Death and the artist

Want to stage a JB Priestley play? Speak to his son Tom, custodian of the author's estate. You may find one person's protection of a genius's legacy is another's artistic interference
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FIONA SHAW starred as King Richard II. Laurence Olivier played the jealous Moor Othello. Artistic licence can overcome many drawbacks to an actor taking a part. But it can do nothing in the face of demands from a defensive playwright. Samuel Beckett may be dead but his commands live on, administered by the all-powerful Beckett estate.

The estates of dead artists are the unconsidered hand in the creative process. Few of us who go to the theatre or watch the latest TV drama are aware of them, still less know the identity of the people of whom they are comprised, but their influence is often considerable. Woe betide the director who wants to experiment with certain artists' work. Feel like cutting a few lines here or trying a funny costume there? Think again. And, as is the way with such things, one person's protection of a genius's legacy is another's artistic interference.

The Beckett estate keeps particularly busy, and it was in action again last week when actresses Jo Heathcote and Jo Waddington were stopped from preparing a production of Waiting for Godot for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. They knew their lines, they had observed the detailed direction. It simply did not occur to them to worry about their sex.

But when their publicity came out, alarm bells rang at Curtis Brown, the agents who protect the Beckett estate on behalf of his nephew and niece. For Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett's antiheroes, are very definitely male.

Peter Murphy, the man in charge, says: "Mr Beckett's writing is extremely specific. You can't get anything more precise. Obviously in this instance it is clear that he didn't give permission for changing the gender of the characters. It is a question of keeping faith with how Mr Beckett wanted it. One of the characters even has a prostate problem and keeps on having to pee. That doesn't happen to women. One isn't going to allow it to be turned into problems of the menopause."

Every year, Mr Murphy receives up to 300 applications from abroad and around 20 from Britain to stage one of Beckett's 19 plays. Grimey Up North, Heathcote and Waddington's company, are not the first to fall foul of Samuel Beckett's directions. The celebrated director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw had a fierce spat with the estate when they toyed with the stage directions for Footfalls, a 20-minute dialogue. A French tour had to be cancelled, and for a while it looked as though Ms Warner might never be allowed to direct Beckett again.

But Mr Murphy feels misunderstood in his efforts to defend the works of one of the 20th century's greatest writers. Sometimes it is not his fault at all, he says. When the Tottering Bipeds, a theatre company with disabled actors, wanted to extend the licence on their production of Waiting for Godot, the extension was refused because Sir Peter Hall was about to do it at the Old Vic with Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard, and had first claim. The Beckett estate was accused of being horrible to the disabled.

On artistic questions, what matters is the text. "We're not restrictive," Mr Murphy says. "We want the thing to breathe and exist, but we have to be true to the plays too. We have to make sure they are not opened to ridicule."

Take Not I, a short work in which a disembodied mouthspews Beckett's prose. "If you want to show a full actor, moving around the stage and eating an apple or something, it's not appropriate," Mr Murphy says. "It's not how it was written. The whole weight of the thing is his eye on what he was doing. It's a peculiarly personal thing. It's not like Tom Stoppard or Michael Frayn or Alan Ayckbourn where they write about life. These are not naturalistic pieces. You don't have to do Beckett, but if you want to do it, it is copyright what you have to do."

Grimey Up North argued that having women act out the roles of the two tramps would bring it up to date by showing their plight was that of mankind, and not just man. But Mr Murphy claims they accepted the decision once the problem was pointed out. It was the press he blamed for the fuss.

TOM PRIESTLEY looks after his father JB's estate on behalf of himself and four sisters. He has sympathy with the Beckett estate on the subject of gender crossing. He thinks making the inspector of An Inspector Calls a woman would change the whole balance of the play. He could not remember any examples of the horrors some directors wanted to inflict, but some were "obviously dotty and one wouldn't even contemplate them". Most applications are decided upon with the guidance of his agent.

"Naturally, you want to generate income from the production of the plays," he says. "But one is nervous about it becoming a free-for-all. One is probably slightly more conservative running an estate than the original writer. The original writer has his or her own feelings and might think, 'Why not?'"

Tom Priestley was taken to his first JB Priestley play when only a baby, and his father used to speak to him about the works before he died. There was never any question of Tom not taking over. "It isn't that I chose to do it. It was my appointed role," he says.

Sometimes it is a straightforward matter of just giving permission for a production to go ahead. At other times, a director might call and have a chat about a work and possibly even discuss the cast. The director Stephen Daldry visited Mr Priestley's stepmother, who was then in charge of the estate, when he wanted to stage what became the award-winning National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls. It single-handedly revived the fortunes of the Priestley estate, which had suffered a slump in the 1950s with the arrival of the angry young men. Tom Priestley has seen it half a dozen times.

Yet while those who have worked with Tom Priestley praise his exhaustive knowledge of his father's works, other literary executors prove less welcome.

When Ute Lemper went to record the songs of Kurt Weill she was surprised to find the Kurt Weill Foundation turn up at the studio. They insisted she could not transpose the songs down to a key that suited her deep contralto voice.

The decree was Lotte Lenya's, Weill's wife and the original interpreter of the songs, who on her deathbed decided they should be sung by a classical soprano. Ms Lemper thought that shrewd. "It was the most brilliant way to make sure that her own recordings remain the ones that people want to hear," she noted wryly.

At the Royal Opera House last year, audiences arriving to see Balanchine's Apollo found the work of the legendary choreographer had been withdrawn and Kenneth MacMillan's The Judas Tree a last-minute replacement. A representative of the Balanchine Trust, set up to protect Balanchine's work, had taken exception to the Royal Ballet's production at the dress rehearsal.

Meg Ryan, the Hollywood actress, could well anticipate a battle over her plans to make a film of the life of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who now owns his late wife's literary copyright. Unhappy at the vilification he has often faced at the hands of Plath supporters, Hughes is expected to look litigious at the slightest echo of their writings in the movie script.

NICKI STODDART, head of drama rights at the agents Peters Fraser & Dunlop, points out that most literary heirs are keen for the works to be enjoyed. And most actors and directors remain faithful to the plays they are involved in. "They do it because they like the author's work," she says. "You want to encourage their creative impulses, you just want to make sure they don't get carried away and have a disaster on your hands. But you'd go mad if you took it personally."

Knowing the director and the actors helps. She has leading cast and director approval for shows in the West End and has established strong links with the best of the regional reps. Reputations count. It is presumably why the National Theatre has been given rare permission for new choreography for its current hit Oklahoma! instead of using the Agnes de Mille original usually specified.

In most areas of copyright - music, art, sound recordings, for instance - all the licensing goes through societies that organise and collect the fees. "There are regular procedures," says Robin Fry, of the city law firm Stephens Innocent. "You fill in the application, pay the fees and it's fairly straightforward."

Drama is the exception. "It is the only area where there isn't a collecting society. You have to go to the literary agent or the person dealing with the estate and get permission. This makes life difficult and unpredictable."

But there is one consolation for actresses of the future. Copyright lasts only for 70 years from the end of the year the artist dies. It may not be much use to Grimey Up North now, but there will be female Vladimirs in the new millennium.