D is for director's theatre

Actors and aspiring auteurs should call a truce – theatre works best when they work together

Director's theatre? "The very phrase in English," critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote, "has a pejorative ring." But that was back in the mid-1950s. Since then the landscape has changed; today we are confronted by a whole generation of powerful directors, many of whom aspire to the condition of auteurs: figures like Deborah Warner, Katie Mitchell, Simon McBurney, Declan Donnellan and Rupert Goold. But I am also aware of a counter-revolution in which it is argued that directors undermine the essential contract between the actor and the audience.

Simon Callow spearheaded this movement back in 1984 with his book Being an Actor. Reviewing it at the time, I wrote: "Mr Callow sees a theatre vitiated by a power-hungry directocracy: I see one that has gained in strength and stature through the belated recognition of the director." I stand by that, and would argue that the gradual transfer of power from actor-managers to directors has been good for our theatre: even if genuine visionaries like Joan Littlewood and Peter Brook eventually fled our shores, we have still nursed a host of talented directors. That in itself has yielded a generation who see themselves as innovators as well as interpreters; which is roughly what we mean by "director's theatre". But perhaps it's pointless to take a dogmatic line. "Director's theatre" is neither good or bad in itself: everything depends on the quality of the result.

I can only prove this by pointing to examples. Deborah Warner is a director who takes a revisionist line on every classic she tackles. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. Her 2009 Mother Courage at the National Theatre, with Fiona Shaw, was a vivid, pugnacious affair that tore up the Brechtian rulebook without destroying the work's inherent ambivalence. But I thought Warner's attempt at the Barbican in 2011 to give Sheridan's 18th-century comedy, The School for Scandal, a punkishly updated look woefully misfired. I find my attitude to Katie Mitchell also constantly shifts. A director who once gave us the best Ghosts I've ever seen and superb versions of Brecht and Beckett also directed The Seagull at the National in 2006 in a way that, for me, disrupted the rhythm of Chekhov's play and filled it with superfluous business.

In the end, I think we need to break down the artificial barrier between a director's and an actor's theatre. The best directors, especially where the classics are concerned, are those who offer radical new insights while releasing the energy of the actors. I know that Rupert Goold is seen by many as an interventionist who imposes his vision on the work; but his productions of The Tempest, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice all extended the formidable range of Patrick Stewart and, in Pinter's No Man's Land, he got the vintage best out of Michael Gambon and David Bradley. Modern British drama also has no better interpreter than Max Stafford-Clark; and his meticulous precision has also yielded, over the years, memorable performances from a whole gallery of actors, including Harriet Walter, Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman.

I realise there are good directors and bad directors, egotistic directors and self-effacing directors. But I think it is time we called a truce to the phoney war that exists between directors and actors. Each depends heavily on the other and, even in the age of the auteur, good theatre arises from a seamless fusion of their talents.

For a player's perspective: Being an Actor by Simon Callow (1984)

For a director's vision: The Empty Space by Peter Brook (Penguin 1968)


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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