The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Deborah Warner
Deborah Warner is a director. But that general term belies the range and diversity of her work and her refusal to accept conventional boundaries. Her productions with Kick Theatre Company which she founded in 1980, were of some of the great theatrical texts - Shakespeare , Brecht , Buchner . Her success there led to her working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. By the end of the 80s she was receiving wide acclaim with Olivier and Evening Standard Awards. At the National there was Brecht again and more Shakespeare casting her most regular collaborator Fiona Shaw as Richard II . A first foray into opera came with Wozzeck for Opera North since when she's worked as much in the opera house as she has in the theatre. And more recently not just in conventional theatre spaces and not necessarily with actors or texts. Searching for new experiences for audiences she's worked in London in the deserted corridors and rooms of the St pancreas Hotel and at the top of the Euston Tower . So Plays, Opera, Opera,Poetry, Song and in 1999 her first venture into cinema with The Last September, an adaptation of a novel by Elizabeth Bowen . Most recently there's been Medea again with Fiona Shaw and she's about to direct Fidelio at Glyndebourne.
I think we should start with a most fundamental question, that is, as you are a Director, what is directing?
Gosh. I think the directing of theatre is the enabling of actors. I'm not sure now that I've begun to work in other forms, whether I could apply that to all the other work that I've done. I don't know that directing opera is the enabling of singers in quite the same way, I think a conductor might say they enable singers.
They certainly want to believe that they do, a lot of singers would think that they get in the way. [laughter]
[laughter] They might indeed. So where I began, I would say that I have a, have a strong belief really that my job in the theatre is to enable wonderful performers to be good, not to get in their way. But, you know, I've also begun forms of theatre now where I haven't used actors at all and um...there's another way of answering it, which is not your question, but if a question is why do you do it? I think one does it to feel some sort of comfort in the world. So one makes, tries to make something that is finally as a shape that one wants something to be.
You're trying to find an order. You are making a statement about yourself and about how you feel comfortable in life.
I don't know about how one feels comfortable in life. I couldn't apply some of the work that I've done, given some of these tragedies, but I think the event itself or the live event of a single night, if it has chimed in certain ways, makes one feel that some proper rhythms have been put in place and you can rest well that night perhaps.
Can you imagine what you would have done if you had not been a director and had not found your niche as you have done.
A much less happy person. I think I was very, very lucky. I sort of tripped and fell into it and it was in a way chance and very, very good chance because there's nothing else that I could do.
Had you considered doing anything else or were you, about the time you went into it ... you had, what had you ...
I absolutely had. Well, I was brought up as antique dealers daughter, and I was very involved in really, what was once upon a time rather a wonderful thing, the antique trade. I'm not sure whether I would say that now [laughs] but certainly my father was in it at time when it was rather a true profession really, it was a sort of arts and crafts profession, rather than a high finance profession and I was very interested in that and I guess I would have gone that way and for a time I wanted to be a painting restorer, until I discovered that it was all about chemicals, and that was [laughter] that was a late in life realisation.
Going back to the actors - and this is consistent with what you'd said - I direct actors I don't direct plays I direct actors' ideas. Now, I have to say, this is not making a cheap point, a lot of people would say, that actors on the whole aren't great with ideas and they regard themselves on people whom they expect the director to put his or her imprint, they actually look for direction. They're not as autonomous as the sort of actor you seem to work with.
Well I think great actors are great on intelligence and therefore great on ideas. I think we can't talk about actors in general, but I think the really great actors that we cherish and admire are very intelligent people. And certainly in the case of some of the ones I've worked with, considerably more intelligent than myself. So I would say they were very great on ideas of their character, so they may not be great on ideas and that they're not great on directorial ideas, but they are fiercely intelligent creatures.
What I find interesting and am curious about this is that, let's say you have six actors who really do respond to what you want them to do, they're six very different people who inevitably are going to produce six very different kind of outcomes. There has to be a coherence and that surely must come from you, so at that stage you're doing more than just bringing things out of the actors, you're having to say, I've brought as much as I can out of you and now I'm doing it within a framework which is my view of the play.
