Michael Attenborough

Published April 17, 2008

Michael Attenborough could be considered the quiet man of London theatre. His name is not often seen attributed to quotes in National newspapers or attached to big-budget musicals. But this does not mean that he is not one of theatre’s most passionate supporters, as Matthew Amer found when he spoke to the Almeida’s Artistic Director about his new production of The Homecoming.

It is rare that a director gets the chance to direct his favourite play. He may direct plays he likes, enjoys, even loves, but the chance to direct a real favourite comes round less often than a white Christmas. This is the very position the Almeida Artistic Director Michael Attenborough finds himself in. Outside of Shakespeare, a caveat the language-loving director tags onto his bold assertion, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, a piece he and Guardian critic Michael Billington describe as “Pinter’s masterpiece”, is indeed his favourite play.

“It’s about gender and about sexuality and how that affects the lives of these four men,” Attenborough enthuses. “Its depiction of the effects on an all-male world, a world from which women have been banished, the effects on those characters and then the consequence of a woman returning to that, is just sensationally written. You just have to find the right cast to animate it.”

The team Attenborough has put together blends Pinter experience, Almeida favourites and a twist that has never been put on the famous play before. His cast – Kenneth Cranham, Neil Dudgeon, Danny Dyer, Jenny Jules, Nigel Lindsay and Anthony O’Donnell – all “have a feel for Harold’s work” that is making the rehearsal process a pleasure. “Though I say it myself, I can’t imagine who cast it, but I think it’s beautifully cast,” laughs Attenborough.

“If we impoverish linguistics, if we impoverish language, we impoverish ourselves”

It is the casting of Jules that is the production’s new twist on the Pinter classic; it is the first time a black actress has played the role of the outsider entering an alien world, causing upset and receiving abuse. Attenborough had earmarked Jules for the role when he worked with her for the first time on Clifford Odets’s Big White Fog at the Almeida last year. “I thought she was a quite brilliant actress and I thought that she had all the strength, power, composure, sexuality that the part needed,” he says, stressing that the original casting idea was based on Jules’s talent rather than ethnicity.

When he tentatively took the casting idea to Pinter, the old saying about great minds was proved correct, as the playwright suggested casting a black actress before Attenborough had mentioned Jules. Though Attenborough worried that The Homecoming might need a little rewriting to reflect the possible change in prejudices, Pinter disagreed: “He was adamant that he didn’t feel he needed to put in extra words or lines; he felt that it absolutely stood its own ground. When you do cast a black actor, they just slightly refocus the play, and lines have different resonances than they would if they hadn’t.”

Pinter has been involved in Attenborough’s production at many stages, from discussions about casting to the early stages of rehearsal. When I speak with Attenborough, the writer considered by many to be the greatest living playwright is about to rejoin the company for run-throughs. The thought of such a character judging your handling of his work could send a shiver of pure fear through many lesser humans, but Attenborough seems more excited than anything to have his input; “I revere the man so much and I admire his work so much, as indeed do the six actors, that obviously we’ll be nervous about him being there, but we’ve got to be big boys and girls and get over that and relish the fact that he will speak honestly to us about what he thinks; what he thinks works, what he thinks doesn’t work. He’ll be an absolutely invaluable part of our process.”

“His very best plays create a theatrical world that has a kind of terrifying logic of its own,” Attenborough continues, explaining why he holds Pinter’s work in such high regard. “They’re not television plays stuck on the stage. They’re not naturalistic plays. They’re plays that belong in the theatre, but he so rigorously defines that world that you feel like there’s not a word or a comma surplus to it. He writes with tremendous economy and we’ve found again and again and again that when an actor’s said the line the wrong way, he’s known without knowing quite what the mistake was. Then you go back and you find he’s put a word out of place or he’s substituted a word. That kind of economy and that kind of power and that kind of logic, I think, is what makes his writing so unique. You always feel with other writers, somewhere you want to strip it away; it’s always a bit overwritten. You never feel that with Harold’s work.”

Language is one of Attenborough’s passions. He describes ‘text-based theatre’ as “my faith”, and, though the Almeida’s family Christmas show Marianne Dreams encompassed dance and physical theatre, the Islington venue’s programme is largely of text-based work rather than taking conceptual, physical companies.

“I’m like the host of a party sending out invitations”

“We can’t think without words,” explains Attenborough. “We think with words. We express our feelings, our passions, our needs, our terrors, our anger in words. As I see more and more young kids grow up without feeling that words are their friends, words are things that they own, that they can make friends with, that they can use, they get frustrated that they can’t articulate themselves and they get frustrated that nobody’s listening to them. If we impoverish linguistics, if we impoverish language, we impoverish ourselves. That’s rather pompous, but that’s what I think!” If he was Prime Minister, Attenborough says, his first act would be to lock the Culture and Education ministers in a room together “and say don’t you dare come out until you’ve got a 10-year plan that places the arts at the centre of education so that it empowers young people, it gives them a sense of self-worth and of self-expression”.

The power and eloquence that Attenborough gives this speech puts me in no doubt that he talks – with perfectly chosen words – from the heart. I imagine that should he ever text anyone, he would make a point of using full sentences and correct grammar. In a world where everyone is in a hurry, too busy to use ‘to’ instead of ‘2’, this is particularly impressive in someone as busy as him.

