During a rehearsal break for his current production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, I am lucky enough to grab an interview with Max Stafford-Clark, the longest serving artistic director at the Royal Court and founder of touring company Out of Joint. The play, a 20th century masterpiece, has not been performed in the last ten years. I ask him about the experience of directing the same play again, after having commissioned and directed its world premiere for the Royal Court in 1982.
‘Top Girls is a historical play, but it concerns itself with recent history. Re-staging this play now amounts to re-excavating a period of history.’ The major difference is that the audience today, unlike the 1982 audience, is not necessarily familiar with Margaret Thatcher’s England.
‘This is the beginning of a historical period led by a conservative government,’ he says, ‘Top Girls is very much prompted by the political presence of a woman Prime Minister. Unlike the controversial film The Iron Lady, Top Girls does not present Margaret Thatcher and her policies empathetically. Top Girls could equally have been called Bottom Girls, i.e. a picture of Angie, the girl who doesn’t make it.
’Max Stafford-Clark has always promoted, commissioned and directed new writing, and has nurtured many of the country’s leading writers, such as Timberlake Wertenbaker, David Hare, and Caryl Churchill. ‘I believe the job of any artist is to reflect the time they’re living in’, Stafford-Clark says. Perhaps inevitably, therefore, our conversation then turns to the current government’s giant funding cuts in the artistic sector. In a time when David Cameron is encouraging the theatre and film industries to become more ‘mainstream’, he ironically comments, the Arts Council has cut Out of Joint’s yearly funding by over £130,000 – nearly a 30% budget cut, the consequences of which are already affecting the company’s output. This year the company will only be able to stage one production, instead of two. ‘It also means that the actors will have to live in horrible digs instead of hotels.
’Changing the subject a little, I was surprised to discover that the playwright usually stays with Stafford-Clark in rehearsal from the first to the last day, and so I quiz him further on such a close writer-director relationship. ‘When you enter a rehearsal room and are there with the writer, it is like designing an aeroplane and not knowing until the end whether or not it will take off. It is an adventure with the unknown.’ Here he is keen to stress the differences between British and continental theatre. When he speaks with German and French directors, they invariably ask him how long he allows the writer to stay with him in the rehearsal room. They do not allow the writer to witness the rehearsals for ‘more than two or three days.
’Finally, I could not refrain from asking such an acclaimed director to define for me the essence of directing. Again, he refers to the British theatrical tradition and compares it with the continental one. ‘In this country, you start with the play. In Germany, you start with the concept of the play. Moreover, I believe that most plays depend on a company. It would be useless to stage Hamlet if there was no one to act as Hamlet. With most plays I undertake, the director has the responsibility of creating an ensemble, and clearly understanding and explaining the play. A director should also nurture the atmosphere. Plays are called plays for a reason, and as such they should be playful.’