Paul Miller

Published April 17, 2008

The sun is shining, the beer is flowing and June is drawing nearer. In pubs and homes around the country a shared tension is rising; a heady mix of anticipation, hope and fear gripping the National consciousness. Euro 2004 draws nearer. Jumping on the pre-emptive tailcoats of this summer’s tournament, Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, a tale of racial tensions brought to boiling point by one eventful football match, is playing at the National Cottesloe. Matthew Amer spoke to director Paul Miller, who knows more about theatre than he does about football.

Paul Miller is not the director one would picture moulding a play about 14 characters watching a football match in a ‘Sarf London’ boozer. Neatly dressed and softly spoken, by his own admission, he knows nothing about the beautiful game and takes very little interest in it. It is even a struggle for him to remember there is a marginally important tournament taking place this summer. If England were to win, the whole event could pass over Miller like a Beckham free kick. Yet this is not necessarily a hindrance to his directorial decisions. “Well”, he explains, with just a hint of sarcasm, “I’ve directed The Duchess Of Malfi and I’ve never killed my sister!”

“I’ve directed The Duchess Of Malfi and I’ve never killed my sister!”

Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads premiered at the National in the summer of 2002 as part of the Lyttelton Loft’s Transformations season. The drama unfolds in real time as a group of team-mates from the pub football team watch England’s historic loss to Germany, the result that sounded the death knoll for Kevin Keegan’s reign as England manager. As things start to go badly for England on the pitch, racial tensions start to boil over in the pub and the team starts to show some very obvious cracks.

One of the first challenges Miller encountered in staging the show was bringing the big-match pub atmosphere to the Cottesloe stage. The National’s new writing venue may be a relatively small space, but, as Miller realised, with an audience sitting around watching it from the sidelines and “only 14 characters in the play; its going to look like the most empty pub in the world.” Not wanting the audience to believe the pub was less popular than a Russian linesman at a reunion of the Germany squad of ’66, Miller and designer Hayden Griffin leapt into action. In a masterstroke of theatrical makeovers, the stage has been transformed into an interactive boozer complete with 60 audience members seated on stage, getting down and dirty among the beer-swilling, football-chanting action. Shy theatregoers can relax; there is no actual audience participation. You won’t even be served by the barmaid.

Having members of the audience on stage is a brave step for a production to take; you never know quite how this strange group of people – theatregoers – might react. In recent weeks alone, Oleanna has seen numerous auditorium dwellers vocally urging characters to hurt each other. Although those theatregoers attending the National are normally well behaved, a couple of them may have had one G & T too many before the performance and start joining in with some impromptu chanting. Too much Earl Grey beforehand may make a cheeky toilet break necessary – ironically not as easy if you’re sitting in the middle of a make believe pub. Miller sees allowing those who normally stay the quiet side of the stage into the action as a definite bonus, “that adds a layer of unpredictability to what is going to happen. It makes it an event.”

"It’s a real dirty bomb."

Rehearsing a play can be relatively painless; rehearsing an event is a much more taxing business. But, turning stagnant and unappetising water into the finest Cristal, the National took the opportunity to bring in members of the local community who don’t normally get a peek behind the scenes, to provide an audience for two of the final run throughs. “I think it helped [the National] to make contact with all sorts of groups and group leaders; people out there in the community.”

The real crux of the hype behind Sing Yer Heart Out comes not from its clever programming near the start of Euro 2004, but from the way in which it deals with central themes of racism and national identity. The 14 characters who watch the match together all have racial prejudices, but express them in very different ways and circumstances.

It is not an easy topic to write about or discuss, but in Miller’s opinion, playwright Roy Williams has hit the nail on the head with his interpretation. “It’s a real dirty bomb. It gets under your skin and into your brain in very upsetting ways. It involves the audience in the racism. It makes you complicit with it. You are effectively sat in the pub and if you stay silent while somebody says appalling things it makes you complicit in it, like it is in life if you choose to ignore things.”

A play based around football, which explores themes of violence, national pride and racism could run the risk of tarring all football fans with the same brush and doing nothing to help the image of a sport trying to crack down on racism. But, written by an avid QPR fan whose passion in life has to be split between football and theatre, Miller sees the show in a different light. “I think what is implicit in the play is a sense of pain on Roy’s part, saying ‘why does it have to be like this? This game that I’m mad about seems to be tragically linked to this awful stuff.”

"It gets under your skin and into your brain in very upsetting ways."

The character of Barry, the team’s black star striker who is at once hero and villain to his team-mates, is played by Ashley Waters, better known as Asher D of infamous garage collective So Solid Crew. Although an actor from a young age – Miller first noticed him playing small roles in The Bill – it is for a rather unsavoury incident which saw him sentenced to a term in prison for possessing a firearm that Waters is most notorious. Having served his time he is once again performing. Although his reputation and image may have put some people off, Miller sees an entirely different side to him. “He’s a delight. Lovely. I knew who he was way before he went into music because I used to see him and go ‘Who’s that boy? He’s brilliant.’ I think it’s all too easy for the press to write about people and make up a picture.”

The exact role Miller, or any director, plays in bringing a production together is ever-so-slightly ambiguous to the untrained eye. In the final production everyone else’s work is clear to see. The lighting, design, choreography, writing, even the acting is there in front of the audience. But where is the work of the director? It seems to hide in the background like a shy puppy, always wanting to be adored but never having the courage to stroll up and ask for some affection. How does Miller see the often thankless role? “The job of directing is certainly not what people think it is – that you just swan around getting your way all the time. I think a lot of it is trying to catch the tone of the writing and trying to embody it. I always think there is this platonic ideal of the play which any given production will get some way towards. The struggle is to express as much of every moment of the play as possible. It’s a weird job to do – stressful and then very occasionally worth it.”

Possibly one of those moments that make it all worth it arrived when Miller first came in contact with Mercy, the project to which he will turn after Sing Yer Heart Out. The play, a new piece by Lin Coghlan, will be performed at the Soho Theatre in July. “When I opened it the first time she gave me it to read, I realised I’d been wanting someone to write a play like this for years.” Playing the plot close to his chest, Miller will only say that “it’s like an early Edward Bond play”, which we can only assume means it will be a shocker.

"I’m not a wine bar type of person!"

Miller, as he chats and quietly sips his Becks, looks a million miles from the image of an all-powerful director controlling the very life-breath of those around him. He is a laid back, understated character, which is reflected in his work ethos, which contrasts with many of his contemporaries who often remould scripts to suit themselves: “I don’t tremendously believe in new plays existing to be rewritten by the director. I tend to think ‘when you finish writing it, I will direct whatever you’ve done’. I always think that is the intellectual challenge of directing; altering the play is cheating. If I can’t make it work as it is, that’s my failure as a director.”

So, a play about football, set in a pub. Miller has already professed to having no interest in the beautiful game, but how about the age old theatrical pursuit of alcohol consumption. Is he a pub or a bar man? [A taxing question to which Miller gives a due consideration.] “I’m not a wine bar type of person! There is a pub that physically is very like the pub [Sing Yer Heart Out…] is set in, on The Cut in Waterloo. It’s called The Windmill. As The Cut has become a centre of theatrical activity – because of the Old Vic, Young Vic and National Studio – it’s become a real actors pub… so I’ve spent ‘a little bit of time’ in there.”

As he nips off for a glass of red wine – his tipple of choice – at the Windmill, Miller looks back over his shoulder and, like the Columbo of football, gives his one insight into who will take the glory at Euro 2004: “A football team will win… It’ll probably be the one that scores more goals that the others.” With quotes like that, if his directing work ever dries up a career as a commentator could be beckoning.