In Conversation with director Max Stafford-Clark
Director Max Stafford-Clark is a rare example of a theatre practitioner who has become a household name. As Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1979 to 1993, his programming of new work and style of directing helped carve the venue's niche as the hub of modern British theatre, working with writers such as Timberlake Wertenbaker, Caryl Churchill and Jim Cartwright. Having formed Joint Stock Theatre Company in 1974 alongside David Hare and David Aukin, his reputation for supporting and cultivating new writing talent is second to none, and his contribution to British theatre is unrivalled.
Setting up Out of Joint Theatre alongside producer Sonia Friedman, Stafford-Clark created a national and international touring company who specialised in new works, along with providing vital support for new writers. The company have performed in six continents and has co-produced with theatres such as The National Theatre, Royal Court Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company, and now mixes classic productions alongside pieces of new writing.
The company have turned their attention to Samuel Beckett's 1956 radio play All That Fall that opens this week in London at the historic Wilton's Music Hall. Strictly controlled by the Beckett estate, the production is only licensed to be performed in the manner of which it was intended, which has led Stafford-Clark to create a unique experience for audience members. Blindfolded, the audience takes in the hour long Irish drama with just their ears, detached from the physical action yet fully involved with the narrative and drama.
“It was brought to us by the Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in County Fermanagh” explains Stafford-Clark, as we meet in the beautiful surroundings of Wilton's Music Hall ahead of a rehearsal for the production. “They asked me if I wanted to do something for it, and I said I'd love to do the radio play if you can get the rights to it, because it's very rarely done and it's a lovely little play.” Being familiar with Beckett's work and his estate's control over productions I asked if securing the rights for this play was particularly tricky. “The Beckett Estate wrote to me and asked me what my vision was for the play” he explains, “I knew the estate had refused the rights to Olivier and Bergman previously, so I knew that the right answer was that my vision is no vision at all...”
This new production of All That Fall provides a unique experience for audiences who find themselves blindfolded throughout, and their only experience is through listening to the production rather than watching. I wondered if that had been the preferred intention, rather than blocking out the cast in a different way. “Once we got there to County Fermanagh in the middle of summer, there was a light pine floor and a light ceiling, so it proved a lot easier to blackout the audience than it was the cast, so the audience wear dinky little masks like they're at a Venetian Ball, so they see nothing but hear everything.” Would Beckett approve, I ask? “I think it's more in the spirit of the play”, Stafford-Clark replies. “Obviously Beckett is a very serious writer, but there is a sort of mischievous playfulness in the writing. Any play that has a donkey farting and crapping in the first minute and a half speaks of a certain mischievousness of the writer, so I think it's more in the spirit of the piece.”
Whilst Beckett is certainly a popular choice for production companies around the world with titles such as 'Endgame' and 'Waiting for Godot' always drawing in the crowds, this protectiveness around their performance baffles me as a creative, although I respect Stafford-Clark's view that the author's original intention should be preserved. But does this in turn stifle creativity? “It's interesting that Michael Billington included All That Fall in his '101 Greatest Plays' but not 'Waiting for Godot' or 'Play', or 'Endgame' – he made the point that those plays are straight jacketed by the images the writers have imposed on them, and it's so difficult to make those plays seem different from one production to another because they're so straight jacketed by the author.”
That said, I ask Stafford-Clark why he seems to have a personal relationship with All That Fall. “I think that's what appealed to me about this play, because it is both Beckettian and at the same time it's got a social realism that I can relate to” he answers. “James Knowlson, Beckett's biographer, says really Beckett is writing about Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin in the 50s where he was brought up, and the play is full of all these little biographical details. So there are elements of autobiography and moments within that world which I cherish. Ireland has changed from a nineteenth century peasant society to a Celtic tiger in a matter of years. When I was there at Trinity in the 60s, Donkeys were still working animals in towns not far from Dublin...”
What would he have made of the blindfolds, I ask? “I think it's an unusual experience and I think it's curious – and that's really what Beckett wanted to give”, he answers. “It transports the audience back to a mystery world of Ireland in the 50s. The way that we stage it, the actor can be as close to you as I am now or at the other side of the room. There is a shock and surprise from audiences when they realise how close the actors are at times and that intimacy and close up is possible for it. I think it inhibits people to an extent – I think there would be more laughs if people could see what was going on. I think the privacy of the world is quite interesting than itself.”
Looking ahead to the future work of Out of Joint, I express my excitement at the upcoming production A View From Islington North which runs at the Arts Theatre later this year. Political theatre and specifically political satire are certainly in vogue at the moment, within a political climate where events and behaviours on both ends of the spectrum seem to be fair game for comment. “I think it's always important” Stafford-Clark confirms. “Political satire is a strain of political comedy that's always been with us and has huge importance. I think sex and politics are great subjects for the theatre.”
An interview with Max in The Guardian in 2013 saw him argue that the government's cuts to arts funding were “dangerously ignorant and ill-informed”, saying that the then coalition's policies had been more harmful in one term than the government of Margaret Thatcher had been over three. Out of Joint saw a reduction by 27.9% in its funding, which meant seriously cutting back on its work around the country. “Even companies who tour classical work are finding it really hard” he states. “Regional theatres are offering splits rather than guarantees and cutting back on new work themselves. It's really really hard. By touring we create an income for the writers. We pursue a policy that we've had to suspend this current year where we guarantee each writer whose play we produce a minimum of £20,000 for the year - not an annual income, but contributing at least to it.”
That said, I ask if it opportunities for new writers are harder to come by in this political and economic climate, and if the industry is doing enough to support new work? “I think the opportunities for young writers are as great now as they have ever been” he says. “The theatre is full of talented and ambitious people.” What about for directors, I ask? With work on the fringe a vital necessity for young creatives to develop their craft, how can people afford to work for free? “What's important for a young director is to define their own taste” he explains. “I think young writers need to find out what kind of directors they want to work with and equally those that they don't. Directors have to find out what writers of their own generation that they're sympathetic to. I'm very lucky that I had a career that was in the shadow of both Feminism and Socialism. My father thought I was a Marxist, but actually I'm half-a-step to the left of Nick Clegg. The fact that I've managed to work with writers such as Caryl Churchill and Howard Brenton to name but two, gives you a political identity and a banner to fight under which is constantly stimulating.”
Speaking as one of Britain's most prominent theatre directors and practitioners, I push him for a take-home 'soundbite' of advice he would share with the next generation. “Find out what stimulates you and define your own taste" he states. "Tackling older work is always stimulating and instructive, but the most important thing is finding writers of your own generation who you're going to champion and support.”