Blockbusters? No thanks

He's one of Britain's top directors. So why isn't Howard Davies rich and famous like some of his peers? Daniel Rosenthal meets him to find out
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A good stage actor will always convey a sense of the life his character has led before the play begins. Watch a cast directed by Howard Davies, and every performer, from leads to bit-players, does something extra: they create a powerful impression of the lives their characters have shared for years. When it comes to conveying collective experience within an ensemble, Davies has few peers. He did it with the residents of Salem in The Crucible; the barflies in The Iceman Cometh; the Keller family and their neighbours in All My Sons (still playing to packed houses at the Cottesloe).

A good stage actor will always convey a sense of the life his character has led before the play begins. Watch a cast directed by Howard Davies, and every performer, from leads to bit-players, does something extra: they create a powerful impression of the lives their characters have shared for years. When it comes to conveying collective experience within an ensemble, Davies has few peers. He did it with the residents of Salem in The Crucible; the barflies in The Iceman Cometh; the Keller family and their neighbours in All My Sons (still playing to packed houses at the Cottesloe).

At the Almeida this week, he hopes to repeat the effect with the French family at the centre of Yasmina Reza's Conversations After a Burial.

"Creating that sense of ensemble for actors and audience is an obsession of mine," he explains, at the Almeida's Islington rehearsal rooms. The goal is always to fight against the impression that he sometimes has as a theatregoer: that minor characters have no life beyond their functional roles in the plot. "I work very, very strongly on all the characters' stories. For example, with Iceman Cometh I chose a very good actor to play Hugo, the guy who spends all his time sleeping, so that when he finally popped up and spoke, he had a major influence on the play."

For Reza's play, first seen in Paris in 1987, the ensemble numbers only six. Middle-class, fortysomething siblings Nathan, Alex and Edith gather in the Loiret countryside for the funeral of their father, along with their uncle, aunt (played by Claire Bloom) and Alex's ex-lover, Elisa, played by Davies' partner, Clare Holman ("For a while, Clare and I steadfastly refused to work together because we thought it would seem improper," he volunteers. "But I could think of no-one who could play Elisa better.")

With a small group like this, or the 20-strong cast headed by Kevin Spacey on Iceman, Davies adopts the same approach. "Since the characters have a shared vocabulary, you must allow the actors a common vocabulary in rehearsals. Everybody will talk about every moment in the play, even if their character is offstage at that point. If that doesn't happen, an actor will feel somehow excluded. We question and discuss problems together. Sometimes the problems can only be resolved by me - because theatre's not really a democracy - but we all subscribe to the solution."

Reza's writing, in an elegant translation by Christopher Hampton, allows for ensemble development, yet it has also left Davies feeling comparatively redundant. In an elliptical style which reminds the director of short stories by Chekhov and Raymond Carver, Reza takes us, in Davies' words, "from bright sunshine to a dark night of the soul". Conversations is a mood piece, the antithesis of a plot-driven work like All My Sons. "I'm much less of a conductor with this than on All My Sons," Davies says. " Conversations doesn't have natural dramaturgy. I can generate some heat underneath it, so the actors are in the right mood for each scene - angry or sardonic or melancholic. But if I try to orchestrate the whole play, it defies me. It's deeply frustrating."

The British premiere of Conversations is a reminder that, while in recent years Davies' revivals have earned the greatest acclaim (Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle gongs for Iceman and Mikhail Bulgakov's sprawling Flight in 1998), he has continued to direct new works, such as Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby, and it was with new writing that he made his name in the 1970s. First he ran Bristol Old Vic Studio and then, in 1977, at what is now the Donmar Warehouse, he set up The Warehouse as the RSC's small London auditorium, and directed plays by Edward Bond, Howard Barker, David Edgar and Pam Gems.

Since the end of his five-year Warehouse regime, however, he has been freelance, following a job-to-job path which has led him to a "very weird" point in life: aged 54, divorced, with two adult daughters but no financial security. "There have been several times in my life when I've nearly run out of money, and I'm approaching another crunch now," he says. "I was paid £7,500 for All My Sons. Research, casting, rehearsals and previews account for about 12 weeks, so you can only do three, perhaps four such productions a year."

This is indeed a "weird" situation. Judged on his ability to bring the best out of talented individuals, Davies might be dubbed theatre's answer to Alex Ferguson; he earns less than the manager of a struggling Third Division side.

All those working in subsidised theatre face similar constraints, of course, and Davies' concern is for the whole profession, because "it's increasingly difficult for directors, designers and actors to stay in subsidised work after a certain age". Yet his own financial "crunch" has arisen, at least in part, because of his artistic integrity.

Last March, he should have been directing the Broadway premiere of David Mamet's Boston Marriage, the tale of two lesbians working a scam in the 1900s. "The producers were suggesting various superstar actresses for the leads, people who really had not had enough theatre experience to do something as sophisticated as David Mamet's language," recalls Davies, his frustration obvious. "To cast these people struck me as mad. I said no persistently and finally somebody on the production team said: 'But think of the money we can make.' I replied: 'Think of the audience leaving at the interval.'

"I can't go down a route which will just earn me the money. My pride is at stake. The show didn't happen, and a plan to do it this autumn fell through for similar reasons, so I was out of work between December and May and will be out of work between October and March, when we will do Boston Marriage at the Donmar."

There are echoes here of his enormously successful RSC production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. At the end of the English cast's Broadway run in 1987, Davies decided to replace Alan Rickman with a gifted but then virtually unknown actor: one Kevin Spacey. "The producers said 'No, he's not famous enough'. We began a battle of wills, which they won by closing the show."

When he reflects on the loss of two such potentially lucrative assignments, Davies could be forgiven for envying the British directors who have hit the jackpot with blockbuster musicals. Trevor Nunn has Cats, Starlight Express and Les Misérables, Nicholas Hytner had Miss Saigon, Sam Mendes had Oliver! and Phyllida Lloyd has Mamma Mia! - their substantial royalty payments making it easier to accept poorly paid jobs for the National or RSC. Davies' problem, acknowledged with a wry laugh, is that if offered the next Mamma Mia! he'd almost certainly say "No thanks", "because there are very few musicals I believe in".

If musicals are not the answer, then why not follow Hytner and Mendes to Hollywood? The trouble here is that his 1994 film debut, The Secret Rapture, adapted from the David Hare play which Davies had staged at the National, was a dismal failure: muddled and melodramatic. He reflects on it with characteristic honesty: "I had a great time making it, but can understand why it got trashed. I believed the story could become a really interesting psychological thriller, but for film I wasn't particularly interested in the more political aspects of David's play.

"But with David doing the screenplay, there was no way we were going to lose that element, so I was constantly persuaded by him to include things I didn't believe would make a good film."

He has been unable "to get arrested for film and TV" ever since, although that may change now that Sony Pictures have lined him up to direct An Instance of the Fingerpost, based on Iain Pears' 1997 novel about a murder in 1660s Oxford. While he waits hopefully for a studio green light, he will continue working on plays by the likes of Miller, Reza and Mamet - work which feeds his ensemble obsession more than his bank balance.

'Conversations After a Burial' by Yasmina Reza previews at the Almeida, London, from tomorrow and opens 12 Sept (020-7359 4404)

Comments