It was an appropriately dramatic day on which to meet a theatrical legend. Spectacular thunder, lightning and hailstorms swept up the Thames towards the National Theatre, flooding streets and halting trains, as if ordered by some mad techno-wizard designer. Simon McBurney, innovative actor-director and co-founder of Complicite, has been described by Stephen Daldry as "one of the dozen or so most important directors working anywhere in the world", by Peter Brook as worth treasuring and by Tom Morris (formerly of the BAC, now at the National) and Michael Boyd of the RSC as inspiring them in their own work.
Despite the fanfares, he turns out to be a slight, unheroic looking figure in combats and a grey T-shirt. He is thoughtful - almost professorial - as he discusses Measure for Measure, the play he is here to direct, running his fingers through thinning hair and choosing his words with painstaking care.
The legendary bit of his life history goes something like this: in 1983, in Paris, together with Marcello Magni, Annabel Arden and Fiona Gordon, the young McBurney set up Theatre de Complicite. After studying under Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaultier, themselves legendary teachers of mime, the quartet (subsequently based in England) established a multicultural company which proceeded to inject a new spirit of physical exuberance into the text-bound British tradition. After, that is, they had won a Perrier award for stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival.
Complicite (as they are now known) first appeared at the National in 1991, performing Durrenmatt's The Visit. They have been "mainstream" ever since - although labels don't stick easily. They continue to shake up accepted theatrical assumptions and almost every show is a surprise, from the adaptation of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles 12 years ago to the award-winning The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, in 1994; from the many-layered Mnemonic, a study of memory first seen in 1999, to last year's multi-media Japanese success, The Elephant Vanishes (which returns for a second run later this year).
Combining comedy with philosophy, science and history, Complicite seek to examine through story what it is to be human. They are intellectually daring, yet the adjectives most frequently attached to their work are "physical" and "visual". "The only people who think of me as 'visual'," says McBurney patiently, "are the English, and that is because they have an under-developed sense of it, despite a highly developed sense of irony and language. Whereas here we talk of 'audiences' - listeners - in France attenders at a play are 'les spectateurs' - watchers. I treat the visual with as much respect as the spoken word." In any case, he says, "everything begins with a text of some sort."
Mnemonic was sparked by his reading Konrad Spindler's book, The Man in the Ice, about the finding of the body of a man preserved for 5,000 years in Alpine ice which, McBurney says, "reads like a thriller". The Elephant Vanishes, performed in Japanese, is based on the stories of Haruki Murakami. And to prove once and for all that he can make pictures out of words alone, McBurney has created "three enormous pieces", including an adaptation of Mnemonic, for radio, "which I regard as a highly visual medium".
For all his versatility, McBurney admits that when the newly appointed Nicholas Hytner first invited him to the National he realised that he had been resisting returning to Shakespeare (his last foray was A Winter's Tale some 12 years ago). He was not inspired by the first suggestion, A Midsummer Night's Dream: "I couldn't find the thing to make me stick to it. It's not as simple as a concept you bring to a text... It's more like when you go for a walk through a wood and a bramble catches you; there's a certain chance element in your choosing one project over another." Measure for Measure provided that necessary thorn, although the more prosaic reason is that he "couldn't bear the thought of Complicite fairies."
McBurney may be better known for devised theatre, but Shakespeare is in his blood. At school in Cambridge, where his father was a professor of archaeology, he was always acting, taking minor roles in student productions and counting the famous scholar and director George Rylands among his family's friends.
He then read English at Cambridge University ("so I was steeped in Shakespeare"), but afterwards left for France where he lived for four years. Was he in search of a counter-balance to his text-heavy education? McBurney hesitates: "I don't know why I went to Paris. I don't know why I do a lot of things. Then I do interviews and make up reasons and start to weave patterns, when really there's a great sense of chaos. I know that my father had just died. I wanted to escape England. I'd also got involved in an unhappy love affair and I wanted to run away." He made the most of his experience, working with a French theatre company and making a film with Jacques Tati's daughter. Ever since then he has revelled in exploring other cultures. His father being American and his mother Irish, he never really felt British anyway, but spending time in any other culture "tells me about my culture, my language and therefore myself." And he hasn't just limited himself to theatre. He popped up in the Brit flicks Bright Young Things and Tom and Viv, and has recently completed filming on Jonathan Demme's latest, The Manchurian Candidate, alongside Denzel Washington.
But despite his pedigree, McBurney approaches Shakespeare with awe: "It is such a challenge. I find it intimidating and I'm rarely sure I'm capable, but it is marvellous, endless, enormously rewarding to engage with the text. Shakespeare resists ultimate definition and is constantly changing according to the time and culture." Measure for Measure seemed, on rereading, "highly appropriate for this moment. I don't mean there is a particular event that I can attach it to or that it is not appropriate to other times - Shakespeare wrote for a continuous present - but I felt the combination of the darkness in the play together with the way the comedy illuminates was apposite not only to these times as I look out of this window or pick up a newspaper but appropriate to where I am, what I'm capable of doing."
