"Nobody seems to be doing anything unusual. Actors walk and talk and writers write words on paper, so people believe a director just says 'Go over there and say it like that.' There's something very amateur about everyone's view of theatre." There's nothing amateur about Mike Alfreds. He has no films or mammoth musicals to his credit, he is virtually unknown outside the profession, yet Ian McKellen has described him as one of the three best directors in the country.
For Alfreds, the job is about skill. Or, rather, skills. "A lot of work is done by people on instinct; they've got a hunch and a little flair. That's all right up to a point, but it doesn't carry through. The trouble is people think, 'I'll direct,' and it seems possible because the role is not defined. It's not like saying, 'I'll be a choreographer,' because that would mean you'd have to learn about the body."
He started reading plays early - "I was loving Coward at 12 and, I think, understanding it, rather surprisingly" - but then read a couple of books about film direction. "A great bell chimed in my head and I thought, 'That's it.' All feelings I had about wanting to be in theatre suddenly focused." After doing his national service in Singapore, he was demobbed, got in a cargo boat and went across the Pacific to the US. He worked in the publicity department at MGM but left to study directing at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.
"We learnt to make technical drawings and set models. We learnt about colour, we analysed paintings to see how the eye was carried through. We had to act and stage manage, build scenery, make costumes, do make- up, write publicity. I go into workshops now with young directors and I'm amazed. You ask them what part of the stage is hot and what's cold and they haven't a clue. We did endless exercises on that sort of skill and faced a barrage of questions about work we directed for which you had to have answers. It was an extraordinary four years."
That sense of rigour has remained. A warm, urbane, soft-spoken figure with a hint of Lionel Bart about him, he comes across as a man with a mission but with little to prove. In the Seventies, he did away with elaborate sets, costumes and lighting to return the focus to the actor, embodying the philosophy in his influential touring company Shared Experience, performing his own adaptations of literary classics on the scale of The Arabian Nights, Bleak House and A Handful Of Dust. His equally acclaimed Chekhov productions led to an associate directorship at the National Theatre in the mid-Eighties, climaxing in a multi-award-winning Cherry Orchard with Sheila Hancock, who described him as "the perfect director to coax a performance out of me".
In the TV and video age Alfreds is passionate about the essential "live" quality of theatre. Warming to his theme, he points to the exciting things that happen in rehearsal that almost never happen in performance. "Those electric moments where an actor opens up and discovers something amazing or where two actors suddenly take off in a scene. That is usually contained and neatly reproduced and the impact is lost. The truthfulness, the immediacy and vivacity, the spontaneity, the daring and vulnerability, all the things that actors have, must be worked on to give them freedom.
"I have auditioned about 200 actors in the past 18 months, and again and again they tell me that although they've been busy, they've had no useful experience. They haven't been pushed or changed. It's because there's no real process and I don't believe you can give anything to an audience unless you go through something. You can give them tricks or externals like timing or charm or your standard repertoire, but to give audiences something real the actor must stretch him or herself."
To achieve this, he and his actors create a complete infrastructure and framework, breaking texts down into simple actions and then connecting the actors back to it once they have made all sorts of discoveries about character and motivation. "They do an awful lot of work on the environment and space, their relationships, style and what the play's actually about, hopefully embodied in a very organic way through the very long and elaborate rehearsal process. Then, whatever they choose to play will be right, because it's true to that particular moment. They have to give up getting, say, a laugh on a specific line. You must be absolutely in the moment, playing whatever the moment demands."
If that sounds like all talk and no action, Alfreds is at pains to refute the charge. "I make them forge the work on the floor. They have to discover by doing. Get them free with the text so they never do it the same way twice."
His latest venture is the reinvention of the repertory system, spending a year working with a cast of four on his own adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Noel Coward's Private Lives and a new Philip Osment play, Flesh and Blood. To do this, he took Cambridge Theatre Company by the scruff of the neck, shook it up and renamed it Method and Madness. Judging by the overwhelming response - audiences often returning for all three plays - the move is less mad than the new company's name suggests.
His method hasn't always worked. If an actor is resistant to the approach, problems quickly arise. Alfreds regards his production of Emma as a failure - "I just couldn't find a consistent convention for the show" - but cresting the wave of a successful tour, he exudes quiet confidence. The response to Private Lives, particularly from younger audiences, has taken him by surprise.
"Coward said that the second act was the hardest thing he and Gertrude Lawrence ever did. Here I am doing it with actors who have never done Coward, but it just works." So how did they cope with the style? "Style is not something you put on, it's a world view, an attitude to life, a set of values. Coward's characters have a lot of money, they talk fast and strike poses, but it's the result of something. Why do they talk fast? Because they don't want to be found out. There's a lot of smart talking in order to keep your emotions held in." The company rehearsed the Coward for seven weeks. "I doubt he's ever been rehearsed that long," laughs Alfreds, but then he loathes the convention of how theatre is put on. "It works against the actor. You rehearse for three or four weeks, the actors never get near the scenery until a few days before the opening and often don't get costumes until the last minute. It's nonsense. A writer does a draft, leaves it, comes back to it, but there's a period where you can just leave it to cook. This never happens in the theatre."
Unless you're working with Method and Madness, that is. Jude was rehearsed for 10 weeks, performed, then left alone while the cast worked on Private Lives instead. When they revived Jude, says Alfreds, "they played it without the sweat. Doing the Coward, they had learnt to relax."
Alfreds knows he's asking a lot, creating that unfashionable thing, a true ensemble company. As with Theatre de Complicite, whose work he admires, Mike Alfreds's actors return to work with him time and again. "They've got to have that text completely fluently; they've got to be totally in command of their bodies and their minds and then come out and improvise and go with whatever happens for two-and-a-half hours. In Jude, they're handling puppets, moving scenery, acting as narrators and playing highly emotional characters and dealing with a whole series of conventions creating spaces and places, creating worlds." He grins. "They've got to be extraordinary people."
n Method and Madness tours until 8 June and plays a seven-week season at the Lyric Hammersmith from 10 June (0181-741 2311)
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