Yes, or we're doing it in a framework which is the dramatists view of the play. I mean, if we're talking here about text based theatre, which I think we are, the plays that one chooses are very likely to be very, very great plays and I'm not sure that I'm not merely a servant to a very great dramatist at those moments and it is a very different discussion if the piece of writing is flawed or whatever, but let's take Shakespeare or let's take the Greeks. One is completely a servant to that text. So the notion that I might apply my thoughts of what it is, I don't think that's true. I don't think really we do do that and it's quite interesting how often my work, is in a sense by those that are calling it into question and say, "well look, this ending has been changed or this has gone away from what the dramatist would have intended" and very often the opposites occurred, which is that the inspiration has unquestionably come from the core of the piece. So, I think when really involved in a great classical dramatic text, there's no question that it is doing the governing and certainly I'll be then tying things together at the end. And there will certainly ... I mean, I'll give great freedom to actors in rehearsal and there is a moment when, it's often commented on, when the guillotine sort of falls and that freedom somewhere goes. I think it's the guillotine of times up really, which is that the research has been done and then I hopefully will try and remind people of what some of that research was. Now that's not to say that the guillotine then shoots up again because the run begins and then an entirely different process runs then, once the thing has been played in front of an audience, we're into a very different game and into, in a sense, the most productive, where many new ideas will come in, but within a very different frame.
Now you see what I do find slightly puzzling, and it's probably my fault, but everything you're saying about how you direct and there's a phase you used once, your style is based on indirection or, non-direction I suppose, and on patience and not on giving orders and I've no doubt that that is what you do and yet there is a recognisable, Deborah Warner - not style of production - but atmosphere of production. I imagine that you wouldn't attempt to deny that. I mean there wouldn't be much point in being a director if there wasn't something that we didn't recognise as being your style of production.
Yes. There's something called taste isn't there? There's something called the taste of the director. Yeah, there's something called aesthetic I suppose in play there ... I mean I hope that that doesn't always remain the same shape. I mean I hope that very much. But there is a certain ambition for a very naked exposed truth about humans in crisis I suppose is what you may be getting. (laughs) In ... certainly in the theatre work yes. I do, I believe theatre needs to be larger than life, or I see no point in its existence and I do think that these plays that are playing with vast human emotions, there is a moral obligation there to take that to a very serious place.
Well certainly if we take the Medea with Fiona Shaw, the emotion couldn't be more raw, but then when you listen to the text, that doesn't seem to me to be much of a problem, but clearly some members of the audience and some critics have said, why is this so emotional? This is Greek tragedy and the emotion shouldn't show like this. Now, as I say, I don't have any difficulty with this, but do you find this reaction puzzling?
Well I think it's puzzling because they're not really saying emotion shouldn't feel like this because we should be doing Greek drama as we believe it was done 2,400 years ago. They wouldn't ... you know our leading critics wouldn't make themselves appear so foolish as to say that. So, really what they're saying is hold on, this shouldn't hurt so much, and it is absurd, this is a play about a woman who kills two children. What's fascinating is that we've reached a point where we are shocked by Medea, which means that we've certainly kept it under wraps for a very long time.
What do you think we're really shocked by?
I've spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what this is because it's very interesting watching the Medea audience. People's journey, individual journeys are quite extraordinary through it. I'm not sure that people aren't in a state of shock and thus not quite sure what it is that's done it. I think that they are in some state of shock. I think ... I think they're grieving for the fact that we have entered a place where we have collectively, terribly hurt our children and I'm speaking not about anything except divorce really and separations, that I think people are watching this and profoundly or unconsciously realising that in some way they have murdered their own children. I mean not literally but otherwise they have hurt their children that badly, so I think it's a very extraordinary moment to be looking at this play.
Because of all the guilt, the anxiety, the uncertainly about the impact of divorce and the constant argument about is it good for the children to live in a loveless marriage and so on, and from that point of view it couldn't be more topical. And I suppose you're right, the break up of a relationship ... I mean we take that for granted in the play and home in on the murders and the deaths of the children and the tragedy, the thing which moves it, is a prior act.
Yes. And really a terrible state of relationship between Jason and Medea and I think that we bury the fact that whenever these two love torn creatures come together they are fighting. I think that is upsetting people actually. I think even that quite simply is upsetting.
When did you discover this in the play, in the course of production?
I think one discovers these things in performance, I don't think you discover them in rehearsal. I only began to realise that it was touching a very profound nerve ... I mean one's first assumptions it is touching a profound nerve because during the previews you pick up a newspaper and it says, mother of two kills two young sons and you think, oh right, there's a lot of women killing their children. It's not that, it's not something as simple as that. I think what makes people cry is never something quite so literally connected as that. So I think one doesn't really discover these things until one's involved and of course because audiences make these things happen to plays you know. The live act of theatre is that extraordinary, I think, but actually what the collective consciousness of the audience brings starts to filter and bleed through into the performance itself and that's fascinating.
