The new Page

Last week, Anthony Page's `A Doll's House' opened to rave reviews, a welcome return to form for the director after years in the limbo of trashy US television. By David Benedict

It's Sunday morning, a shade early for all concerned and Anthony Page is plying me with coffee and playing the perfect host in his comfortable, rambling Notting Hill flat, but feeling a little befuddled. "We had a bit of a celebration last night," he confides apologetically. Small wonder. Reviews for his production of Ibsen's A Doll's House starring Janet McTeer and Owen Teale have verged on the rhapsodic. Hardened critics have been ransacking Roget's Thesaurus for superlatives. Page, however, isn't content to sit back on his laurels. "With Ibsen in the West End, unless they're good, we won't remain there very long," he remarks carefully. Evidence of a streak of practicality in someone whose genial, urbane manner suggests a home at the sophisticated end of the world.

His tall, imposing figure, expansive rather than overbearing, is evidence of his family's military background in India, and indeed he was in Delhi when a fax arrived from producer Thelma Holt inviting him to direct A Doll's House. "I'd only ever done Ibsen once, years ago. I'd admired Janet, so I said yes."

Aside from the bravery of the performances he has coaxed from his cast, the flow of Frank McGuinness's translation - "Ibsen made a great point that the translations should sound as if they were overheard in a drawing- room," says Page - much of his success is down to the element of suspense that charges up the production. Reviewing his 1979 re-make of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, Pauline Kael commented that "Page doesn't seem to have an instinct for the thriller form". If that's the case, he's learnt a trick or two.

Ibsen's thriller-like plotting has been underlined by beefing up Nora's potential fate. The plot centres around a secretly negotiated loan on which she has forged a signature. "In the later version he cut a lot of references to forgery - Krogstad telling her, `Your whole future could be at stake' - which leaves the issue a little understated. I always felt it was quite peculiar that Nora gets suicidal quite so quickly, so we put back a few lines from the original draft to make it stronger."

Early ambitions to act were squashed by the actor Ernest Milton, who saw Page in a school play and told him he "didn't have histrionic personality". Undeterred, Page spent a summer in New York, drinking in the excitement of Broadway's golden age with Elia Kazan's productions of Tennessee Williams plays, which propelled him towards directing.

As a student, he spent a vacation working at the Gate Theatre in Dublin with Hilton Edwards. "His directing style was picturesque, but old-fashioned. You made a blueprint before rehearsals and then placed it on the actors, which I then did at Oxford because at that stage I didn't know how to animate them rather than impose upon them."

The animation came after graduation, when he began studying in New York with Sandy Meisner, a leading member of The Group Theatre, revered by Page as "a great teacher of acting and directing". This led to his abandoning the director-as-autocrat approach. Meisner gave him Stanislavsky and The Method and the utterly un-British idea of improvisation. At the same time, Page met the director Tony Richardson, who gave him his entree to the Royal Court in its heyday.

"Things were done out of conviction, intelligence and excitement about the material," he recalls. None the less, he was slung out after his joint production of John Arden's Live Like Pigs, which opened to terrible reviews. "I was pushed out into the wilderness for a while." For a few years he did odd seasons in repertory theatres but, eventually, "I reached such a point of poverty, I went and worked in television."

He returned to the Court in 1964, casting Nicol Williamson, then relatively unknown, in John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, a production that made Page and Williamson's reputations. He stayed there on and off for another nine years, during which time he directed a succession of Osborne premieres. Page has fond memories of their collaboration, but it earned him little thanks in Osborne's famously vitriolic autobiography. Page shrugs it off. "Reading it wasn't very enjoyable, but I was a minor character, thank God."

He also revived Waiting for Godot. "Beckett worked with us for the last fortnight. It was an incredible experience. He could hear the whole play in his head, right down to the tone of voice. We orchestrated it together. He had incredible powers of concentration but was very, very shy. As soon as rehearsals stopped, you thought he was going to retreat back into himself, but we did occasionally play piano duets together, which was lovely. We used to go round to Jocelyn Herbert's for dinner and she had a piano so we'd play Mozart and Schubert. He hated `intellectual' conversation. People would come up to him and compare him to Dante and he couldn't bear it. That's why he loved Billie Whitelaw. She had this very unsophisticated, direct quality."

The three of them collaborated on Beckett's tour de force, Not I, a perilously dramatic monologue in which only the speaker's mouth is visible. "I went to Paris and asked him to read me the play in the tone of voice he felt it should have, and he did. It was an extraordinary bit of acting, this anguished, terrified, compulsive voice pouring forth. I said, `Is this really how you want it played?' and he said, `Yes.' I've never had such a clear message from a writer before." When rehearsals began, Page wanted to work from the emotions outwards, building the necessary speed in later. Beckett felt otherwise. "Billie was getting into a total panic and was very torn between us. At one point she said, `But I don't think I'm getting the feeling of it,' and he said, `Well, all I require is audibility.' Billie replied, `Why don't you get the cleaning woman then?' "

If Page's name is not up there among the greats, it's because he disappeared off to the USA. Intent on making films, he ended up as a bankable TV director. He lived the Hollywood life - there's a signed Hockney in the bathroom to prove it - but his initial work, such as serious TV docudramas about the Cuban missile crisis or Second Serve, a striking piece about the transsexual Renee Richards starring Vanessa Redgrave, gave way to dross. Latterly, he was directing the likes of Joan Collins in Monte Carlo and Scandal in a Small Town, a TV movie about a mother discovering politics and fighting a Fascist schoolteacher in middle America, a well-intentioned piece turned into a camp classic by the casting of Raquel Welch as the heroine.

Desperate to return to England, he finally persuaded the BBC to let him direct Rodney Ackland's Absolute Hell, one of the few plays that genuinely lives up to the "unjustly neglected" tag. That led to the kind of phone call of a director's dreams. Would he like to direct Middlemarch?

In these post-Pride and Prejudice days, it's easy to forget that at that point the BBC was paranoid about programming period drama. He ran into Alan Yentob in an opticians in Ladbroke Grove, who told him, "You realise you could ruin the BBC, don't you?" Fortunately for all concerned, the rest is history. He bounced back on stage, taking over Albee's Three Tall Women, easing Maggie Smith to yet another Best Actress award. He did it again for Judi Dench in his expertly-choreographed National Theatre revival of Absolute Hell. Janet McTeer's current performance may well make it a hat-trick.

With A Doll's House up and running, Page is still keeping an eye on it. He cannot understand directors who disappear after opening night, never to be seen again. "It should be written into the contract that you have to go back at least every seven or 10 days. You have to, because people get exhausted or bored, or forget their objectives and it quickly becomes stale. Acting is a very difficult art... it's like tightrope walking." He's considering writing a handbook for virgin directors. Before even discussing the mise en scene, there's the question of how you create a relaxed energy on stage and how to bring individual actors to their own peaks. Acting, he believes, is all about conviction. Chastened by his escape from the Hollywood trap, he is more sure of his own convictions. Asked about his plans for the future, he merely replies, "Just to do things I feel very strongly about".

`A Doll's House' is at the Playhouse, London WC2 (0171-839 4401)

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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