sharp”.

MB: Sharp yes, clear, apprehensible, a sort of immediately apparent vision, not so cloudy. All the writers in my book, they all sort of establish their own territory in a curious way and they all write in a different manner, each has their own territory, and that’s what makes them fascinating.

JSM: And you like to cross personal dilemmas with the wider world. Is that theatre for you?

MB: That’s theatre for me. Real theatre is when someone’s psychological or personal problems intersect with who they are, what they do. And they can be a prince, or they can be a porter, it doesn’t matter. Status doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have some definable function. I’m going to the opera next week, and Schiller’s Don Carlos is a classic example of a play I adore. It’s exactly about that, a young man in love with the woman who has married his father. And at the same time, a prince of the realm, believing in the liberation of Flanders, etc. Everything is perfect in that play because everything clashes, but it can happen at the humble level. Contractions, by Mike Bartlett, is very interesting because it’s about what goes on in contemporary business. And how, if you have an affair or even if you have a baby, the firm will say, “It’s part of our business.” That seems to be a good example of how personal and political coincide. It could happen in a four-hour epic or in a 45-minute play.

JSM: But you, when you write, you also try to cross your personal experience of the performance with the wider world.

MB: Thank you, I mean, that’s the intention. Otherwise, criticism becomes either a sort of narrow pursuit of your private obsessions. Or, I suppose at the other extreme, if you were more of a dedicated Marxist, then all drama would have to conform to a certain ideological pattern. And I think it’s interesting when you approach it with conviction but not a rigid framework. And you allow your preferences to emerge. Oscar Wilde said somewhere, “criticism is the only pure form of autobiography”. And I think it’s the best statement, actually. JSM: But some thinkers and critics in Britain have been very important for the theatre.

MB: Yes. I would mention another critic, if that’s alright, who I think is important for the theatre, although he hated theatre: F. R. Leavis, the great Cambridge guru. And it’s amazing how many directors were around in Cambridge when Leavis was teaching. Peter Hall is the most famous example, Trevor Nunn is another example, and John Barton. All those Cambridge directors were part of that Leavisite world and inherited that Leavisite attention to text and the belief that art had a moral purpose. It all comes from Leavis. And yet, as far as I know, F. R. Leavis hardly ever set foot inside a theatre, he thought it was frivolous. But I think he was a great influence. Raymond Williams wrote a very fine book, as you know, on modern drama, and David Hare is someone who was actually taught by Raymond Williams. So the influence there was direct.

JSM: And Howard Brenton?

MB: I think he was actually tutored by George Steiner which I think gave him an interesting view of world literature. And although he rejected a lot of those Cambridge values, I think Steiner must have had some influence on him: he was such a cosmopolitan figure. They’re lucky they’re all Cambridge those academics mentioned. The influence Cambridge has had on modern British theatre, particularly on directors, the reason for that is very simple I think. Cambridge undergraduates always had a theatre of their own, the Arts Theatre. They ran it, it was for the undergraduates, so if you were a keen actor or director you could put on as many plays as you wanted. Peter Hall did it many times. In Oxford – where I was – we had to hire the Playhouse, which was also a big, difficult theatre, very difficult theatre to work in, a rigid stage. So we didn’t have a space that belonged to us in the way that Cambridge did. That’s one reason. But we also still had this strong, rigorous academic tradition. That was the difference. Oxford’s approach to English literature and drama was very different. Analysis was thought to be rather scientific, and a bit Cambridge, and a bit too cerebral. So there was a big difference. I think Oxford produced critics, actually: Harold Hobson, Kenneth Tynan, later on myself, and my contemporaries Paul Taylor and Charles Spencer. Oxford has had quite a lot of drama critics. Cambridge has produced many, many more directors… and actors. JSM: Can you talk about good directors – Katie Mitchell, for example. What do you expect from and admire in a good director?

MB: Katie Mitchell, yes, she’s a controversial figure now, as you know. I used to think Katie Mitchell was fantastic. I’ve now begun to worry about her. But I haven’t really seen her more recent work. She did that Virginia Woolf show at The National, Waves, then she did Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life at The National. I thought she trampled all over the play, actually. And of course she has directed the play we are seeing tonight, the Martin Crimp, The City, which she has done beautifully. What do I look for in a director? A director who has a respect for the text, obviously, and is prepared to sometimes subordinate his or her ego to the vision of the writer. But also a director who, if they are doing a classic, offers some imaginative interpretation of it. Mainly the role of the director changes whether it’s an old play or a new play. If you are doing a brand new play, your prime responsibility is to serve that play because if you do it badly, you can kill the play and it may not have a second production. With a classic, if you are doing Hamlet for the thousandth time, then the director has a more interventionist role, I think. And you want to see the director’s interpretation. So I think it varies depending on the context. But in general I want directors to serve the play or – if it’s a classic – imaginatively recreate it.

