THEATRE / Following their own directions: When it comes to directing, top playwrights are trying to get in on the act. Clare Bayley asked them why

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Brecht and Shakespeare did it - there have always been dramatists who venture out of the study and on to the stage to direct their own works. But with the pendulum swinging away from the literary play, in which the text is pre-eminent, towards a growing interest in the kind of 'total' theatre produced by artists like Ariane Mnouchkine or Robert Lepage, the writer's role as a director takes on a new importance.

'I have a hunger for a more organic kind of theatre, which is not compartmentalised,' says the poet and playwright Tony Harrison, who is directing his latest work, Square Rounds, at the National Theatre. 'I compose spatially and visually, my plays have a scored spatial life. In order for it to be a seamless process, I have to start working with the choreographer, the designer, the composer and even, in this case, the magician (Ali Bongo, the head of the Magic Circle, has acted as consultant on the piece), even before I've finished the text. So,' he adds, 'I have to direct it myself.'

Trying as he is to create a new kind of theatre, Harrison clearly needs to see the text right through to performance. But why do so many other successful playwrights - David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn and John Godber to name but three - regularly direct their own work? Why do they feel the need to sidestep directors? Are they motivated by a deep mistrust of them? Or a megalomaniacal desire to do everything themselves (some, like John Godber, also act in them)? Or is it simply a perfectly logical desire to see their own vision realised?

John Godber admits that he thinks he is the best director of his own work. He too lays claim to notions of an 'organic' theatre. 'All my plays have real theatrical flair because of their subject matter. Bouncers borrows from a lot of different European theatre styles; Up 'n' Under is influenced by Pina Bausch. People see me just as a comic writer, but I think my work is very much maligned and misunderstood.'

He conceives his plays with a very clear visual and choreographic idea which only he can realise on stage. His latest work, The Office Party, 'an investigation into truth and image' set in a city marketing firm, is partly written in blank verse and uses dance sequences to provide another level of commentary on the action. 'I direct my own work because of the satisfaction of a vision where word and gesture and space and reaction all merge together,' he says.

Alan Ayckbourn's directing impulse comes from his technical expertise, and partly also from expediency. As the artistic director of a large provincial repertory theatre (the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round at Scarborough), his priority is for fast, disposable theatre. 'I've always been of the opinion that I'm a director first and a writer second,' he explains. 'After writing and directing over 40 plays, I've now become quite accustomed to cutting the writer in me out when I'm directing - it's a case of a divided personality.' He disputes the commonly held belief that his plays are 'actor-proof'; the fine line they tread between humour and tragedy and the use of subtext makes them, he claims, 'notoriously difficult to direct well'.

None the less, his plays, along with those of Godber and Pinter (who has also successfully involved himself with directing), are among the most produced of any living writers in the country. Nobody, on the other hand, has yet ventured to stage their own version of Tony Harrison's Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, the last theatre piece he created at the National. And it looks as though the same may well be the case for his latest work. Square Rounds, written in verse, has been described as a theatre piece, a black revue, a philosphical revue - anything but a play. Its subject is the link between creative and destructive urges, ingeniously demonstrated by the fact that gunpowder and artificial fertiliser are made from the same process. Square Rounds rejects conventional ideas of character - quoting D H Lawrence, Harrison says his mission is to 'destroy the old stable ego of the character'. Its structure consists of a series of imaginative leaps, or 'volatile empathies' as he describes them, between images and ideas.

'I am dogged about not compromising the vision,' he explains. 'It's so easy on the journey to make it more normal than it really is. A director might say, this isn't a play, perhaps we need this or that to make it one. But this isn't a play. To be honestly committed to the strangeness of the piece and to try and make that the heart of it, not to make it familiar territory, I have to direct it myself.'

He is flexible, however, about the text itself. He arrived on the first day of rehearsals bearing 11 annotated notebooks full of alternative lines, discarded speeches and drawings. The script emerged through the rehearsal process, and demanded considerable cooperation and input from the actors.

Godber, too, rewrites his plays up to the eleventh hour, and makes changes to a text throughout a run according to audience reaction and reviews. On The Piste is now almost unrecognisable from its original 1990 version, and the publishers of Bouncers are exasperated by regular changes to the script to keep it up to date.

Alan Ayckbourn, on the other hand, enters the first rehearsal with an absolutely finished script, and is famous for not countenancing any changes. But isn't this rigidity exactly what directors are there to guard against? Ayckbourn thinks not. 'If you do a job for long enough, you do get it technically right. A lot of actors say that when they mislearn a speech of mine it's very hard, but when they learn it, the rhythm and balance is just right and it works well. The thing that does go wrong sometimes is the whole damn play, and by the time you find that out, it's too late.'

Another function of a director is to be an arbitrator between the writer and the actors. An actor might find it more than a little intimidating to have to suggest to Harold Pinter or Tony Harrison that a line isn't working and ought to be rewritten. Yet often it is an actor or director's interpretation of a part which can endow it with colours and depths not even the writer had seen, and an autocratic writer-director might inhibit this creative input. While Arnold Wesker rails against the power that directors have over playwrights, is there a case for saying that actors need to be defended against the tyranny of playwright-directors?

The actor Nick Lane last year found himself in the bizarre position of playing 'John' in John Godber's self-directed autobiographical account of his youth and early adulthood, Happy Families. 'At first I did think I'd have to do the performance on John's terms, exactly as he really was throughout his life. But John is very flexible, he's not at all precious about the script, it chops and changes all the time - Happy Families wasn't finished until ten to nine on the day of the read-through. And I realised that I wasn't actually playing John - I couldn't have done anyway, I'm about a foot shorter than him - I was playing a character called John.'

In Square Rounds, the actress Sian Thomas doesn't even have the security of a character in the conventional sense - her part is divided between being one of a chorus of 25 munitionettes, and a 200-word speech as Justus von Liebig, the 19th-century inventor of artificial fertiliser, which she plays in a top hat and tails like a music hall compere. 'Tony Harrison asks you to be very disciplined in terms of not emoting. You have to play against what you know, without naturalising it, and it's quite hard. You have to show off your daring dash, yet not be egotistical. I can't imagine a director coming in at that level and asking you to be that naked. You have to suspend the rules you would take in to a normal play with a normal director - you don't know what the rules are, but then neither does he. You wouldn't normally get that close to the process, but here there's nobody in the way.'

Ultimately in the theatre, the only reliable proof of a play is in the production. We can only speculate what new twists the work of Ayckbourn or Godber might have taken if they had been forced to collide with someone else's imagination in the process. The Seventies was a burgeoning time for playwrights; the Eighties was the decade of director's theatre. Perhaps the Nineties will be seen as the decade in which the boundaries between those disciplines collapsed as never before.

Square Rounds opens at the Olivier on 1 October; The Office Party is at Wimbledon Theatre until 3 October and then tours until April 1993; Dreams from a Summerhouse continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until 10 October.

(Photographs omitted)