Who's afraid of upstaging the rest?

To see the world premiere of Edward Albee's latest play, don't go to Broadway. Go to Malvern. Interview by David Benedict
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It's a matter of record that Camus was a useful goalkeeper, but did you know that Racine beat Brecht in the semi-finals? No, I'm not pumping up arts prose with a fashionable but inappropriate reference to football. I'm simply reporting fact.

There is possibly no better indicator of the ever-increasing compass of the Almeida theatre than that it currently fields four football teams, all of whom have been playing away at the Malvern Festival. Last Friday, the big question backstage was: who was Racine going to meet in the finals - Shaw or Albee?

As joint artistic director, Ian McDiarmid observes: "when we announced our plans, people asked `Why Malvern?' or even `Where's Malvern?'. " In fact, a summer residency there had been planned for ever since the Almeida toured there with Jonathan Kent's production of Chatsky back in 1993. Five years later, after Malvern's truly inspiring lottery-funded rebuild, Islington has gathered together 40 actors, 104 backstage and admin people, loaded up seven 45 foot articulated lorries and taken to the hills to revive and reinvent the Malvern Festival.

By the time it ends on Saturday, over 15,000 people (that's more than half the population of the town) will have seen a fairly remarkable range of events, from David Hare introducing a screening of Mildred Pierce (one of his favourite films... did you have him down as a Joan Crawford fan?) to concerts by Michael Nyman, The Tiger Lillies and more. But the real meat is the four productions. As befits a festival created by George Bernard Shaw, Michael Grandage's impressive production of The Doctor's Dilemma sailed in at the climax of its tour. Throwing caution to the winds, the other three productions have been brand new.

The Right Size came on board for Brecht's Mr Puntilla and His Man Matti, which has since arrived in Edinburgh to glowing reviews. Diana Rigg has again joined Jonathan Kent for Ted Hughes's new translation of Racine's Phedre, now touring and opening at London's Albery Theatre in September. Then, last Friday, came the big coup. Edward Albee's The Play About The Baby is not just a new production; it is a world premiere.

Albee can't quite recall the chain of events which led to the Almeida stealing a march on the rest of the world, but of his 22 plays, at least four have premiered in Europe, and London has seen something of an Albee revival, not least of which was the Almeida's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That was directed by Howard Davies, who has been entrusted with bringing Baby to life.

Not that the two men see eye to eye on everything. "Edward hates symbolism and metaphor in the theatre," explains Davies. "He hated the fact that there were no doors on the Virginia Woolf set and ivy on the back wall, yet his writing is loaded with verbal games-playing and he throws around existential notions of what words and language can do. He and I had a fierce debate in the first three days of rehearsal because he wanted the play done in what he described as `empty space'. I said there was no such thing, philosophically or artistically, and we argued strenuously about it." In the end, they reached an honourable compromise, respecting each other's point of view. "I thought he was very generous," says Davies. "He could have said, `I'm the author, this is what I want, pay me proper respect'."

The 70-year-old Albee, a droll man as dry as sandpaper, would probably be amused by the idea of "respect" which has often been in fairly short supply, even at the height of his fame when Virginia Woolf went Hollywood. He never wanted Taylor and Burton who, amongst other things, were far too young. He'd signed on the understanding that he was getting Bette Davis and James Mason. If only. There are no such casting glitches on the similarly sized Baby, thanks to Alan Howard, Rupert Penry-Jones, Zoe Waites, and Frances de la Tour, whom Albee admired in Three Tall Women.

Understandably, he bristles slightly at the suggestion that that was the play which brought him in from the cold. He's not impressed by the point of view that if it isn't happening in New York, it isn't happening at all. "My plays have always been done by smaller companies in the US and in Europe." Nonetheless, after premiering in Vienna, Three Tall Women arrived off-Broadway and the critical response was like an official homecoming for the Prodigal Son. "Maybe they thought it was time to stop shitting on Edward," he muses. Whatever the reason, he wound up winning the Pulitzer prize - his third. He affects an archly dismissive manner. "Well, you have to get your third before you get your fourth."

Suddenly, everyone started combing through his back catalogue. "There are a lot of productions of the plays round the world which is fine and nice, but I'm not fooled by it. I could wake up two weeks from now and be just as unpopular as I ever was." Unpopular is the word. His first play was the massively influential The Zoo Story. Further highly regarded one-act plays led to Virginia Woolf and a major backlash. Once lionised by the American critics he was now savaged. Bizarrely, most of the attacks had less to do with the manner of the writing than the matter: critics turned themselves into censors.

From the perspective of the Nineties, the virulent homophobia from senior figures is frankly dumbfounding. Taking a stand in a now famous article, Howard Taubman, drama critic of the New York Times, warned "normal" theatregoers of the pernicious influence of closeted homosexual drama. Two years later, the notorious, flaunting heterosexual Philip Roth spat upon Albee's Tiny Alice for its "ghastly pansy rhetoric" and dismissed it as a "homosexual daydream". Four years later, William Goldman was playing a similar game in his famous analysis of Broadway, The Season. He took apart Albee's version of Everything in the Garden in an eye-opening, chilling chapter entitled "Homosexuals". Even two years ago, Melvyn Bragg (not exactly a leading authority on sexual politics in art) announced in The Times that Virginia Woolf's George and Martha were more like two gay men.

Albee's position on all this is quite clear. He's not a gay writer. "I'm a playwright who happens to be gay. I don't think sexuality is very interesting as a subject, although I have written gay characters." The idea that a homosexual cannot write a convincing heterosexual is patently absurd. He does, however, utilise the distance and perspective of a gay man. He'd be happier, though, if it were a level playing field: "I think we should insist that Arthur Miller be referred to as a straight playwright."

The dramatists he reveres - Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett - are all European, and his ironic but sternly moral sensibility is frankly un-American, which has also not endeared him to many, but ultimately reputation is not something that concerns him, he says. "If you worry about that stuff, you become owned, an employee." So what is a writer's job? "To take your chances. Whatever is in your head, make the assumption that people will want to participate in it and don't pull back because you think it might be unpopular or difficult. Let it be what it needs and wants to be. Do it, don't compromise. Don't anticipate."

The job description certainly doesn't extend to explanations. I point out that the spoonerism "What a wangled teb we weave" is a direct lift from his 1987 Marriage Play. He raises an eyebrow. "My characters are very articulate. She's obviously been to see my earlier play." Politely refusing to discuss how The Play About the Baby fits into the canon - "I find it impossible to think of myself in the third person" - he talks instead about how clearly he sees and hears his plays in his head. This clarity is the result of a fascination with classical music since childhood. "A playwright has to be a visual artist and a composer. I can stand at the back of something I've directed and almost conduct it. Theatre is like a string quartet. It's not very popular."

The Malvern attendance figures belie his Eeyore-ish pronouncement. What could be described as predominantly middlebrow, middle-aged audiences have been cheering and stamping at Brecht and the response to his first night is extraordinarily enthusiastic too. The only let-down is that the post-performance barbecue and football fixture is rained off so everyone is forced to feast on chicken legs indoors.

After drinking in the excitement, Albee slips quietly away from the party and I catch him standing at the entrance peering suspiciously through the dark drizzle in the direction of his hotel. In response to my observation about the warmth of the audience response, he cocks his head to one side and remarks with a slight frown: "Plenty of work to do." I point to the abundant laughter and the rapt quality of attention and finally his facade of asperity cracks. "Yes," he nods, allowing a flash of happiness to flood across his hawkish features, "it's a good place to start."

`The Play About the Baby' is at the Malvern Festival to 22 Aug. Previews at the Almeida (0171 359 4404) from 27 Aug

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