And do you encourage the actors to do that in the course of the run?
I think you can't say to the actors, listen to that audience, listen to that audience, I mean they do ...[laughs] but not perhaps in so poetic a sense, but I think something does begin to knock in.
When it comes to working in opera and with opera singers, can you have a relation to the singers which is similar to that that you have with actors, that is where you say you were trying to bring out the truth in their performance, but the truth in their performance is surely principally the responsibility of a conductor and isn't it a much more restricted relationship that you can have with singers?
The truth in their acted performance is happily not the responsibility of the conductor.
Quite a lot of whom keep their heads down in the score don't they? [laughter]
Indeed. The truth in the sound performance may well be best drawn out by the conductor, but given that what we're trying to do in the end is have these two strands of performance be completely united, and one will make the other better, you know, beautifully sung may well make it beautifully acted and beautifully acted may well make the singing better. So it is indeed an organic thing once they're having to get up and perform their way from the concept. It took me a long time to realise that one could have a relationship which was very akin to having a relationship with a very able actor. A very, very skilled actor, so Fiona Shaw , Maggie Smith or Michael Gambon , I feel now are very, very close to a great singer. They are working in as complex a way with their voice. They're not having to hit certain notes but they're having to construct their own score which is a very complicated thing, which you could begin to argue makes acting very much harder than singing. There is no score and they have to write one and they have to exist within the confines of the one that they've written for themselves, which is in part is what our rehearsal work is, but actually a very, very accomplished actor is carrying their own score and changing it each night. I've become fascinated where things get close to each other. I've become very interested in that now.
So in that respect, the theatre, the actor and the opera singer are very much closer than one might think from the outside?
The ones that I'm likely to be working with. I mean there are a lot of singers that I must never be allowed anywhere near or near me [laughs].
No names on this occasion.
But the other thing is that opera houses, they're a very, very strange mixture aren't they they're very conservative, they can be very conservative, very traditional, certainly very traditional as far as the place is concerned. And yet they do often throw up extremely innovative productions, sometimes more so than the world of theatre. I mean what is your experience, that you have a greater opportunity to experiment in the opera house than sometimes you might do in the world of theatre?
No, I don't think I could say that. I mean I think the structure of the opera houses and the efficiency of them and the marvellous way that they work is very liberating, I mean they're very exacting and I've grown to like that very much. It's much closer to film than theatre actually, I would have been very unready to make a film if I hadn't worked in opera. I think the correlation between time and money is uncomfortably close. You know, they're both very expensive forms and once an orchestra turns up, it's extremely similar to a shooting day on a film set, isn't it and you know, you can't waste a second. It makes one realise how relaxed and sometimes even dreamy actually the theatre can be, which is immensely relaxed and I think I've been less patient of theatre or rehearsals being slower.
So actually you find the operatic world one where innovation and experiment is possible?
Yes, and it may be that somehow the straight jacket of form quite suits me. There's a very simple thing, is that I never name the name of an opera that I'm going to direct, I'm asked to do something with the, you know, I'm asked would I do a Fidelio or would I do a Don Giovanni. If I'm asked to work in the theatre nobody ever names the play, so you get an invitation which should be marvellous, which is, would you do something, what would you like to do, do anything. And ones heart sinks because at that moment you think, no, no, I now have to think about what it is exactly, so I find it quite...I've a quite childlike relationship to the joy of being packed off to school and told to go and do that. So in a strange way I've found that rather liberating. And, the fact that there is such an enormous structure that one has to work within, be it both in the opera house or indeed the musical structure of the piece. I'm not sure that's not quite liberating.
And you've found the structures of the opera house less difficult and less restricting than the structures of the film industry which clearly got you down?
I've worked in very few opera houses. I mean and I've worked in England in the opera. I would not be found working in the big main European opera houses.
