THEATRE / Out with the old, in with the new - As a director, Steven Pimlott has always shied away from new writing, choosing to fix his imagination on the classics instead. But, as Michael Arditti reports, not any more . .

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When Max Stafford-Clark directed The Recruiting Officer at the Royal Court in 1988, it was only his second classical production in 20 years. Indeed, so crucial was the presence of a living playwright to his working method that he compensated by writing a letter to the play's late author, George Farquhar, at the end of each day.

The exact opposite is true of Steven Pimlott, who has enjoyed an equally distinguished career directing Moliere and Sondheim at the National, Shakespeare and Eliot at Stratford, Mozart and Puccini at the Coliseum, Andrew Lloyd Webber on Broadway and yet has never attempted a new play. This is about to change. He is currently preparing not just one but two premieres: Michael Hasting's Unfinished Business for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Phyllis Nagy's Butterfly Kiss at the Almeida.

After reading English at Cambridge, Pimlott became a staff producer at the English National Opera and, since then, has maintained a delicate balance between theatre, primarily in the regions, and opera worldwide. Most of the new work that he has been offered has been operatic and he is clear about his reasons for rejecting any other. 'I've never had confidence in texts - rather than music - which I've always felt to be too cryptic.'

When it came to new plays, his lack of confidence lay in his own judgement. 'I'm sure that there are people who can read new plays and immediately recognise the quality. I feel that I can't; that's why I've never done them. I used to work out what a play was about in the study; now I trust to the rehearsal room. This makes it harder to do new plays because it's more of a leap in the dark.'

While Stafford-Clark felt the need of a playwright so strongly that he had to 'resurrect' one, Pimlott approached collaboration with Hastings, the distinguished author of Tom and Viv and Lee Harvey Oswald, with unease. 'I was afraid that he'd have all the answers, nervous that I'd feel inhibited or even superfluous. That hasn't been the case at all. He's present all the time but not in the least proprietorial. He's enabled us to discover connections and resonances and never once said, 'This is what I mean.' '

The obvious advantage in working with a living writer is the chance to make changes; and yet Pimlott's training in the classics has deterred him from exploiting it. 'I'm slightly nervous of the wasted energy of constant rewrites. My tendency as a director is to make it work. Michael is a very literary writer; the play is a highly finished artefact and it has not seemed appropriate to me to ride rough-shod over it.'

On the other hand, he relishes the break from working on pieces that are so buried in preconceptions that the rehearsal period becomes 'like cleaning an old master, taking turps to it and seeing if it's brown or perhaps scarlet'. And he is enjoying the sense that working on a new play is like tapping into the zeitgeist. 'In Unfinished Business, the central character is a fascist, though the play is not interested in politics per se, but rather in the psychology of fascism. A key line is, 'The last battle is between capitalism and the fascist state.' Three quarters of the way through rehearsal, we had both the Gatt talks and the Zhirinovsky thing in Russia and I'm sure that people will think that lines reflect that but, in fact, the first draft was written before the Wall came down. What is exciting is how the rehearsal period seems to take on the quality of the news. That is certainly not the case if you are doing Coriolanus.'

It is for this reason that he is awaiting the opening with particular interest. 'You know when you do La Boheme that people's reactions will be to do with their preconceptions. You have to work out how much is just that they're not getting what they wanted. Here that doesn't apply. Normally, I dread critics, but I'm looking forward to seeing what they'll make of it.'

As soon as Unfinished Business opens, he starts work on Butterfly Kiss. The contrast could not be more pronounced. While Hastings' play is imbued with a quintessentially English mix of wit and irony and even takes the form of a country-house thriller, Nagy's is very American. The acclaimed young writer of Weldon Rising focuses on the relationship between three generations of women, the sexual initiation of a girl by the friend of her father and her murder of her mother.

Pimlott sees it as a 'wonderfully raw play, very sensual, very erotic and funny, but with latent violence and abrasiveness'; and, although apprehensive about tackling its American idiom, feels thoroughly at ease with its freewheeling structure. 'In England, we like to know where we are . . . It's a room; it's ten past three and the butler is about to bring in tea. But I'm wedded to theatre as dreamscape. And this play is a great landscape of the mind and soul.'

Having made the 'leap into the deep end' of new plays himself, Pimlott has a firm proposal for ending the reliance on revivals which dominates the current repertoire. 'I don't believe there's been an age since the Renaissance when there has been such a rediscovery of classics. What we need is for the National, the RSC and the West End to put a veto on it and say that we'll have a year of only doing new plays. So long as you do good work, people will go to it.'

Although such a blanket ban may be Utopian, one day he may be in a position to enforce one since, after 18 years as a freelance, he now hankers after running his own theatre. 'I've never even applied for one, but, once you turn 40, you start to think of it.' He believes that the problems facing regional theatres are not only those of gross underfunding but of wrong priorities. 'When I went as Associate Director to Sheffield, it had restaurants, souvenir shops and secretaries, but no actors and no writers; they were just what we got if there was any money left]'

He insists that it is only by creating such an ensemble that theatre can thrive. 'Americans tell us that we have the best theatre in the world and we believe it, but see the Berlin Schaubuhne or the Hungarian Three Sisters and you'll know that they are wrong. We may be the best people in the world at putting on a play in four weeks; but that's different. All great theatres - Shakespeare's, Moliere's, Chekhov's - came from an ensemble. All we need is 12 actors, two writers, two directors . . . and no board]'

'Unfinished Business' opens tonight at the Pit, Barbican (071-638 8891); 'Butterfly Kiss' at the Almeida in April (071-359 4404)

(Photograph omitted)