The best director we never had

THEATRE: He's one of Britain's finest directors, yet he works almost exclusively in Canada. Robert Cushman asks Michael Langham why he left us
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The Independent Culture
The most satisfying productions of Shakespeare give you both text and texture. The play has been dug to its roots, so that every line resonates with hidden meanings while still sounding like the natural utterance of complex, flesh-and-blood characters. You get this in Trevor Nunn's best work and in Deborah Warner's. And you get it in the work of a man who has been at work much longer than either of them. His name is Michael Langham.

Langham is a British director who for decades has worked mainly in New York or at the Canadian Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario - not to be confused with Stratford-upon-Avon, where he has also worked. Langham was born in Somerset in 1919, became hooked on theatre as a young PoW in Germany - getting up play-readings every Monday night for a literally captive audience - and worked steadily during the Fifties at the Old Vic and Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1956 he directed a bare-stage Hamlet at Stratford, with the late Alan Badel in the lead. It was cruelly treated by the critics, but had a force and freshness that excited many less jaded spectators. Among the drama students who saw it was Brian Bedford, a future leading actor of the Albert Finney/Peter O'Toole generation who, after scoring a West End success in Peter Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise, crossed the Atlantic and became a star in the States and Canada. He recalls: "When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came on, they were carrying suitcases. That doesn't sound like much now, but in those days it was a revelation. Langham made Shakespeare surprisingly real: something to do with your own life."

A few years on, in 1960, Peter Hall started the Royal Shakespeare Company. Langham was one of the directors Hall called on for his first season, and chose to do The Merchant of Venice, with the young Peter O'Toole as Shylock. The production got the best notices of the year, is still remembered for its balance, humour and excitement, and seems in retrospect the apex of O'Toole's stage career.

And now? "I think," said Hall, when I told him last year how much I had admired Langham's recent work in Ontario, "that Michael's doing wonderfully." Hall himself had just qualified for his bus-pass, and so presumably responded all the more warmly to a director who is thriving in his seventies. (In Europe old directors become sages; in Britain and America we expect them to quietly fade away.) Langham himself wryly attributes what he sees as a late flowering to having been "slow to grow up: my greatest growth has been in the last 20 years". (His wife, even more wryly, amends that to "the last five".) One important influence was becoming head of New York's prestigious Juilliard drama school in 1979: a job for which Hall recommended him and which he held for 12 years. "I now understand actors better, I understand myself better, so I'm a better director."

Before the Juilliard, he spent most of the Seventies in Minneapolis, running a theatre created by Tyrone Guthrie, the great British director who had long been Langham's mentor. At the start of his career, Langham had been an earnest idealist. "I was a romantic socialist, I wanted to do plays that would make the world better. I was on a serious crusade." But Guthrie, who believed in "the importance of not being earnest", brought out the showman in Langham; while still based in Britain he gave him work at the Old Vic and was eventually responsible for the decisive move of his protege's working life.

In 1953 Guthrie had been invited out to Canada to start the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; housed, for economic reasons, in a tent, it was performed, for artistic reasons, on a platform stage, a sophisticated modern distillation of Elizabethan basics. Open staging was Guthrie's personal passion; he had come to believe that the plays could never work properly with-in the confines of a proscenium. Langham arrived to do a guest production in 1955, and found himself being groomed for the job of artistic director. He took the job a year later and stayed for over a decade.

This was far longer than Langham had intended, but there always seemed more to do. He oversaw the transformation of the theatre's outer shell from canvas to concrete, built up a muscular acting ensemble in a country with very little classical tradition, and gained complete mastery of a thrilling but demanding space.

To begin with, seasons were short, and Langham was able to make frequent working visits home. (One of my earliest theatrical memories is of a Two Gentlemen of Verona which he directed at the Vic; it was done in Byronic costume, and still seems like one of the most unforcedly funny Shakespeares I've ever seen.) His early RSC work fell into this period too; for one play he brought over his new Canadian star, Christopher Plummer. Then, in 1969, he directed a lacklustre Way of the World at the National. He hasn't worked in the English theatre ever since, though he and his wife still live in London.

His wife is Helen Burns, a London-bred actress with a European background. He is tall and reserved, she is short and voluble. They've been married 45 years, off and on. (On, then off, then on again. "One is," says Burns, "better-behaved in later years.") He first clapped eyes on her in 1949: "I saw her in a play called The New Morality and was very struck by her" - so audibly struck that Dame Wendy Hiller, who happened to be sitting in the row in front of Langham and was a friend of Burns's, rushed backstage after the show to tell the actress about her voluble admirer in the audience.

Before they met, Burns had an early success as Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, a play that has haunted the pair. "We didn't know till years later," says Langham, "that our honeymoon hotel in Amalfi was where Ibsen stayed. Our son Christopher was conceived there." (He's Chris Langham, the actor and comedian, now appearing in London in Les Miserables and the award-winning R4 comedy People Like Us.) Yet despite such intimate connections it wasn't until last year that Langham worked on an Ibsen play, when he and his wife co-directed, perhaps inevitably, A Doll's House. It was a finely conceived and staged, if unevenly acted production, that did justice to the play's roots in reality and its status as myth. The pair did it in Wolfville, an uncannily beautiful town in Nova Scotia and home of the new Atlantic Theatre Festival. This has a Stratford-shaped stage in a converted hockey-rink, and has got off to a tearing start to which Laugham's skill and prestige have been crucial. The idea is to use local acting talent as much as possible, so he is once again involved in building a young company. Langham is billed as artistic associate, and has directed or co-directed four out of six plays in the first two seasons. Before A Doll's House he and his wife collaborated on an astringent and ultimately very moving Cherry Orchard. On his own he has done a very lucid Tempest and a mellow, melancholic Twelfth Night, that was in no way revolutionary but whose great distinction was that every moment in it seemed freshly-thought-out, every line rang true, and every actor seemed in the right place at the right time - a rarer occurence than it might seem.

Twelfth Night was also the first play Langham directed professionally - at Coventry in 1946 - and it is the greatest tribute to him that he can take a play so familiar to himself and everyone else and still make it so unforcedly fresh. Three decades after his RSC triumph, he similarly rediscovered The Merchant of Venice; without shirking the darkness in it he made it work as romantic comedy. His Shylock this time - less the Hebraic prophet than O'Toole had been, but funnier and equally obsessed - was the same Brian Bedford who had so admired Langham's Hamlet. They have now made up for their delay in collaborating by doing nine plays together in as many years: all of them in Ontario with a couple of transfers to Broadway. Of their working relationship, Bedford says: "Michael usually makes a very good show. You feel very secure within that. He's one of a handful of directors who can make plays come vibrantly alive. He's totally obsessive and committed to what he does. When he's working I don't think he thinks about anything else."

Helen Burns defines her husband's talent by saying that he's "brilliant at moving people in rhythm with the play. He makes stage pictures that illuminate what's going on underneath." As for me, I don't know whether the current British theatre has a place for Langham's experience, his craftsmanship and his humane vision. But I think it would be worth the while of the National or the RSC to find out. !