Because I know that I wouldn't enjoy myself there and because the structures there are tyrannical, there isn't enough time and the only opera I ever did try to cast, I was offered a Figaro and it came to grief because I couldn't understand at all the cast that I was being offered. I've been immensely nurtured and looked after by the people who are, the English opera, of which Nicholas Payne is a, you know, I began in Opera North and he took me to Covent Garden and then to the ENO and Anthony Whitworth-Jones at Glyndebourne . So, I have worked in very few places and I would choose with care. I mean, you know, there is a little network of people who are busy warning one off all the places one shouldn't be. And I ... in the same way I shouldn't be working with singers who are not interested in acting, so too I shouldn't be working in a lot of those houses. So I mean, these are sweeping generalisations. In fact, we must come down to the particular. There's a very very, I think, extraordinary liberal sort of freedom actually within English opera and I think very extraordinary things probably have happened here because of some of these producers and also of course, one of the reasons that the opera managed to get so many theatre directors who at one moment they thought they wanted and were actively recruiting, was because of their astonishing energy in going out and getting them. I mean had the theatre had the energy that the opera had had in terms of those that produce theatre in the last 10-20 years, it would be a very, very different place and it hasn't really been that at all. And that may well yet happen again you know, there's a new generation I think of producers that are, that are growing up, who will make the theatre a very attractive place to be, because I think directors, well often do need to be run down and pinned down and ......
Come and do this in my place?
Yes. And it needs to be made very attractive and actually I think it's an incredible achievement that Nicholas Payne managed to make the opera a very attractive place to people who were sluggish converts, you know, to this form 10-15 years ago. I was not a lover of opera. I actually actively didn't want to direct an opera and he spent four years persuading me to do something for Opera North and I made a slip one day and said, anyway there's only one opera I want to direct and it's called Wozzeck and so he offered it to me, so I was absolutely caught. I have great time for people who put energy into running down the people they want to work with and bringing together
Searching out the talent.
Of course, and you know, main European theatre has had that energy very much.
And British theatre hasn't?
I don't think it has.
It strikes me that you're not an ideological director. Is that fair?
I think that may be fair. [laughs]
I'll tell you why I reach that, that perhaps not very profound conclusion. One is that when you did the Dolls House, you deliberately did not do it as a feminist tract. You said this is not about a woman's freedom within marriage. It is about the chances of freedom within a marriage for both, the man and woman, whereas very often has been treated as a feminist tracked. And the other instance is that when you directed the Bach St John Passion at English National Opera, although I think you are not a believer, you took it in its own Christian terms an ideologue would have said, I'm very sorry we don't do Christianity in the late 20th Century, I will strip strip all that out of it. It seems to me that you have a huge amount of freedom, you can engage with the text honestly because you're not an ideologue.
I don't think that it's my job to decide what something means and then approach it as a director and I think when theatre is made in that way, it often comes out stillborn. Now it's perhaps chance in a way that I developed a way of directing which was, as much as anything, I think based on course of circumstance and I didn't have an academic training and I didn't see this as a positive or negative thing. But looking now with the distance of time, I guess I was quite glad that I hadn't been taught some things that a young undergraduate might be taught, not least how to write an essay under pressure [laughter] when you need to deliver it quickly. So I, I was really free of any taught notions of what these texts were and there did come a moment when I suppose I cultivated that a little which is that if I ... when I first directed King Lear it happened that I'd never seen a production of King Lear and I then thought, well perhaps this is worth hanging onto because that innocence would have gone in a moment. And also because when I started directing I was very frightened of it and very nervous and very much in awe of performers, so I would absolutely allow them to lead the way and then discovered really that there was great value in that really, that the process is a terribly organic process, making theatre and it can very easily be turned into a more mechanical process and then ... an analogy is correct, is stillborn and if it's stillborn it has real problems because a piece of theatre has to live and breath and grow up like any living form.
It's interesting how often you have been ready to admit that you've been frightened by the process or frightened by the anticipation.
Nobody believes me anymore, that's the terrible thing.
[laughter] Well, quite, but is this because you are good at making yourself be a person who is strong enough to admit that they were frightened or that you really are strong enough to admit when you're frightened or even to admit to yourself when you're frightened and that's probably the first and most difficult thing to do?
I have a theory that most directors are shy people who learnt how not to be shy and in shyness lies an awful lot of terror. I think we all, we all struggle forward, whatever made us think that we wanted to be a director, given that we were shy, heaven only knows. But, I think I now actively choose things that frighten me, so I mean this has changed too. I mean I wouldn't choose a text or a musical piece that didn't alarm me.
Is that real fear or is that now just a professional adrenaline buzz that you need to say, my god I'm now frightened and now I'm going to get the ideas?
