David Jones: Film and theatre director closely involved with the RSC and a specialist in the plays of Gorky and Pinter
Friday 26 September 2008
Some directors become unjustly undervalued in a theatre avid for celebrity and the next "hot" name. David Jones was one such; a versatile director with a scrupulous talent who worked for nearly half a century in the UK and the US, on both stage and screen, he never won major awards or attracted wide publicity. But then, lacking any trace of personal ambition, he never sought them.
In the rehearsal room his presence – tall, impressively craniumed and with a resonant, deep voice – commanded (not demanded) respect and received it. Actors always felt relaxed under Jones's affable authority which, without any touch of the pedagogue, was marked by something of the don he might easily have become.
Born in Poole, Dorset, in 1934, Jones was educated at Taunton School and went on to gain a First from Christ's College in a Cambridge then imbued with the F.R. Leavis discipline which left on Jones, as it did on other key directors of his era, a marked influence. All his work, whether in Shakespeare or in his special fields of the work of Maxim Gorky and Harold Pinter (he had a long association with the latter), was stamped by a fierce loyalty to the text and the world of the play.
After graduation and National Service in the Royal Artillery, Jones worked initially at the BBC (he joined in 1958) in an enviably vibrant period for arts programmes. The redoubtable Grace Wyndham Goldie – who also nurtured John Schlesinger and Ned Sherrin – assigned him to what became Monitor under Huw Weldon. With Schlesinger, Ken Russell and later Melvyn Bragg also attached, many of its best programmes in this heady time – notably a beguiling profile of E.M. Forster and in-depth studies of Lawrence Durrell and the great Irish writer Frank O'Connor – came from Jones. In 1962 he succeeded his Cambridge friend Humphrey Burton as Monitor's editor.
At the same time, always tugged between camera and stage, Jones began a long association with the fledgling Royal Shakespeare Company then, under Peter Hall, branching out from Stratford to include a metropolitan base at the Aldwych Theatre in London. Hall had initially wooed the leading impresario Michael Codron to oversee the Aldwych operation and when the latter chose to continue his solo commercial career, Hall encouraged Jones ("a much better choice", said Codron) to come on board; Hall had admired Jones's Monitor work and his occasional productions of new plays (including Boris Vian's The Empire Builders in 1962) and a bracing revival of John Whiting's Saint's Day (Stratford, London, 1962). Later, when Trevor Nunn succeeded Hall in 1968, Jones's role increased significantly.
Quietly, Jones was a key player in that first RSC Golden Age, working closely with Hall and then with Nunn, Terry Hands and John Barton to plan the company's trajectory. His own RSC productions included several plays by the wayward figure of David Mercer – Belcher's Luck (Aldwych, 1966) featuring one of the many major performances in Jones's productions by David Waller, After Haggerty (Aldwych and Criterion, 1970) with Frank Finlay memorable in the central role of a troubled writer and the puzzling but absorbing Duck Song (Aldwych, 1974).
The passion Jones felt for the mercurial volatility of Russian drama was seen first in Ostrovsky's Diary of a Scoundrel (1967) for a strong Liverpool Playhouse company including the young Penelope Keith, a production of buoyant, pitch-perfect precision. After some comparatively routine work – a bland Tempest (Chichester, 1968) in a distracting all-white set; a patchy scrutiny of Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie (Aldwych, 1969); and dutiful observance to the shade of Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble in Günter Grass's bottom-paralysing The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising (1970) – finally Jones began his revelatory work on some of his favourite plays.
Enemies (Aldwych, 1971) was perhaps the finest of these trail-blazing reclamations of Gorky, with a mouth-watering cast including Ben Kingsley, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart and John Wood, which Jones staged with bravura control of a demanding text. The Lower Depths (Aldwych, 1972), a more familiar play, still came up new-minted under his hands, while both Summerfolk (Aldwych, 1974) – subsequently staged by both Chichester and the National Theatre – and The Zykovs (Aldwych, 1976) were genuine discoveries, satisfyingly rich in production detail.
Jones was unluckily saddled with the sorry saga which developed out of The Island of the Mighty (Aldwych, 1972), an admirably bold Arthurian epic, thick with dense, clotted language, by John Arden and Margaretta d'Arcy. In rehearsal he was caught between the opposing views of cast and authors – the arguments were fiery – and, understandably, the finished production, with rather too much dry ice swirling around the mythic drama, emerged as decidedly strained.
Also for the RSC he directed Graham Greene's The Return of A. J. Raffles (Aldwych, 1975), which never quite built on its splendid opening but made a most elegantly staged divertissement and, another major rediscovery, Harley Granville-Barker's acerbic look at English landed-society mores in The Marrying of Ann Leete (Aldwych, 1975), in which he drew a splendid performance from Mia Farrow.
Although Peter Hall directed the major RSC Pinter productions, Jones had a close relationship with the dramatist (as an amateur actor he had played the disturbing McCann in The Birthday Party), and in 1978 he directed Pinter's screenplay of Aidan Higgins's lyrical novel Langrishe, Go Down. Against a soundtrack of plangent John McCormack echoing in a decaying country house (Jones, when asked why Pinter had wanted to adapt the book, astutely noted that it was a kind of love letter to Pinter's crucial time in Ireland as a young actor under Anew McMaster), Jones captured all the fine tensions of the story, involving a high-summer love-affair between a Bavarian guest (Jeremy Irons) and a shy Irish girl. The luxury casting included Judi Dench as a love-starved spinster; Jones was much amused by the outcry at a tender scene in which Irons licked whipped cream off Dench's nipples.
Subsequently Jones directed a well-cast version of Pinter's Betrayal (1983), preserving the original's backwards time-scheme and, with a minimal amount of "opening out", subtly tracing all the complex substrain of cloaked or disguised thoughts; he was especially successful with Patricia Hodge, often coming in for close-ups which seemed to lay bare the character's soul. His version of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) also drew fine performances from Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.
After his first marriage to the actress Sheila Allen, and with a new partner (the photographer Joyce Tenneson) Jones based his career in the US. There he directed several Pinter productions, including Old Times (with Pinter as Deeley on its American tour), the rarity of The Hothouse and a much-praised No Man's Land (Roundabout Theatre, NY) with Jason Robards Jr and Christopher Plummer. What promised to be a highlight of the Pinter/Jones partnership – a film based on Pinter's favourite Kafka – sadly ended up as the unexpectedly flat The Trial (1993) with Kyle MacLachlan; unaccountably, it failed completely to capture the original's scarily surreal grip.
A valedictory production in the UK saw Jones return with a magisterial staging of the papal drama The Last Confession (Chichester and Haymarket, 2007); the play was rarely more than journeyman (Jones worked hard on the text with Roger Crane, its American author) but the performances – led by a mesmerising David Suchet – bore throughout the Jones trademarks of muscular clarity and precision.
David Jones, film and theatre director: born Poole, Dorset 19 February 1934; married Sheila Allen (two sons; marriage dissolved); died 19 September 2008.
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