When we first speak, I have the opportunity to grab 10 minutes of a lunch break that has seen him leave his cast, along with his ‘director’s hat’, in the rehearsal room and move back to his full-time job running the day-to-day workings of the Almeida. So apologetic is he about the briefness of our chat that he offers to ring back at the end of the day.

He even talks at speed, but never with the apparent motive of finishing swiftly; it is just his way. This is the lot of the artistic director; while he can commit time to directing productions, there will always be the primary work of running a company and a building to be done. Attenborough, whose career is marked by constantly being attached to a company as either an associate or an artistic director, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I like being in a building,” he says. “I like being amongst the company. I like building something, quite literally, and for the staff to have a sense of purpose and passion about what we’re doing. I don’t like being a gypsy, it makes me feel rootless and it’s often frustrating. I like being in control of the circumstances and also being in control of the circumstances in which other directors work. I’m like the host of a party in a way; I’m sending out invitations and it’s up to me as to whether it’s a good party.” As for balancing the dual roles, Attenborough says “I love doing both, I enjoy doing both, I want to do both and I very, very strongly believe that theatres should be run by directors, or, at least, practitioners.”

“I’m paid to have flair; if I don’t have flair, they kick me out”

This is another topic about which Attenborough is passionate and has much to say: “Artistic institutions run on flair and vision and, with great respect to administrators, executive producers, executive directors or whatever you call them, they don’t naturally have flair. I’m paid to have flair; if I don’t have flair, they kick me out. I disapprove of that way of running theatres. It’s short-sighted and small-minded. All this crap of ‘we’ll give the public what they want’; on the whole the public only base what they want on yesterday’s model, and what they’re looking for is people like myself and [Royal Court Artistic Director] Dominic Cooke, [Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director] Michael Grandage and [National Theatre Director] Nick Hytner to offer up things that are tomorrow’s taste, tomorrow’s fashion. Now, with the best will in the world, you can’t necessarily expect somebody called a general manager to come up with that.”

It is apparent that Attenborough is not afraid to speak his mind. Ruffling feathers does not worry him. But why should it? At this stage in his career he has proved himself. He has been an associate director at the Mercury theatre Colchester, the Leeds Playhouse, the Young Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was previously artistic director at the Watford Palace and Hampstead theatre. He has a long list of productions and institutions that prove he knows what he is talking about. The same list also alleviates any pressure that might be associated with his surname.

Michael Attenborough is the son of actor and director Sir Richard Attenborough. Though he refrains from claiming that his upbringing and genetic disposition have nothing to do with his decision to work in the theatre, he does point out that it was on film sets that he spent most of his childhood, not back stage in the West End. He did see his father’s final West End performance, but was so young that he was still being carried by his mother. Instead it was the lights, camera and action that surrounded him in his formative years.

Yet it was the stage that drew his professional attention, and for this we must thank the Royal Court, Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, three institutions that caught the imagination of the university-aged Attenborough, and from which he caught the theatre bug.

Having grown up around theatre and been drawn in by the stage in his teenage years, Attenborough’s knowledge of the West End is based on decades of experience. Talk of the demise of London’s Theatreland being in crisis swells his passion once again: “I think that the biggest nonsense that’s talked about the West End is this: there are far too many musicals; or the West End’s bankrupt; or we’ve got so many dark theatres and it’s all a big crisis. It’s all ghastly. If I had £10,000 for every time I’d read an obituary for the West End, I could retire. It’s nonsense and I have to say I think it’s nonsense to worry about musicals at the moment. The fact is most musicals occupy big theatres. How many plays go on in big theatres? There are one or two that are occupying smaller theatres, but all that matters is whether the musicals are any good. What is sad is if you have crap on in the West End, whether it be musical or straight theatre. That’s what’s depressing, is when you see the quality go down. At the moment I’d say the quality’s pretty high.”

“I’ve spent certain moments crying with laughter”

The plight of the theatre buildings themselves, which need a cash injection of around £250 million to renovate, improve and bring up to 21st century standards also concerns Attenborough: “Arthur Miller once said he’d sooner have 15, 20 half-full theatres rather than six packed theatres, and he’s right. He was talking about Broadway, but it’s actually the multiplicity of choice, the variety, the fact that people have a habit, they want to come back two or three times to the theatre and not just once. And if it becomes the very expensive and not always very comfortable treat of the year, then that’s when the straight play does lose out. I know they’re privately owned, I know all that, but the fact of the matter is they are one of the major tourist attractions of this country and we’re not backing them. They are an important part of London theatre and if we were to fast forward 10, 15 years, those buildings are going to be in an even worse shape. We can’t watch them decline and decline and decline.”

Though Attenborough’s campaigning speeches tackle subjects of a most serious nature, do not mistake this for dryness of character. To run the risk of overusing a phrase, Attenborough speaks from the heart with passion and conviction about concerns and topics that he whole-heartedly believes in. Yet he does not trust plays that never lift a smile, because life, even at its darkest moments, is never far from a giggle. This is another reason he loves The Homecoming: “I’ve spent certain moments in the rehearsal room crying with laughter at it, and it’s often at the most disgusting and horrible things that people are doing and saying,” he laughs. “But you are taken to the brink with it and you cannot but laugh. I never trust plays that don’t have humour in them somewhere, because I don’t think life’s like that. I think life always, even at its toughest and bleakest, always has a corner somewhere that’s still funny. I think [Pinter] understands that.”

The Homecoming runs at the Almeida until 22 March.

MA