I need to be jump-started into doing anything. I'm much happier saying no than saying yes. So I have to be frightened, I have to be caught more often than notactually. I have to be trapped and find that I have to do something in order to do it. But I think that's often because one knows that a journey that lies ahead is going to be arduous and you think ohhh. You don't ... when you decide to do, let's say, for the sake of argument a Medea your heart doesn't leap. You don't think goodness that's great, to do Medea now.
Well you said how agonising it was, that after all when you're dealing with Shakespeare, there is a text that you have to reveal, whereas with Medea you were saying in rehearsal, we've now got three and a half hours of this particular rehearsal, in which we have to find a way of finding emotional truth and that was unbelievably sapping.
Yes and unbelievably impossible wasn't it? I mean, in fact we only found it when we had to run the play. You can only find those things when you have to really do them. And it's much harder for actors than it is for singers. If that had been an opera, you find it when you have to sing the aria but in theatre, you can't sing the aria until you've found the rhythm of the play until you've rehearsed it. I think that Greek drama is a very real problem in the theatre for that reason, in that it probably only starts to take shape when you can play the whole thing. And so, how do you rehearse it? And actually probably should, a little bit like opera, not be performed every night because it is that hard.
Well certainly having just seen the Medea, the thought of them all doing it again, night after night is absolutely terrifying. Let's talk about spaces and places because one of the characteristics of things you've been doing, is to work in non-conventional spaces, either distressed spaces like Wilton's Music Hall or your extraordinary works in public buildings, like the event in St Pancras Chambers and the Euston Tower. Now where did this idea, wanting to work - let's look at the St Pancras Chambers event - in something which is without actors, without text. Where did that idea come from?
It came because I was offered this fantastic building, this strange haunted building caught between lives. And my first thought was to find a text and find a performer and find a way of putting it in that building which is an extremely conservative thought, but nonetheless excited me. And I used to be allowed into this building on Sundays by myself and I used to wander around it alone and the complex different atmospheres, of different spaces, different floors, this constant noise from the Euston Road outside, but this absolutely strangely held ghost-like hallways inside, began to completely seduce me. And I thought I must offer the audience this experience really, the one that I was having, which was being alone when one started to almost write one's own text. And so it grew out of my desire, in a way, to offer what I was experiencing and then became a strange solo walk, the audience member went alone and walked as long as the journey took them through, about two miles of empty corridors through spaces that we enhanced.
Yes. Just say a word about how you enhanced them. I mean I didn't see it myself, but I read about it, what sort of enhancements did you put in?
The strange thing about the building because it had been British Railway offices at one time and was a hotel for a very, very short time and when it was built it was the state of the art. It opened in 1885, it was the chicest best hotel in London and it closed in disgrace about 20 years later because it didn't make it through the Century and into bathrooms really, [laughs] quite simply. It's a very, very narrow building and they couldn't do the conversion. And it had myriad lives from war offices through to railway offices. So, it was strangely empty because it had been renovated externally, not internally. But there was nothing in it, there wasn't even a stick of furniture, there wasn't even a broken chair. There was nothing that you would expect to find and so we started really to simply put in what you'd expect to find so a long, long corridor of what were once bedroom doors, we would leave the used breakfast trays outside as if the guests had left their trays outside, or we would leave a 19th Century maids' crinoline on a hook on the back of the door, so little hauntings, little strangeness, sometimes you'd hear voices, sometimes you'd hear pianos playing, sometimes you would see figures flitting through. It was a joyous thing to work on. It of course interested me very much because it redefined theatre in some ways as to who was the performer and who was the audience and what the theatre was. If an audience could be on the move through something, where was the text or where was the event, and of course, what was fascinating about it was that it made everybody think again and actually critics wrote very interestingly about it, because of course they didn't have any expectation of what it would be in. It was a very exciting thing.
How did the audience take it?
I think they thought they were writing their own poem really. They cried a lot. I mean I'm very interested in this, I'm very interested in what happens when you slow people down in cities, when you make people be completely silent within a city. It's very interesting how quickly people become moved and it's not for me to say by what really. This fascinates me and I developed this further when I took the Euston Tower and we put angels up at the top of the empty floors of the Euston Tower watching over London . And again, people's response, terribly, terribly emotional. I think it's about loss of innocence and if anybody's asked to be quiet in their own city and completely quiet, it is remarkable how quickly ...
You see, by comparison with that, being in the theatre and having only 90 minutes in which to be blasted by Medea, we can all survive 90 minutes and we've got somebody else doing the suffering. Whereas clearly what you offered in St Pancras Chambers and Euston Tower was the solitary engagement with self.