It’s tricky territory, isn’t it? Because… I don’t know if you saw it last year, the Macbeth with Patrick Stewart? It was a fantastic production by a young English director called Rupert Goold. He did a Macbeth that became a sensation, now playing, I think, on Broadway. It started in Chichester in a studio, went to the West End, then to America. And Rupert Goold is now the top young director. But the point is that he actually radically re-imagined this play, he used a lot of Soviet imagery: tanks on the Red Square, and he turned Macbeth into a Stalinesque figure. Not just an assassin, but a real, bloody tyrant. And secondly he used a lot of gothic, horror film techniques. There was a tap on the stage that ran with blood, the witches turned into nurses in a hospital ward, etc. It was full of things that were ostentatious, if you like, but my point is, he re-thought the play and brought out something of its horror, that I think we tend to ignore.

JSM: But are these the same things you ask of a critic, of a reviewer? To read the text?

MB: That’s a good question. Yes, I suppose so. I think that the role of the critic changes depending on what you’re talking about. For the new play, I think you will first start with trying to explain and interpret this play.

JSM: The same as the director.

MB: The same as the director, precisely. I think the roles are similar. I think for the classic play, what the reader wants to know from the critic is what’s new, what’s different, what does this production tell us about this already familiar play. So yes, I think the critic and the director have similar roles. The director obviously is the basic interpreter, but they both have to get to grips with the play, don’t they? And that’s why I like to direct occasionally. I can’t do it very often, but it is an extension of another aspect of criticism, it seems to me.

JSM: Did you ever intend to direct at a theatre, like Tynan, to in be in a position of power?

MB: Well, yes and no. When I was at university I was very torn. I thought I might like to direct or I might like to review, I couldn’t make up my mind, both jobs were seductive. And I did some productions, but I thought I lacked visual imagination. I thought I was quite good on the psychology of the play and interpreting text. I didn’t think I was very good at stage pictures, which you know is what the job is partly about, getting people on and off stage, and lighting and things like that. And I just felt I lacked visual sense, I thought I could have been a radio drama director. Anyway, it’s a long story, and then I found I was enjoying reviewing more, I felt more confident. But this urge to direct has never quite died and ten years ago I did a Pinter play, The Lover, twenty years ago I did a Marivaux play, The Will, with some very good actors in both cases. And I realized one thing, which you will know very well, that directing is partly about casting, isn’t it? If the casting is good, then the director becomes fascinated. If the casting is wrong… I presume it’s a nightmare, isn’t it? If you make a bad decision early on in your casting… I presume it’s worth taking your time to do the casting, isn’t it? That’s why I’m a bit nervous about this production of The Homecoming in the drama school. It’s not worth doing unless we can find a heavyweight in the school. And at twenty, it’s quite hard to find heavyweight actors. We shall see, we shall see.

JSM: So, eight thousand nights at the theatre. But you still like going to the theatre.

MB: Yes, I do. I love going to the theatre.

JSM: And you’re excited about the new productions, the new plays?

MB: Absolutely. Because of, as I said earlier, the challenge of getting to grips with this new piece of work; that’s the real excitement. And you fail quite often, you don’t understand or interpret it correctly. But it’s the challenge of encountering the next Stoppard, Frayn, whatever… Pinter. I think this year is a rich year. Some years are a bit dull. This year is fantastic because it’s play after play. There’s a new Frayn, a new Crimp, there’s a new Hare. Later in the year I think there’s a new Ayckbourn coming in. So, all the writers seem to be functioning or delivering this year. So that’s one thing that keeps me going. The other thing is writing, I mean, I just enjoy writing, the fun of it and the technical challenge of trying to compress your thoughts into written words. JSM: The Guardian is one of the very few newspapers where critics and reviewers still exist…

MB: Well, I would say most English or British national newspapers still keep critics – thank God – but the big question everyone is now debating is how long this will go on and whether the Internet is going to change things. Because obviously, anyone can now start their own website and call themselves a critic. A lot of people are very pessimistic and say “this is the end of criticism as we know it”. I don’t think it is. I think what will happen is that there will still be room for the printed review in the paper; alongside that there will be another kind of debate on the websites where obviously anyone can join in. It will be much more democratic but I still think… I was asking this yesterday, at a talk in Oxford, that in politics, in sport, in any activity, you need someone – it seems to me – who has more inside knowledge, who has seen more or knows more than the reader. And that applies to the arts. To be fair, in The Guardian… Well, I’m one of maybe twenty national critics, if you add up the daily papers, the Sunday papers, the weekly magazines, etc. So thank God there’s still a lot of us about.

