Arst: Searching for the key to a successful revival

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NEXT YEAR I'm directing a famous but little-revived Fifties musical which must, for boring reasons, remain nameless for now. We are in the thick of preparations. My team of collaborators is assembled and we're slowly forging the language in which to tell the piece.

The producers and I determined that we wanted to make it new, while avoiding either updating the text or by reverting to Fifties retro-chic; we want to come at it from an unexpected angle to reveal it as more fully itself.

This of course is what everyone wants to do; very few directors arrive with the intention of creating a piece of museum theatre - unless they are forced by an intransigent estate to do so - although some may set out simply to "zap it to 'em" in the most basic way possible.

The most striking example of the unexpected angle approach in recent theatre history was the hugely successful production of An Inspector Calls, in which Stephen Daldry and his designer Ian MacNeil resorted to a stage- craft that JB Priestley would never have recognised - but which made a piece long regarded as a clapped-out war-horse into the most pertinent show on the London stage.

It's a hard trick to pull off, this identifying the core of the piece and then liberating it into the audience's imagination. It also sounds a trifle onanistic. Why not just do the show the way the author wrote it? It seems logical.

After all, we look at old films without qualm, in fact, with delight; we look at paintings and buildings that were created centuries ago, with simple pleasure.

The crucial difference is that these films and edifices were made in their time, by the living. If we attempt to imitate the ethos and the attitudes of the time in which the text was created, we become involved in reproduction, not, alas, in the biological sense, but in the sense known to the furniture industry. The sense of creation is fatally absent.

The theatre moves on all the time. The thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of participants in its multifarious activities each making his or her contribution, large, small, even infinitesimal - are between them evolving the state of the art, for better or for worse, day by day. The Zeitgeist permeates us all, consciously or not; acting style belongs as much to its epoch as does the style of the design or of the lighting.

The audience's perceptions and expectations are constantly changing, too, to the extent that an acclaimed production of only a few years ago can seem oddly disappointing; that word again.

Any attempt to find a new language of design for its own sake will provide a purely superficial innovation: to set it now, for example, once a favourite ploy of directors in the search of a fresh angle, normally suggests a failure of imagination.

Of course there are, or must be, parallels to contemporary life, but it's in what is different that the fascination lies. The tough thing lies in engaging with the essence of the piece in question, which is what Daldry and MacNeil so brilliantly did with An Inspector Calls, identifying it as neither a cryptic detective story or a piece of theatrical leger de main, but as a hard-hitting analysis of society.

Where does that leave me with my forthcoming musical?Well, of course, there are musicals and musicals. Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner have turned their attention to the great American musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and revealed their engagement with deep and sometimes difficult themes.

When I directed My Fair Lady I tried to find anew the delicious and sometimes quite eccentric wit of the original.For various reasons it was not a complete success, perhaps precisely because we became obsessed by style.

Certainly on the New One, our task is clear; its raison d'etre is to spread joy and delight, and that is what we are gathering together this week to engineer in the wittiest way we know how.

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