And the sense that meaning is there to be provided by the audience member not indeed by anybody else. And I think that interests me a lot. I loved the freedom of it. I think possibly audiences in the theatre can at moments be frustrated by being told too much or perhaps being told where the meaning lies and I think audiences long for the freedom of meaning not to be in a way, hijacked or kidnapped, but to be provided by themselves. I mean the Euston Tower project, people's sense of what it was veered wildly from people thinking it was a eulogy on death, there were a lot of empty corridors leading towards white light sources to people thinking that it was merely a sort of Disney encounter with angels too. I loved the fact that it wasn't strictly defined.
But clearly the sense of the engaged audience and getting a different kind of response from the audience and allowing that, even demanding that response, is something that matters to you a lot?
Hmmm. And I think it's beginning to matter to me in strict narrative theatre terms too, which is that I think there is a form of theatre, where there is more space for the audience than another form and it's very hard to define quite how that is and I suspect to a degree, Medea has something to do with that, whereas there is room for us to enter the piece in some strange way and comfortably perhaps room for us to do that.
Looking ahead, there are a number of things that you say, I'm bored with theatre being linear or narrative driven. The exploration of different kinds of drama in different venues. You've also said somewhere "I can't stand people who think they know what a shape of a theatre is." All these things are pointing towards a different kind of theatrical events. Do you know how you're going to get involved in that? Where are you going to get the materials from, how are you actually going to realise those wishes? Because they're all pointing in the same direction aren't they?
Yes. I mean they're all markers to, in some way, to myself to keep myself on my toes, aren't they? Because I do think that the theatre has to be different every time we visit it and that's very hard and that's often why I run away from it and go somewhere else for a while. I think each thing that one does starts to clear the territory of the future research and so one doesn't know where one's going next. I mean I can have a very strong sense, as many of us do that the future of the theatre is not going to be in these large buildings, dedicated to that, but that's not to say though, we're going to have to move very swiftly off, you know, there will be no more St Pancras projects or Euston Tower projects once they're made. We have to make something else again. So I'm not sure that a lot of those aren't little sort of self-lacerations to try and spur myself on really.
Is this one of many reasons why you have not wanted to even be considered to run the National Theatre? I believe Fiona Shaw once said, go on, she'd really love to run it and you said, I genuinely don't have any desire to run it, something like the National or the RSC.
Well I genuinely don't have any desire to run it at the moment where we can see its illness may be terminal. That would not be a moment to be excited about running. At the moment where we accept that these buildings are unlikely to be able to continue to house the vibrant heart of theatre, is not a time when one would want to run towards them. I would also be very unsuited to the job because somehow I need to be outside these institutions not in them or when I am in them, I need to be in a very healthy kind of struggle with them. I mean I need very much that position, so it would be terrible for me to have a lot of people in there, having that relationship to it because I'd get very jealous. Yes, yes I want to be struggling against the institution too. [laughter] It wouldn't be at all good.
You are the revolutionary even if not an ideologue. But you once said to me that you thought that in a sense your generation, the Daldrys, the Mendes, had bugged out of taking on large institutions and you know, one thinks well Peter Hall did his time and he ran the RSC and he wasn't even 30. Trevor Nunn did it, Adrian Noble did it and so on and so forth. That generation has done the hard stuff as well as the good stuff and your generation hasn't.
Yeah. And my generation has given birth to these astonishing successful film directors. I think ... it will be very interesting to see what happens to the Sams the Stephens you know our generation in ten/twenty years. It's quite hard to predict isn't it, because we're not going to be very sure of the shape of things to come. I expect if the cinema doesn't become an extremely experimental place [laughs] and it doesn' t seem to be moving very fast in that direction, that a lot of my fellows will want to continue working in the theatre as well as in the cinema. There's no question, this is not a move away from the theatre necessarily. I think the fact that a lot of us have worked in many different forms, I mean half of my work now is certainly in the opera as much as ... a little bit more than half really, and to be found less in the theatre. I expect in the end, my passion will be in how I can tie some of these colleagues together really. That's what I want to see happen. I have spoken a lot about how exciting it becomes when barriers between forms start to break down. You know that very well yourself and great things have happened in the Barbican on that front, you know. It was exciting for example to take the Janacek into the National Theatre, because it was very exciting suddenly to have two wonderful opera singers simply being in the canteen with actors at the same time, you know, it would be exciting if there were dancers from the Pina Bausch company in the National. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with the buildings from the National but they probably need to house other forms.
