Caution: theatre director at work

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I'd come to watch Patrick Marber, the man behind the spoof chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You, in rehearsal for 1953, a tragedy by the poet Craig Raine. But a thought kept nagging away. What would Alan Partridge, that most odious of chat-show hosts, make of his creator directing this revision of a great French classic? The thought must have occurred to Marber, who has been interviewed many times by Partridge (in various guises, from an irrepressibly chirpy Beirut hostage to a sullen, and inevitably humiliated rock star). For without a moment's hesitation he was acting out the scene...

Alan Partridge: It's now, now, now, it's now, let me get this right. It's 1953. Is it set in 1953? What exactly is that all about?

Patrick Marber: Well, it's a fictitious 1953.

Partridge: What d'you mean fictitious. Is it real?

Marber: It's imagined. You have to imagine it's 1953.

Partridge: Right. OK. And it's a comedy?

Marber: No, it's a tragedy.

Partridge: Right. What happens?

Marber: It's about love and people kill themselves.

Partridge: (chuckling): Right. Yeah.

Marber: And it's on at the Almeida Theatre.

Partridge: Any sex in it? Nudity?

Marber: Lots of sex. No nudity... The moment someone takes their clothes off on stage people lose interest in the play. I'm really opposed to it because I know what I'm like when it happens - I just can't take my eyes off it. You're talking to someone who's really looking forward to seeing Showgirls and is determined to enjoy it. (Partridge loses interest and the scene fizzles out.)

With that out of the way, it's time to go to work...

There's nothing funny about being in a rehearsal room with Patrick Marber. Not when he's directing Craig Raine's excursion into the cheerless dark and intimidating territory of French neo-classical drama. Even the boldest take on Racine's Andromache, a daisychain of unreciprocated love unravelling in highflown poetry and ending bloodily, isn't going to turn it into a bedroom farce.

Marber prowls and scowls and smokes, stooped and round-shouldered, like a young man - he's 31 - aping fogeydom. Maybe it's his heavy bullish head whose outsize outline calls to mind another actor-playwright-director, Harold Pinter, which pulls him forwards. Occasionally he frowns, a disorienting private kind of frown; it avoids eye-contact and might be shyness and might be arrogance and might just be the way his face arranges itself, it's hard to tell. The atmosphere within the Almeida's barn-like rehearsal- room is almost as frosty as outside in north London where there's a minus- 15C wind-chill factor. You can see the breath of the four actors, wrapped in several layers of jumpers and coats, and huddled in front of the chief's desk to hear who has lost which lines. ("This is a quite radical but it's absolutely what's needed," insists Marber. "We [Marber and Craig Raine] were on the phone all night about this. He didn't like the cuts of poetry, and I agree, but we've had to be ruthless. No, we're hanging on to that, it's his favourite image.")

That done, it's time to tackle a vital scene. It concerns the meeting between Vittorio Mussolini, king of Italy, and his captive, the woman he loves who also happens to be the widow of the man he killed. The fate of her young son whom Hitler's secret envoy has come to claim lies in his hands. Apparently this scene was a particular fiasco in yesterday's unhappy run-through. One actor refers to "the worst crisis yet"; another offers, to "try anything. I'll do it in a tutu if it helps" - a joke of sorts were it not for that edge of desperation. They begin, experimenting with new moves and different emphases. Some actors wait for instruction, others offer their own analysis of the situation. Marber squashes one suggestion with a straight: "Don't confuse the issue. I know this play like the back of my hand," and swats another with, "No. It's an ugly move." At one point he issues an appeal with such severity that it becomes a reprimand: "You still found that image rather conveniently to hand. Find those images. Mean something. Move us. Move the theatre."