JSM: On the continent reviews are disappearing.

MB: Are they? Really?

JSM: In Italy, in La Repubblica, they have it once a week. Six hundred characters if the play is bad, one thousand characters if it’s good.

MB: Really? Germany used to have vast amounts…

JSM: I don’t know Germany well enough.

MB: Portugal?

JSM: Portugal disappeared.

MB: Really? So what do you get?

JSM: Previews, if you have a star in the cast.

MB: Gosh, it’s amazing.

JSM: It’s horrible. The journalists come to a rehearsal a week before the premiere, they write about a show that isn’t finished yet and…

MB: So, you as an artist are not being assessed, your work is not being evaluated. What effect does that have on you?

JSM: I hate it.

MB: And on the public. Does the public not resent it?

JSM: No, not at all. They flip through the paper, see the number of photos, the big photos, and…

MB: But what decides… I mean, what influences the public?

JSM: The name of the company. And the place. I’ve directed a company for the last ten years and we have been doing contemporary theatre for ten years. So we have a name, you can say we have an audience. But they will come to see this play or that play whether it is a good production or a bad production. And of course if there is a star in the cast, they will come.

MB: But how would a struggling new company get in? They need attention. That’s one thing where criticism can be useful, I think, in drawing attention to a new theatre, a new director, a new company, whatever. In London there is a theatre called The Gate Theatre, which had its golden period with David Farr and Stephen Daldry. And that was where Stephen made his name. Because Stephen would do productions with casts of 25 people. He would do epic plays, and we raved about this staggering director in a staggering space, and he then became an international figure. So all I’m saying is that critics can be instrumental in drawing attention to new work.

JSM: It must be such a joy for Harold Hobson to have discovered The Birthday Party.

MB: Of course, absolutely. But Harold Hobson went on, he was always looking for the next Pinter, and sometimes he would claim some talent which wasn’t worth it… But he was an inspiration. It’s sad to hear this, that criticism is gradually being either dropped or marginalized, because I would argue that we need a debate in the arts. And the other thing is that the artists, in my experience, always need critics in a strange way. Because the angry letters I get are from artists whose work I have not reviewed. Not from the ones I have reviewed. JSM: Your book is an admirable book on theatre – it’s more than that, it’s is a book on post-war England changing. But there’s something I like very much: you say that this book, State of the Nation, has something for everyone to dislike. You are superb at connecting aesthetics with changes in the society and it’s a great book on life in the second part of the twentieth century. It begins with the first election victory of Clemence Attlee, the prime-minister after Churchill who ruled between 1945 and 1951. For you there was new hope… With Labour in power society changed.

MB: Attlee changed Britain and, to some extent, we are still living it now. We still believe in… I think the National Heath Service is probably the greatest single thing to happen in post-war Britain. As I get older I use it more and more, and I’m astonished how… I think it works, and I think it’s an amazing institution. I wouldn’t bore you with details, but a few weeks ago I had a nasty pain in my left side, I saw my doctor on a Wednesday and by Friday I was actually having a proper cardiac check in a hospital. I was cleared, but within 48 hours the problem had been analysed and addressed, and I thought, “Thank God for the national health service!” What do you have in Portugal? Is it all private?

JSM: It is starting to be dismantled and there is a big discussion in the private sector…

MB: Oh, dear. I think it’s a mark of a civilized society when you can afford to be ill.

JSM: I very much like the place you give to J. B. Priestley in the history of modern British theatre.

MB: He was – and still is to some extent – a very unfashionable figure. But he is also thought of as a rather middlebrow figure, not an innovator. But when you look at his plays I think he’s very experimental. And obsessed by what was happening in the country. And I mention this, he wrote this great book, Theatre Outlook, which is very hard to find but really is extraordinary. He has a vision of the future for the theatre. And it’s a socialist vision, he sees Britain as filled with regional theatres, all reflecting the taste of their own region, and he sees all these things like youth companies and touring companies, which we all take for granted now. So he was a great man, I think.