Yes the process of renewal has to be an internal one. There's absolutely no reason why that process of renewal shouldn't take place and why the activity of those companies, the RNT and the RSC should continue to be dictated by the shape of the buildings. I mean do you agree with Richard Eyre that it may be that one or maybe both of the large National Companies have come to a sort of natural pause, or maybe a natural end and that we have to start again?
Yes. And we've got do something very complicated though haven't we, because we've probably got to kind of cross-breed and fertilise, you know if the English National Opera started to you know, talk more earnestly to the Royal National Theatre it would be very, very interesting, but that's going to be a very big leap. It's easy for the directors who are running in and out of the doors of those to fantasise that....., the projects we want to see, the project that I want to go and see are you know, Paradise Lost a new opera including actors and dancers, you know, that's what we'd all like to go to isn't it? But it's going to take energy there, and I think the theatre has to work quite hard not to slide back. It's does seem that there's an extraordinary old fashioned pull that seems to pull theatre back every now and again.
Back to the old classics?
No, not the old classics, but just conventional forms, yes absolutely. And, the audience has not gone yet you know. But they will in time, the old audience will go, the younger audience is very hungry for ... actually very ambitious for the excitement for example that somebody will feel going into the Tate Modern, must be, you know, for the new artistic director of the National Theatre, the challenge you know, you have to have somebody walk into the National Theatre foyers, I mean it's not about architectural space, but walk into that building with the promise of what's going to happen that evening is going to be as exciting as what they feel when they walk into the Tate. I mean this could easily, easily happen. But it's not exciting to me whilst the National is putting on My Fair Lady which I'm sure will do tremendously successful, but that's not interesting, that's not moving anything forward.
Can you image though, just so far as you're concerned, a form of artistic co-operation whereby you were co-opted into the National Theatre, let's say on your terms, so that you knew that you were in a position to offer and they were in a position to accept, productions which break the boundaries as you want them to do?
I can absolutely imagine a time when there's somebody running that building that will allow the co-productions to occur that would make that happen, yes, but I can't imagine being brought back into the National and being offered whatever one of the three theatres and asked to put theatre in it, because my heart would sink because I know how hard that is to keep the level where it should be over a number of years. It's not what I want to be doing. There's too many more interesting projects to be found and I think a lot of those may include, for me at least a combining of the skills of classical singers and classical actors because I think, partly because as much as anything to do with you know, new friends and friendships made, it would be very exciting to get together creatively some of these colleagues and possible.
A final thought about buildings. There're clearly problems with buildings in which the big theatre institutions work. I suppose the radical would then say, knock them down and build another set of buildings, but then don't you create the problems of the next 30 years when the physical structures that you have created, which are appropriate now, have themselves gone out of fashion?
Yep, of course. And just pulling down a building and putting up another one is not a solution to anything. I always used to, when I was extremely building-inspired and had a problem with the three spaces at the National Theatre, and was one of the reasons I wasn't working there very much and was forever trying to ask Richard Eyre who wanted me to be there, but to let me be somewhere else, poor man, because he actually had three spaces and he wanted people to be in those. But I knew very well that if there was an asbestos scare or something at the National, that those three spaces were closed down, I would be the first person to be wanting to be in them. So, it is often that what makes a space dynamic is its inaccessibility or its mysteriousness or nobody has been there for a long time or when I found the Wiltons Music Hall which nobody had performed in since it closed in the 19th Century in the East End , it was very exciting because nobody had been there. It's a marvellous building, it's here today, Broomhill Opera are there, but it's of course already slightly less exciting, not because of......they're doing wonderful work in there, but because people are now going regularly, so one needs to find another and another and it's an analogy in a sense isn't it, for what the theatre needs to be, is that we forever have to make it anew. I think we must just have a very wide spread of spaces, but designing the ultimate theatre means nothing. Who cares where it is, it can be in a room, it can be in a cupboard or it can be in a terribly ugly 60s bunker, it doesn't matter really where it is. So I think the National should keep its spaces, but always be ready to be going outside to other ones when it needs them. Maybe make one of those spaces more flexible. I think the lack of truly flexible big capacity space there is pretty fatal.
I want to ask you about your film, Last September. I remember talking to you at the time and you said it was all taking a hell of a lot of time, that you hadn't appreciated quite how long it took to make a film, and you said somewhere that making the film was a humbling, humiliating learning curve. Was it really as bad as that?
