Books: Derail this stage-struck express

Michael Arditti argues that it's time to bring down the curtain on the cult of Stephen Daldry
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A Director Calls

by Wendy Lesser

Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99

Two years ago, the acclaimed stage director Stephen Daldry blocked the publication of Christine Eccles's A Year at the Court because of what he took to be unflattering references to himself. He need have no such fears about Wendy Lesser's book, which sees his meteoric rise as exemplifying all that is best in contemporary theatre. Lesser is a sensitive observer with a wider range of reference than usual in theatre writing. Much the most interesting passages in her book dispense with Daldry altogether and examine theatrical representation and the relative importance of writer and director. This crucial debate follows on Arnold Wesker's fascinating The Birth of Shylock And The Death of Zero Mostel, which is written from the opposite, writer's perspective.

Theatre, as Lesser points out, hinges on interpretation. But it does not follow that all interpretations are equal. She quotes a dissertation by David Saltz which argues that plays have "material existence only in performance". Lesser distances herself from the more extreme of Saltz's views - but not far enough. To Saltz, evaluative judgement has no place: one interpretation or performance is as good as another. But there remains an original act of creation - the writer's - which must be respected. Yet the ascendancy of the director, largely for financial reasons, has distorted the theatrical balance and led to an emphasis on production rather than play.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Stephen Daldry's own productions, which Lesser lavishly praises. It is significant that she, like other admirers, returns to the formal qualities of the work; in particular the actor-audience relationship. It is equally significant, though, that, apart from Tirso de Molina's Damned For Despair (by far his finest production), Daldry has directed no acknowledged masterpiece. The very incompleteness of his chosen vehicles allows him to impose his personality on them.

Admirers of Daldry's work most often cite its visual power; but this is less the genuine poetry of companies such as Theatre de Complicite than the empty spectacle of the mega-musical. Even so, it is more Starlight Express than Cats. Daldry is the perfect "serious" director for a theatre dominated by hi-tech extravaganza. Despite this eloquent apologia, it is impossible to argue with John Lahr's verdict on An Inspector Calls: that the director's primary purpose was "to sell the idea of himself to the British public". In this, he has met with spectacular success.

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