"Ah, the scrotum-tightening rehearsal-room," cries poet Craig Raine (apparently incapable of uttering without letting slip an allusion to Joyce) as he bustles in in scrotum-strangling jeans and turquoise anorak. He is bang on cue. Had I been the recipient of Marber's displeasure, I might have moved myself, weeping, from the production, never to return. Fortunately actors are made of sterner stuff. More important, they are obedient. It's clear too that despite the odd clash, these actors trust their director and hang on his every word - particularly when it's "good" or "better", which it sometimes is. And they're right to do so. By the end of the session, the tricky meeting has been completely reblocked and each performance redefined with startlingly fine results. At last each actor seems to be playing the same scene revealing a subtext as eloquent as the text.

It might, of course, have been an elaborately rehearsed performance just for me. Whatever, my presence is now considered extraneous. Extensive cuts must be dished out to four more actors and Marber thinks I've witnessed enough humiliation.

Later, with the day's work completed, the actors gone and the room warm at last, the director, though pale with weariness, has also defrosted. "Don't worry. I'll give you good chat," he says. Those icy and arrestingly blanched blue eyes look merciful. He nibbles chocolate cake, fiddles with a Swiss army knife, and the post-mortem begins. Marber is appalled to be accused of being dismissive - if only selectively - towards his actors. "I'm really depressed you think that - because I don't think of myself as that." He groans and, snail-like, retreats into his cosy black cardie. He eventually emerges with a grin and a shrug. "But I probably am. I hope I wouldn't say "Nah, bollocks, fuck off" to an actor who couldn't cope with it. Some can, some can't. I know what the actor is totally capable of doing and it's my job to get him to do it."

So what about the scowl? "That's the way my face is," he says contradicting himself with a big soft smile. And the tense solemnity of it all? "We laugh a lot," he laughs. "But not today. It's quite hard to generate a jolly atmosphere with this sort of material. I haven't done enough directing to know what directing is but I'm a creature of instinct and I do what feels right on the day. I don't have masterplans. I listen very carefully to the designer and try to listen to the actors.

"I suppose I'm damned old-fashioned. I serve the text and try not to be too flash. I don't like anything flash. I don't like flash cars, flash people. I don't want to be a flashy director. Also I suppose I'm very serious about the work and suspicious of rehearsals which are a laugh- a-minute. I don't want to see a show where I think the actors are having a better time than I am. I've seen shows like that where it's one big jolly wank. I'd much prefer to see some viciously disciplined piece of tough nasty theatre than a great big jolly romp. I think a lot of what happens at the RSC is jolly romping, they dust off some old comedy and everyone overacts and pisses around and it's not funny. That's why I'm doing tragedy."

Most people have a good idea about what Marber finds funny and it's not bland, anodyne frolics. Knowing Me, Knowing You won accolades, awards and the attention of four million devoted viewers; it was also criticised for its cruelty round the edges. Not everyone enjoys jokes featuring wheelchairs or children being hit, even smart-arse children who deserve it, but with this and his pitilessly accurate pastiches of the news in The Day Today and a video diary in The Paul Calf Video Diary, Marber has been responsible for making telly as funny as telly ever gets. Last year Marber temporarily put away such puerile inanities (there will be a new series of Knowing Me, Knowing You when he, co-writer Steve Coogan and producer Armando Iannucci find a mutually free moment in their frantic diaries) and came to the dramatic fore with a remarkably accomplished first play Dealer's Choice. Argument continues about whether this was or was not the calling card of the next David Mamet, but everyone agrees that it revealed him to be a natural at theatrical carpentry. A sad domestic drama about a father- son relationship and two surrogate father-son relationships cunningly disguised as a gang comedy, it drew both on Marber's own experience as a once compulsive gambler (he remains a poker-sharp) and, naturally, his relationship with his father, who was once president of Footlights. ("Yes, I am fulfilling all my father's dreams," confirms Marber. "With all the pressures and pleasures that entails.") The play opened, with Marber making an impressive directorial debut, at the National Theatre and later transferred to the West End. Marber is currently working on the screenplay for Channel 4 and will be directing a new cast in a New York production - "a dream come true".

