Miller looks back in languor

In his new play, <i>Mr Peters' Connections, </i>soon to open at the Almeida, Arthur Miller, now 84, presents a quasi-elegiac review of a man's life. David Benedict talks to Michael Blakemore, its distinguished director
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Hands on buzzers: which 1945 American novel opens with the following paragraph: "He had gone to sleep exhausted by the heat; his bones hurt. For a long time he lay there purposely seeking a dream that might draw him off to unconsciousness. And seeking it he fell asleep, and a dream arose." I'll have to hurry you... it's Focus by Arthur Miller. What, the playwright wrote a novel?

Hands on buzzers: which 1945 American novel opens with the following paragraph: "He had gone to sleep exhausted by the heat; his bones hurt. For a long time he lay there purposely seeking a dream that might draw him off to unconsciousness. And seeking it he fell asleep, and a dream arose." I'll have to hurry you... it's Focus by Arthur Miller. What, the playwright wrote a novel?

Yes, and it's packed with ideas about work, memory and identity that he has since repeatedly re-examined on stage. The opening premise is revisited in Mr Peters' Connections, his most recent play which follows the emotional journey of an elderly man who is visited in dreams by his loved ones during an afternoon nap. In 1987 Miller described his first (untitled) play, - about a conflict between a father and two sons - as being "the most autobiographical dramatic work I would ever write" but maybe he jumped the gun. Given that he will be 85 in October, it is hard not to see this quasi-elegiac but questioning play about a man reviewing his life and facing his dwindling future as being more than somewhat autobiographical.

His critics believe that Miller's voice has always been too present. He wears his morality heavily giving the impression of authorial infallibility, as if a completely unimplicated person were writing about human frailties from a judgemental distance. This shift towards autobiography is, therefore, something of a surprise.

Not according to Michael Blakemore, invited by Miller to direct the European premiere at the Almeida. Ten years ago he directed Miller's After the Fall, which he maintains is autobiographical but not in the obvious way. Its pop-singer heroine is bewildered, besieged and finally overwhelmed leading everyone to leap to the conclusion that she is a barely disguised portrait of Miller's late wife, Marilyn Monroe. Blakemore cannily cast Josette Simon, a black actress unlikely to trigger memories of Monroe. "It's an enormously personal and courageous play that tries to correlate the great historical catastrophes about which we read - the Holocaust and things like that - with the most intimate moments of our lives to see if there is a connection between the two. Which is not only difficult but a rather necessary thing to do."

Blakemore is similarly impressed by the absorbing, uncompromising quality of Mr Peters' Connections. "It's an extraordinarily brave play about age, and it embodies that aspect of Arthur's work which is very rarely discussed, the almost surreal element. This is non-realistic and non-political, a long way from the slightly dogmatic tone which is assumed to be part of his work. He's more interesting than that."

He points to the scene where Peters talks of no longer understanding anything, feeling that nothing he ever believed in is actually true. It's almost a rebuke to those who believe Miller is all about firm - nay smug - conviction. "Really, from After the Fall onwards, the plays have been full of second thoughts."

If anyone can tease drama out from beneath ideas it's Blakemore, director of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. Now well into its second West End cast, it's also a Broadway hit where it netted Blakemore this year's Tony award for Best Director. He also bagged Best Director of a Musical, a unique double. Not bad for a man of 70. "I'm delighted to be able to smirk at my fellow directors and say 'you haven't done that' but I have to confess that it's only a coincidence. If I had done Copenhagen a month later and won in consecutive years no one would have thought twice about it." He grins. "I'm pleased all the same... and I hope nobody ever gets it again."

Without wishing to lessen his achievement - Copenhagen and Kiss Me Kate are both splendid productions - the consequent brouhaha is faintly absurd. Anyone would think he'd won awards for mastering both rocket science and domestic science. Isn't the only difference between directing a musical and a play the business of scale? "Of course. You simply try to understand the material and tell the story in the terms the material demands. There are certain technical things in musicals - which can be rather like commanding an army - but the job there is very much to ensure that the various departments involved in getting this huge thing onstage are all doing the same show."

On Kiss Me Kate he worked alongside the playwright, John Guare, ( Six Degrees of Separation) who had been drafted in to tinker with the material. That was always going to be a tough call as, aside from boasting Cole Porter's finest score, the reason why Kiss Me Kate is on the shockingly short musicals A-list is its sharp, sassy book. It's a brilliantly executed play-with-a-play about a touring company whose warring leading players mirror the musical they're mounting: The Taming of the Shrew.

Working closely with writers is something Blakemore has always done. Like everyone, he has had off days - AR Gurney's, er, comedy, Sylvia, in which Sarah Jessica Parker and then Zoe Wanamaker mistakenly played a dog (and I don't mean figuratively) and even Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan, which was distinctly rocky. But he has peppered a career of revivals with prizewinning new work, including Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart's City of Angels, Anthony Minghella's Made in Bangkok and countless Peter Nichols greats including A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health, and Privates on Parade on both stage and film. He and Nichols share a love of popular entertainment, more for its skill than its content. "The more serious theatre is, the more it finds excuses for itself when it fails. Whereas in popular entertainment there's no debate. You see it with laughs: it either works or it doesn't."

That stems from an Australian adolescence spent watching movies at Hoyts Plaza in Sydney with dreams of becoming a director. He followed his father to medical school "very sulkily and rebelliously" but after three years of failure his father relented. Having acted at university, Blakemore became Robert Morley's press agent. "I told him I wanted to be a director. And he said, 'Well my boy, you'll have to develop a great deal more personality than you have now. I suggest you begin as an actor'."

That meant England. "Australia was then still an anglo-celtic, rather philistine society so you had to get out." He wound up at Rada in 1950 and then vanished into the provinces doing smallish parts in weekly rep, which he loathed. "Like the whole of Britain in those days, where you were was where you stayed. Reps were very hierarchical and you stuck to your category. The people who were in it for too long were destroyed as actors. If you were the leading man you had to stuff a huge new part into your head week after week. Lots of actors developed terrible muscular twitches and vocal mannerisms to get by."

His directing break came in 1966 when he went to the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, one of the provincial powerhouses which then fed the entire theatre network. Blakemore is deeply disapproving of the cult of management which has since invaded all such theatres, a process akin to John Birt's dismantling of the BBC.

"When I was at the Citizens all the energy went into what was on stage. The place was run by three secretaries, a front-of-house manager, two artistic directors, that was it. Nobody else. Money was really well spent. Now so much goes on all these different departments... I'm a great believer in subsidised theatre but one really has to watch the proliferating bureaucracy."

He also dislikes the idea that the director is separate from the actors. He sees the role as having evolved from Elizabethan companies. "One of those actors who maybe wasn't the best in the group but who had an eye for the work of others and everyone learned to trust him so they'd say, 'Henry, just watch the scene would you'."

That idea of connected detachment is as good a definition as any. From there, it's about hearing and realising the writer's intentions. "With a play like Mr Peters' Connections, until you start working on it it's very hard to assess what the tone of voice is or how a scene works. That's been our experience. It's a very different play to the one I started rehearsing. Lindsay Anderson used to say, 'rehearsals are where I learn what the play is all about'."

'Mr Peters' Connections' previews at the Almeida from Thursday 20 July (020-7359 4404)