[laughs] I loved making it, for all of that. It's very dizzy making when you throw yourself into a completely new form that late in life.
In your mid-30s? [laughter]
No I was 40. I was absolutely 40 and I don't know that I would have done that at 50, I really don't. It was humiliating because one really didn't know very much about what one was doing, which is not to say that one wasn't being fantastically supported by a lot of other people who really did, which is why it is possible for theatre directors to become film directors. I very much enjoyed the making of it. I find the culture of the film world, the stuff around the outsides of it, the endless negotiation with producers agony really. I find that very hard.
How do you judge it though, that film?
I think it's rather a good film that slipped through the net. [laughs]
Very few people will have seen it. The net of distribution. I mean, we did have distribution in England and we'd had distribution in America , but it had a very, very short life. I'm sorry for that, but of course the great thing is that it's a film and it will live to tell another day. I think the producers were confused as to what they were selling it as. And I read reviews, half the reviews say that "this is a painfully slow film" and the other reviews say, "this goes far too fast for a slow film." [laughter] I mean it is what it is. I think I was very true to the world of Elizabeth Bowen and I'm proud of that. I think we did manage to catch something of her genius in writing, in celluloid terms.
But when you look at it, do you feel that there is something missing, that doesn't have quite the imprint of yourself that your most successful productions do?
When I look at it, I don't feel that there is something missing, but it may be a surprising film for me to have made. I mean, I expect people might have expected a more boldly experimental film, but on the other hand, were they to then look at the chosen material, they would have to know that a handheld wild flailing thing of a film would not be a way to offer Elizabeth Bowen to the cinema. So, no. I mean, if I make another film, it may be a much bolder thing. I would love to make another film, I would love to make another film in an industry that isn't ready for it yet. Where to make a film costs very little money, like it could be made like a piece of Fringe theatre, I mean that's the film I would like to be making.
In the back of my mind, the phrase that is leaping up is, she's having a wonderful time and thank goodness that she's doing the things that she is, but what's flagged up is thought, isn't this selfish, that's she not taking up, you say I have this bizarre sense of responsibility, that somebody [laughs] in your position should be playing a wider role? Now, unfair no doubt, but is there something in it.
Well, you're not the first. [laughter]
Oh dear, not even original. [laughter]
I think that one has such a very strong sense of responsibility somewhere else that I'm not prepared to take that. I do think that I have a sort of moral responsibility to the work that I do take on, which I feel is sufficient responsibility. If it comes down to, "oh but you must be running a building," that's not interesting to me. If it came down to, why am I not taking some of the work that I'm doing, let's say into prison service or why am I not taking it to under privileged children, and the answer is, I would be very, very engaged to be doing that, but I can't just do that. I mean I've done that in taking one play to a prison, but that takes a little bit of creative energy coming from say a government. I would like to be thrown a very awkward challenge, you know. I did say that after the St John Passion, it would be very exciting to me if the Church of England who might be feeling that they were a little bit disappointed by their audience figures. [laughter] I would love to be, I would love the commission of, how might you engage people ... and I would do it through Bach and there's no question that more people would feel more about many, many important religious holidays of the year if Bach was their way in. I would love that. I would like more challenges of that kind and I probably ought to give them to myself, but I must say I get so involved in these individual projects that I probably am guilty of time not going elsewhere. I'll take [over talking] that point.
I wouldn't, wouldn't limit yourself [over talking] [laughter] too much. You said something about young audiences and different audiences and the likes of you and me believe in the theatre, but how would you justify, how do you justify the theatre and the activity to those who never go and don't contemplate going?
Given that they're paying for it you mean?
Well I think Richard Eyre did that terribly well the other day didn't he, which is that we do believe in the public library system and a lot of us don't borrow books from them. I would have to say that I would justify it because I do think theatre can be life saving and I do believe if it's got to the right places, it can promote health. I do believe that it is as important as a health service to have theatre. But it's crucial that young people can afford to get to it because they can't. It's all very well making a bid in a name for theatre, but unless people are going to be allowed to pay what they can once a week, they won't ever get there. We then have to work very hard to get them there or to get them to opera or to get them anywhere and this has to be done in conjunction with a government that wants that to happen. I think theatre is one of the most accessible of the art forms and I think strangely has the power to change lives, but tragically it also has the power to put people off its form forever and that happens more often than anything else.
Deborah Warner thank you.
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