Such successes have Marber in the rare position of choosing exactly what, when and how his next project will be. Most offers, he says, get the "Flattered. Fuck off" delivered via his agent. Nevertheless, he remains far from arrogant, keenly aware that the bubble could burst. ("In five years' time I might not be so lucky. I might be writing gags for gameshows.") While his emergence appeared to be meteoric and from nowhere, this wasn't the case. He hacked around the cabaret circuit "learning my craft" for several years. The Day Today was a long time coming after "years of thinking I'm never going to get anywhere". Such was his despair that he gave up for a year in 1991 and "did nothing at all". There was frequent depression. "Ten years of clinical depression but never actually in a clinic. I'm not depressed now but if you've been depressed for sustained periods of life you always feel when you're not depressed that you're being a bit unfaithful to what you actually are and you think it's waiting to claim you. But, touch wood, I've had a nice time recently."

One of the nicest times was directing his own brilliantly astute version of Miss Julie ("25 per cent Strindberg, 75 per cent me") for the BBC. Relocated to the eve of the general election in 1945, the psycho-sexual tensions of Strindberg's play were reflected in the social tensions of that time. Similarly, 1953 transliterates a classic, but this is the first time Marber has directed a play he hasn't written. "I suppose I'm doing it to become a better writer and a better director of my own material. When I was directing before it was really what I'd seen in my head when I wrote it. Directing someone else's work means you get inside someone else's head and think, what did he intend? how did he construct the narrative and make a character interesting?" Such a rigorous approach to his craft has, not surprisingly, won Marber a reputation for being driven and ambitious which infuriates him. "It's not true. I'm lazy. I'm a slob. I find it very hard to get down to work; I have massive self-discipline problems. I'm an ex-compulsive gambler. My life could have gone either way and still could. There's a part of me that would like to live in Vegas and eke out some meagre living playing poker."

Certainly it wasn't any old writer whose head Marber was interested in exploring. While reading English at Oxford, Marber rated Raine's poetry above almost anything else. By chance last year when he was searching for a play to direct ("sniffing round book shops, skulking in the London Library") he discovered 1953, commissioned (and rejected as too radical) by Jonathan Miller in 1988. It wasn't produced until last year at the Glasgow Citizen's Theatre. "My response to 1953 was part-fan, part-director, though I wouldn't have wanted to do it if Craig hadn't been available to be at rehearsals and willing to be collaborative. One of the nicest things about working in the theatre and TV is that you get to work with people you admire." While some directors are happy to treat writers as typists, Marber regards Raine as both a collaborator ("A rehearsal in which a script doesn't change is pointless - there's got to be a bit of slack in the writing so that you can make it work for the actors") and a father-figure ("I'd never overrule Craig"). "It's fantastic having him around. He's behaving exactly as I behaved when I was directing Dealer's Choice, the excited playwright pleased that someone is playing his words."

Fewer words than Raine might have wished, but enough to show him off pretty well. While Marber's production deliberately harks back to its original classical Greek source through its set of curved benches which vaguely echoes an amphitheatre, Racine doesn't get a look-in. Marber hasn't so much as read Andromache. "I'm not at all interested in Racine because I'm directing C Raine - suspiciously an anagram of Racine - and what's great about Craig's play is the rugged content and high style that can move between the visceral and emotive very simply, effectively and easily. What makes it fun is that one minute a character is going "Fuck off you cunt" and the next they are spouting high-falutin poetry and it's very beautiful."

Intense as he is, it's clear that fun - a profoundly intense sort of fun - is what Marber seeks and finds in the theatre, as much in other people's creativity as in his own. "When I was 14 I was one of those people seeing plays and dreaming that one day I'd have a play on at the National Theatre, and for it to have been a first play and a success was incredibly exciting. And I still feel like a fan and I still live like a student and look like a student and feel like a student, and still find it inordinately strange to be out there in the world in published form, to be interviewed for a paper. A part of me thinks, this is great, but this isn't me. I'm just a little squit who wants to be something. I still remember being 15 and listening to The Jam's "To Be Someone" and I still feel like that. The moment you stop being a fan, you lose something."

'1953' at the Almeida, London N1 (0171-359 4404), 8 Feb to 30 March