JSM: And even in the writing he was very innovative.

MB: Exactly, exactly. I mean, An Inspector Calls, it’s the obvious… that’s the one I presume translates to other cultures.

JSM: Dangerous Corner was a very famous production in the ’50s in Portugal.

MB: Really? That’s an extraordinary play. His plays are done quite a lot. But in Britain he has been regarded as old-fashioned. And then Stephen Daldry. At the National, when they said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “I want to do An Inspector Calls“. They groaned! And they said, “Oh, God, no!” It was sort of a clunking old play. And of course, he has rediscovered it. JSM: On the playbill, yesterday when I arrived at the West End, I only saw plays from the ’30s and ’40s, Chalk Garden by Eniid Bagnold, Terence Rattigan, The Vortex by Noel Coward…

MB: Yes, and they are all playing at the same time. I’m always happy to have Terence Rattigan back… But The Chalk Garden… In my book I pour some scorn on it, but if it’s well cast, it can work. The Vortex I think is interesting, actually, because I like early Coward. I don’t like late Coward but early Coward I think is interesting. Just talking of The Vortex… You haven’t got time to see other things, I know, but have you heard about this remarkable play called That Face? By this twenty-year old, Polly Stenham? I mention it because of The Vortex, because it’s about a mother-son relationship. I think it’s actually about incest. I think the mother and son have committed incest. And I think it’s the first play I know of to deal explicitly with mother-son incest. And people said to me, “The Vortex, it’s an intense relationship, they haven’t actually committed incest…” But, I mean, again, if you have time to buy a copy of That Face… If you’re looking for new plays, it’s one to look at. It’s a very powerful play. And I think it would work in other languages as well as situations.

JSM: Don’t you feel that the glamorous West End of the ’30s, the roses of Cecil Beaton, the theatre that made a triumph of Binkie Beaumont as an entrepreneur, is coming back?

MB: I don’t think it is. In some ways, I almost wish it were because I think the tragedy of the West End now is that it’s 26-28 musicals. And where the West End used to have a variety of theatre, you know, plays, comedies, thrillers, farces, revues, musicals, it’s now dominated by the musicals. There’s room for about three plays at a time, and you got to have a star name to make the play work. So whatever Binkie Beaumont thought, at least he did have a sort of rich variety of plays. And I think it’s an important point about the West End: what I miss are things like the farce, the thriller, the whodunnit. When I was a young critic, I used to pour scorn on these things. Now I’m older. I begin to see how important they are because if you have stock forms, other dramatists can then use those forms and reinvent them. In the talk I was doing yesterday I said that because there was this thing called farce, British farce, Michael Frayn could then write a play like Noises Off. And a whole generation won’t understand what he’s talking about because they haven’t seen the original. Joe Orton, in What The Butler Saw, took stock farce and played around with it. Harold Pinter takes the thriller. The Birthday Party is an old-fashioned rep thriller, which he reinvents. So, I think the disappearance of this genre is going to limit the range of other dramatists. That’s what I really miss in the West End. But there’s no audience for most of these forms now. JSM: In your book you think of the Blair years as the development of regional theatre.

MB: Yes. I think it was the salvation of regional theatre after Thatcher. I think it was about to die. I mean, it’s still on life support, but at least… Because most theatres were bankrupt and could have been closed down. And then this new money was injected into them. So at least the big city theatres will survive. I think what’s worrying is theatres in smaller cities. Darby used to have a very good theatre. It is now being closed because the local authority wouldn’t support it. But I think theatre in places like Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool is safe and thriving.

JSM: But what disappeared, I think, is the kind of popular theatre like John McGrath, Joan Littlewood… That idea disappeared.

MB: You’re right. I can’t think of anyone today who’s got that sort of “popular touch”. That’s why Joan Littlewood and John McGrath are extraordinary. Because they were serious artists. And that’s quality, to make political theatre popular and available to everyone. And I can’t think of anyone now who quite does that or even attempts to do it, really. That is a sad loss. John McGrath I knew very well because we were in Oxford at the same time. John loved sad comedy, he loved Chaplin and Keaton, he loved gags, he loved vaudeville. I remember a production he did of The Birds of Aristophanes, and he just used every gag you could think of, and at the same time trying to express a political point through the play. So I don’t know whether you have people like that today, with that knowledge of popular culture of the past.

