Theatre / 'The whipping boy is Miss Rigg': The director John Dexter, who died in 1989, had a formidable reputation as genius and beast. To mark the publication of his autobiography, three colleagues reflect on his style
I FIRST met John in 1973 when I was at the National doing Jumpers. What I was aware of was this incredibly energetic sparking man who had a huge intellectual force. When he offered me Celimene in The Misanthrope, I decided whatever the difficulties of working with a director like John were, they were worth overcoming.
His rehearsals were extraordinarily specific - he knew exactly what he wanted. The production was a success and as a result I entered John's gallery of approved actors. He used the same people he loved and trusted, again and again - people who he sensed he could develop - and would, like a bull terrier, drag this talent out of them.
We had a lot in common in both coming from the North. It meant that candour was forgivable. John always found difficult people who were oblique, but he knew he could give me these swingeing notes in public and I wouldn't go away and sulk. The second time we worked together was on Pygmalion. He was in blazing form that first day when he addressed the cast. He said 'I'm famous for having a whipping-boy in a production. The whipping-boy in this production is going to be Miss Rigg.' I was the whipping boy, but the notes were always spot on - he'd asked for more vulnerability in a scene from me and I patently hadn't delivered it. At the end of the run, he said: 'Miss Rigg, you are about as vulnerable as the north face of the Eiger.' I discovered in his diary a line which explains why he gave one such a dressing-down. He wrote rather plaintively, 'Why does bringing out the best in others always bring out the worst in me?'
The last production I did with him was Heartbreak House, in which he wasn't very well, though intellectually completely on the ball. On the first night he was too ill to sit at the back of the stalls. He lay on a sofa in my dressing-room and listened through the Tannoy. I was much saddened by this vision by a man who to me was the personification of electric energy, intellectual and physical. That was the only time I ever saw him in repose.
In all the intervening years he'd approached me with various projects. To him, work was everything. His motto was 'to work to live, to live to work'. And he demanded that of everybody. He believed that if you had a talent you had a duty to realise that talent each and every day. So when I married and had a child and suddenly became very single-minded about marriage and motherhood, he simply couldn't understand it. He couldn't believe that I would walk away from my career. That was the time that we came closest to falling out. I said no to The Cocktail Party too - my daughter Rachel was starting nursery school or something - and there was a mega- explosion. Ultimately he forgave me, but there was a bit of a silence because I'd broken the rules, I'd played hooky. He didn't understand priorities - he was frightening in that way. I hated not being in his good books and I hated letting him down.
He was honourable, he could also be a beast - he bruised people's egos, but he could never understand why anyone else behaved dishonourably. The only time I witnessed John having a tantrum was with technicians because he was furious that they were holding up the actors - it wasn't a torrent of abuse, he chose his words too beautifully, he was far too witty to be a sledgehammer.
I LOVED him. He was fun, he was outrageous, he caused havoc wherever he went. I knew him from the early years; he worked for me at the National; I worked for him at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
He was obsessive about his work; he was the most organised, tunnel-visioned director in preparation and casting. He ran rehearsals at a high fever-pitch of intensity. It was quite dreadful if you were the one he was picking on. We had several rows on the subject - that side was quite monstrous, but there was another side that was tender-hearted, dear. I can't resolve the contradiction, but I can say it was worth it.
At the National he used to upset everyone, but he stopped everyone treating it like a sausage machine. They used to beg me not to use him again, and I told them that we needed him to jolt everything up.
On his day he was a brilliant director, much better than he knew. He was always always chippy and uneasy about his own learning (Dexter didn't go to university) and social position, which was ridiculous because we were all out of the same drawer, but it worried him.
It's quite difficult to define him, but to me he seems to be a fine example of the post-George Devine movement - with Michael St Denis, Glen Byam Shaw - the real food of the Royal Court then. He, Bill Gaskill, Tony Page and the others fought like cats and he would have hotly contested the fact that their work was like each other.
His work was clear, hard-edged stuff and it all had enormous courage and clarity. The Royal Hunt of the Sun was an amazing piece - he had a great affinity with Peter Shaffer's work. But I never thought his productions of Shakespeare had the full originality of the man.
And he was a wonderful opera director too. I believe he made himself into an opera director, he wasn't really very musical but his production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites was the best ever - quite brilliant.
WORKING with John on The Devil and the Good Lord was an extraordinary experience. His style was furious, zealous, religious in the pursuit of perfection. People told me he was monstrous and kept asking me if working with him was a nightmare, and I was always waiting to be beaten up - but it never happened. What he hated was preciousness or pomposity in actors. He had a terrific sense of humour - wry, witty, black. He could be very denigrating. There was a boy in the production and over and over again John would say to him 'You can't speak properly.' I asked him if he was OK and he said 'Yes, John Dexter is paying for speech lessons.' That was typical of John, making apparently vile comments and then doing something about it.
He always thought the play was more important than any one actor, and offstage he'd lay into anyone who thought he was more significant than another actor - he was a true socialist in that way. What was rare about him was that here was someone who had directed Olivier's Othello, yet had been able to adapt his values according to the time, and always belonged to the present.
His roots were in the early days of the Royal Court, writers' theatre. He was a writer's director, working out what the writer was trying to do with the play. He was highly academic but he talked only in the simplest terms. His unsentimentality made him appear abrasive, there was no shilly- shallying, no pussy-footing - but it wasn't personal, it was work. I still aim for the standards that he set. I find myself saying 'Would John Dexter approve?'
'The Honourable Beast: A Posthumous Autobiography' by John Dexter is published by Nick Hern Books ( pounds 25).
Interviews by Georgina Brown
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