The story of the Duke of Vienna who leaves his apparently ice-cold deputy, Angelo, in charge while he wanders in disguise among the immoral populace, obviously raises questions about the nature of authority, about responsibility and order, but McBurney was "struck by the complexity, the poetry, the thematic weaving within the text, and, although the abdication of authority is a fascinating subject, it is sexuality which drives the play." Your mind goes immediately, he says, to the scene where Angelo, lusting after the postulant Isabella, offers to free her brother Claudio (whom he has condemned to death for fornication) in return for sex with her. She is disgusted at the suggestion, but "she is as much an extremist as Angelo in his vow of celibacy. They really spark off each other."
The Measure for Measure posters, displaying the long legs of a young woman in provocative hot pants and thigh-high boots, underline the sexy theme. A modern-dress production, this is part of the National's Travelex £10 season. "Another reason I agreed to come was that I admired Nicholas Hytner's decision to reduce the cost of some tickets to £10 and, having seen the audience that attracted, I felt inspired to perform to them." But there are cost implications. With less than 20 per cent of the budget he had for The Elephant Vanishes, he has decided on simplicity, no elaborate costumes and a minimal set. "But that is a marvellous restriction," he says. "When you are limited in the number of things you can use, it exercises the muscle of the imagination and there is no reason why any work of art using less money shouldn't be as exciting." The Olivier stage, disliked by many directors, presents a problem - for McBurney it is that the audience is "not unified". He has wrestled with various solutions, determined that the audience will listen. "At one stage I thought of doing it in the dark." One wonders what the fans of "visual" theatre would have thought. In the end he has decided to section off a part of the stage so that the playing area is small, intimate.
McBurney finds Measure for Measure's ambivalence attractive - the fact that no character is simply good or bad, its denying of the dualism which he believes bedevils Western thinking and leads to such crass notions as "an axis of evil". But while he does not hesitate to make a political point in conversation, he would not like his production to be seen as didactic: "There are questions going on in Shakespeare at this stage in his life - he wrote Othello the previous year and would go on to Macbeth, King Lear and the great last plays - about whether there are any moral absolutes. Political points make themselves, but the idea of puncturing hypocrisy is extremely important." As is the fact that almost everyone indulges in deceit or role-playing in Measure for Measure and, ultimately, what is truly resolved? We are left with unanswered questions about the fate of all the characters and their relationships: "The play goes on after the end of the play," says McBurney. The production process is not, he says, so very different whether he is dealing with newly invented material or a classic. "In Shakespeare you need, just as in your own piece, to understand the architecture of it, to discover - unearth - the real subject matter as opposed to the subject matter you find on first reading. It is a parallel process: your own work you build in layers; with Measure for Measure you strip away and build again."
His rehearsal methods seem to be fun, if exacting. Hiroshi Takahagi, general manager of the Setagaya Theatre in Tokyo and producer of The Elephant Vanishes, says that the Japanese cast had to do yoga for an hour every morning and play ball games. And yes, they did enjoy working with him in the end, "but during the long rehearsal period they were tired because he always changed everything all of a sudden." He has recently directed Al Pacino in Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in New York. McBurney found him "fascinating to work with, to get to know and observe - he is so vulnerable, yes really, lacking in self-confidence." Despite a few furious arguments, the film star turned out to be "a good company person. I had him rolling on the floor like everybody else, and I admired him for that."
Paul Rhys, playing Angelo in the present production and a long-time admirer of Complicite, is working with McBurney for the first time. He is impressed with the influences - "a blissful mix of Biblical, Elizabethan and modern" - that come into rehearsals. "He is very open, very relaxed," says Rhys. "There is music all day, all sorts: early English, Mahler, Wagner, club music - sound, lighting and video... It's very exciting." It is intellectually rigorous too - Rhys has done so much research, he is thinking of putting a book together.
So what next for McBurney? Is there any truth in the rumour that he is interested in Alexandra Palace as a venue? He loves old Victorian theatres and admits he is excited by the possibility of working in that "magic shell", but nothing is definite. Sometimes he has the urge, he says, to give up directing for acting in film.In the immediate future he is committed to going to Japan to rework The Elephant Vanishes. Otherwise, he would have taken a part in Measure for Measure himself. "Don't ask me which one - but as I'm constantly disobedient, perhaps Lucio." Fitting that he should choose the character described as "a fantastic", who in McBurney's own words, "punctures hypocrisy and power". Nevertheless, rumour has it that he would have liked to play the Duke - and perhaps a combination of the two sums him up: an authority figure who makes things happen, but one who also pricks establishment bubbles. *
'Measure for Measure': NT Olivier, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), previewing, opens Thur, to 31 July. 'The Elephant Vanishes': Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7518), 2 to 25 SeptReuse content