David Benedict on theatre

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The Independent Culture
"Maybe I should have gone and watched somebody... but somehow, it just didn't happen. I think it would have scared me too much." Before directing the film version of Jonathan Harvey's smash hit Beautiful Thing, Hettie Macdonald (far right) had never been on a film set. Looking at the beguilingly funny, beautifully made film, you'd never believe it.

Macdonald's debut is smooth and assured. She coaxes powerful performances from the two teenage leads and allows the tremendous Linda Henry, as the tough but tender mother, quite rightfully to steal the picture. Working on the film and the play's original production, she guided Harvey through numerous drafts, building, structuring and refining.

Working on new plays is a specialist skill, and Macdonald has it in spades. She sums the process up as: "Being able to be the eye of the audience for a writer." Now she's doing the same thing with The Thickness of Skin. Playwright Clare McIntyre leapt to prominence with Low Level Panic, but this is her first since My Heart's A Suitcase in 1990, and Macdonald sees the work as a significant development. "This play is more complex, dealing with bigger ideas. It's great to have a play to work on that is reflecting society and her response is very heartfelt." The central character decides she wants to help people and takes in someone who's homeless. The play focuses on the divide between those who have and those who have not, asking quite simply, how thick-skinned are we? "It's about individuals, so it's quite small in that sense, but it's a much bigger play than that."

They've only been working together since Christmas, but Macdonald is stunned by what they have achieved in the time. "Clare has been amazing, restructuring and doing a lot of cutting. Over 20 pages have gone." The excitement in her voice is tangible. McIntyre is in good hands.

`The Thickness of Skin' is previewing at the Royal Court, London and opens on Tuesday. (0171-730 2554)