JSM: There’s a play I’m going to do next year, by Enda Walsh, which is something like that: The Walworth Farce.

MB: Gosh, I haven’t seen that. It was done last year, in Edinburgh.

JSM: I saw it Edinburgh, but I’ve translated it, and now I’m producing it. And there’s something… I was so happy! I thought, here’s someone who likes normal people, and it’s his own father watching The Three Stooges on television… And that’s it. That’s someone who likes popular culture, basic culture.

MB: Yes, yes. The only other dramatist I can think of is Terry Johnson. Dead Funny. It’s a tribute to old comedians. And all of Terry Johnson’s plays seem to me to have roots in the popular culture of the past. The good ones, what are they? Insignificance, Hysteria, Dead Funny, I suppose those are the best ones. And as a director he seems to work in that tradition. But I’m looking forward to seeing Enda Walsh’s play. MB: And it was translatable, obviously.

JSM: It was difficult, because you don’t have Tesco supermarkets in Portugal.

MB: Don’t you have Tescos? Because there’s nothing like Tesco.

JSM: I agree. That’s a big problem.

MB: Did you translate it yourself?

JSM: No, Joana Frazão translated it. But yesterday I went there to see the Tesco uniform, because it’s very important in the play…

MB: But you have changed Tesco into something else?

JSM: We are trying to see how we can do it.

MB: But there’s something like Tesco, isn’t there? Tescos, you understand, it’s a bad supermarket. Sainsbury’s is a classy one, Waitrose is very classy, Tesco is the cheapest. You have done the play or…?

JSM: No, we are starting rehearsals at the end of August. We’ve done two plays by Enda: Bedbound and Disco Pigs.

MB: Oh, Disco Pigs. That must be very difficult to translate. It’s written in this very fast Irish dialect…

JSM: But we have a good translation that works very well. Bedbound too. But I think Enda Walsh is someone who tries to have this link with popular… Because that was one thing, for us in the ’50s, under the dictatorship in Portugal, the end of the ’50s, beginning of the ’60s, Joan Littlewood… That was the thing to follow and… So amazing, it was something from the working class.

MB: A good example or a good model to have.

JSM: It was so amazing. It was forbidden, you know, A Taste of Honey was forbidden by the censorship in Portugal .

MB: Really? On grounds of what, sexuality or…?

JSM: Sexuality and bad property and…

MB: Alright. Gosh!

JSM: So, when it was produced it was too late. In the ’80s, for the revival that was not a revival. It had lost the punch of…

MB: But I believe some writers translate better to Portugal than others, not every play is translatable…

JSM: No. Pinter is very difficult to translate.

MB: I would have thought the language would be difficult. I would imagine the situation would be immediately recognized everywhere.

JSM: But the language and… He’s so bright…

MB: I can understand that. In some countries, there is one person who seems to become the Pinter translator.

JSM: You know, there’s a very funny idea. I discovered recently that all the continental productions of Harold Pinter are wrong, because stage left and stage right, the descriptions, are the opposite in France. So, all the doors in France are on the opposite side. I discovered that when I was trying to do The Lover and I saw the photos of Delphine Seyrig acting – but she’s not in the same position!

MB: So, that was a translator’s… You’d think stage left is stage left.

JSM: No! In France, it’s from the point of view of the audience.

MB: Oh, not from the point of view of the stage?

JSM: No.

MB: I didn’t know that.

JSM: And in The Lover there was a problem with that.

MB: It’s a very trick play to do. I mean, technically. I did it once. It’s very difficult technically because of changes of costumes, changes of… But, with my limited experience, I always thought the French don’t quite get the tone of Pinter because a lot of Pinter is based on this very English thing of “taking the piss”. In other words, sending someone up, mocking them. And I noticed in a French production of The Homecoming where one of the brothers is taking the piss out of the other one by saying, “you stole my cheese roll”. He keeps on about this sausage roll, or whatever it is, “you ate my sausage roll”. But he’s not really complaining about the roll, he’s just using it to get at his brother, who is more successful than he is. It’s a way of undermining him. But the French actor went on this explosive rage. That’s not what it’s about, it’s actually something more subtle than that.

JSM: Exactly. They’re very different cultures.

MB: There are cultural differences everywhere.

London, 7 June 2008

Published 7 August 2009
Original in Portuguese
First published by Artistas Unidos Revista 23/2009 (Portuguese version)

© Jorge Silva Melo / Artistas Unidos Revista / Eurozine


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