SHOW PEOPLE / 'Life' reached by stages: Matthew Warchus

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The Independent Culture
IN FEBRUARY, Thelma Holt, the well-known theatre producer, took Matthew Warchus, the unknown theatre director, out to lunch. She'd seen his Christmas production of Fiddler on the Roof at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and had sent for his CV. Reading it, she saw that he'd taken Ben Jonson's virtually unstageable Sejanus to the Edinburgh Festival. Anyone who'd done that, she thought, must be worth meeting.

Over lunch she asked if he would like to direct Much Ado About Nothing in the West End. It would be the first Shakespeare on Shaftesbury Avenue for 55 years. Warchus said no, he wouldn't like to. He'd read it once, never seen it performed, and thought it was 'slightly camp, trite, nonsense really'.

Nevertheless he read it again. This time he saw it as a swirling heart-of-darkness story, one that spiralled into chaos and tragedy. The idea that it was some sort of Oscar Wilde play was 'massively incomplete'. This was something rough, dirty and satirical. So he said yes to Thelma Holt and threw everything into 'asserting an original view'. He started with some inspired casting: Mark Rylance as a short, rogueish, Belfast-bred Benedick, and Janet McTeer as a tall, tattooed Beatrice. This was Much Ado About Something.

Next, Warchus took a hit from the 1992 Edinburgh Fringe, a bizarre, sprawling Gothic story of the Glasgow underworld by Simon Donald called The Life of Stuff. Putting it on at the Donmar Warehouse, he gave it a new fluidity, theatricality and coherence. The consequence was that last week Warchus was responsible for two of the five best plays recommended by this paper. They are his first two West End shows.

Sitting in a junk room upstairs at the Donmar Warehouse, Warchus explains in an intense, tentative sort of way that 'My ambition is to do less plays.' Well, he is getting on: he's already 27.

Matthew Warchus (pronounced war-tchuss) wasn't born into a showbiz family, quite. His father was an actor at the RSC in the early days of Peter Hall. 'And he did something with Zeffirelli,' says Warchus, slightly vague about this side of things, 'he's got all the stuff at home.' By the time he was born, in Rochester, Kent, in 1966, his Dad was studying at theological college. He is now rector of St Stephen's, Acomb, near York.

Warchus grew up in Selby, 20 miles from York. There was no theatre, no cinema, and the only drama was the school play, Grease or Joseph. He was in both. Someone turned up at Selby High School one day, when Warchus was about 14, and said they were setting up the Youth Theatre, Yorkshire, and they wanted a Selby branch. He became a founder member, learning 'a vast amount' about theatre games, improvisation, and group exercises.

For work experience he helped build sets at York Theatre Royal then went back most Christmases to crew on the pantos. He joined the National Youth Theatre on his second attempt and learnt the Plantagenet Pose. 'I just have to do this for you.' Warchus stands up in the room, turns his head at 45 degrees, folds his hands, and looks watchful. 'That's how you had to stand when you weren't acting.' Warchus later worked there as an assistant director, a job he also filled at the Bristol Old Vic and the RSC. Both the NYT and the Bristol Old Vic gave him productions of his own.

His taste then was for 'big theatrical events that were based on ensemble story-telling': Nicholas Nickleby, the Mysteries, and work by the company Cheek By Jowl. At Bristol University his first production was a dramatisation of Coleridge's Kubla Khan. The audience sat inside the stately pleasure dome (a muslin tent), while the actors - using candles, drums and shadows - flickered outside. Will he revive it? 'I'd love to.'

He studied classical guitar and also conducted. 'When you're directing plays, everything is nuances, and so negotiated and woolly. What's going on? Maybe this, maybe that. But with conducting, you open the score, pick up a baton, and everyone's there and you go like that' - he waves - 'and this whole thing comes off the page. Suddenly it's there.'

As he sits there, soft-spoken, earnest, hands moving round in the air to find the right word, it's easierto see him negotiating the nuances than commanding the big battle scenes. But his 12 years in the theatre - pantos, youth workshops, student productions, drama degree - have left him hugely competent.

JudeKelly, artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse, saw his National Youth Theatre production of Coriolanus at the Bloomsbury in London and was struck by his maturity and assurance in handling a big play with large crowds of untrained actors. She offered him a year's contract as resident director with the option to renew for a further two. Warchus took with him the young designer Neil Warmington, who had worked on Coriolanus. They combined their theatrical flair with Calderon's Life is a Dream and Fiddler on the Roof - before coming south for Much Ado About Nothing and The Life of Stuff.

Warchus says no a lot ('Or read quite a lot of plays and decide not to do them.') But he's saying yes next year to a Shakespeare (he can't say which yet) for the RSC, Troilus and Cressida for Opera North, and two more plays for West Yorkshire Playhouse. Does he think, oh here we go, 30 years on the treadmill, directing play after play? 'All the time. Yeah. I'm not going to.' What will he do? He hesitates.' I really enjoyed acting, so maybe I might do a bit more acting.'

'The Life of Stuff' is at theDonmar Warehouse (071-867 1150) to 6 Nov.

(Photograph omitted)