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)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick