Between the lines

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The Independent Culture
It's funny, but one of the greatest inspirations in my career came from a group of actors I've never seen. In 1958-59, I was studying art at Newcastle University when two friends told me about a production of The Three Musketeers at the Edinburgh Festival. It was by the French political company run by Roger Planchon.

Planchon's troupe had apparently once visited a town and their show had gone badly. So he asked the citizens what they really wanted, and the reply was "The Count of Monte Cristo". Planchon took a copy of Dumas' novel, tore it up, handed bits to each actor, and asked for ideas in staging it. This immediately gripped my imagination. It was the first time I'd heard of a book being dramatised like that. I knew about improvising from reading about Marlon Brando and the Actors' Studio, but before this I'd thought it was an American thing. Planchon's ideals of a theatre in which everyone could collaborate has haunted me ever since.

Some of those ideals were realised for me much later when I worked with Bill Bryden at the National. Bill was one of the first directors in Britain to get his inspiration from books. We'd do Don Quixote or Michael Herr's Vietnam book Dispatches, largely because Bill didn't like any new playwrights except David Mamet. Bill tried to solve problems like Planchon. He, too, was keen to establish a theatre of imagination in which everyone could collaborate. My friends had told me that in the Musketeers when Planchon wanted to show the Channel, someone just rolled a blue cloth across the stage. Twenty years on, when Bill did his greatest show at the National, The Mysteries, the baptism of Christ was done with a role of blue cloth. A coincidence, but an apt one.

In a sense, Planchon's aim was to make a truly popular theatre, that's to say a theatre of the people, and that's still an aim of mine. Unfortunately we don't seem to have got much closer towards getting it. The theatre going public is still essentially a bourgeois one. It depresses me a little that the things they like will always get put on. They want to keep theatre for themselves, a discerning group that doesn't want any other to share their discernment.

n 'Comic Cuts', Jack Shepherd's new play about the working-class heroes of music-hall, is at the Lyric Studio, London W6 (0181-741 8701). To 17 Feb

Interview by Adrian Turpin