Sam West, who most recently appeared on our TV screens as Anthony Blunt in Cambridge Spies, is currently directing a modern-day version Mozart's classic opera Così Fan Tutte at the ENO's adopted home at The Barbican. Tom Bowtell caught up with him to talk about the controversies of interpretation, the pressures of directing and the shortcomings of apes.
Now aged 37, Sam West is firmly established as one of the most versatile and able actor / directors of the coming generation and is well on the way to achieving a far harder feat: fame in his own right and not merely for being the progeny of one of Prunella Scales and Timothy West. Sam’s opening gambit (“hello love, lovely to meet you love”) is just about the most typically thespian greeting I have ever heard, but the measured way he answers questions (with Pinteresque pauses preceding each response) and the complex nature of those answers quickly proves that he is anything but a glib showman.
West is endearingly humble about this production and himself as a director (“It’s hard this directing thing”) but there does seem to be a degree to which he appears to have less confidence in himself than others have in him – the ENO did after all headhunt him to direct Così. That West is inexperienced as a director is undeniable, this is his first directing project in London and only his fourth professional project overall, but each of his previous projects has met with general approval, while creating the odd pleasing ripple of controversy in the press.
"It's hard this directing thing"
West has also flirted with controversy with his bold reimagining of Così Fan Tutte. The action has been updated to a modern day Italian resort with traditional 18th-century garb replaced with stylish outfits straight out of Milan fashion week. The most controversial aspect of West’s version of the Opera has proved to be his interpretation of the plot where the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella see through the ruse of their fiancés Guglielmo and Ferrando who disguise themselves as foreign suitors to test the fidelity of their betrothed: “we had a review that said that if the sisters see through the disguise, the piece simply doesn’t work and it makes a nonsense of the dénouement. Of course I can’t reply to that – I can’t reply to the review – but I do think that what it’s saying is nonsense. Of course you can do it the straightforward way but that makes the sisters look like rather stupid people, and I wasn’t interested in portraying them as that.” West vigorously points out that Mozart's original text is “fascinatingly available” on the subject of how much the sisters are aware is going on and adds that “unless you want the opera to be about two fickle and stupid girls who are tricked by a couple of sexist shits, you have to look beyond that, and I think that it is much more about the girls realising they’ve been trapped and keeping quiet about it: partly because things are moving so fast they can’t jump off, and partly because they prefer things that way round – it’s about" – he pauses – "what people do when they’ve got permission to be horrible to each other”.
The stylish cossies of Così Without giving too much away, West’s chosen ending for the piece is as enigmatic as his portrayal of the sisters’ wavering affections: “which pair the sisters finally end up with is entirely open to interpretation. There are no names mentioned at all in the second half of the original Libretto – which is obviously deliberate ambiguity. Something like that wouldn’t be left out by accident.” West underlines the point by cross-referencing with the text: “the girls don’t mention the boys specifically even as early as Soave, in that famous number when they are left on the beach and they sing supposedly about how much they miss the boys. The words actually mean ‘let the waves be gentle, may the breezes be forgiving and may every element conspire with our wishes’ – nostri desire – but the nature of these 'desire' isn’t made clear.”
While operas have been updated in the past, it is always a risk to depart from the costume-drama appeal of the traditional approach – was there anything specific about Così that West felt made it ripe for a 21st Century staging? “I think everything’s modern -” (he then clearly remembers Vera Lynn and Ford Cortinas and adds) “ – well, some things aren’t modern, but all good writing is always relevant and most stories are modern.” He admits that there are elements of Così which don’t fit entirely snugly with modern Western values: “you do have to think quite hard to find a place where virgins would care so much about who they lost their virginity to, or where it would not necessarily be the person they were engaged to, but if there’s one place in Europe where people would think like that it is Italy, particularly amongst a certain class.”
"If I did it again, I'd set it in the MTV house…"
Although West, with trademark modesty, professes that he “[doesn’t] know much about opera” he does admit that he knows “quite a lot” about Così because he has done his home work. Did he feel that as a fresh voice (so to speak) in opera, he had a duty to rework the opera to make it attractive to a less rareified audience? “I don’t really know enough to say really [there’s that modesty again] but somebody called it ‘the whitest gig imaginable’ in the Guardian the other day and it is certainly seen as singing in the evenings for posh people. Singing in English is a big help, updating is a big help, having a young cast is a big help – but I think next time I’d set it in the MTV house!” Has he noticed the production attracting a younger audience? “Yeah, it’s a little bit younger than usual though… I guess what it really needs is for people to trust us that it is worth seeing.” West sees the biggest challenge in directing Così as trying to convince the audience to suspend their disbelief: “opera has one fundamental problem that theatre doesn’t have and that is that you have to convince people that this is how you are choosing to express yourself – that you won’t say it because you’d rather sing it. If you can do that and mean it, then it’s no problem.”
Making opera accessible in this way is where West feels the direction, and the acting are so important: “the characters do repeat themselves in opera, but then you repeat yourself in everyday life. The important thing is to have a reason for the repeat. If someone says “I’m haunted with shame and fear” [he speaks the line as a statement] and then follows it with “I’m haunted with shame and fear” [this time he speaks imploringly] then the second time means something different: the characters aren’t singing Mozart, they’re singing themselves.” West is clearly interested in the unique way in which opera characters express themselves – so would he consider taking a singing role in an opera himself? “Would I ever sing? Not for money! And I severely doubt whether or not anyone would pay me with my voice…”
"The characters aren't singing Mozart – they are singing themselves"
Prior to Così, West’s previous directing role was Christopher Hampton’s translation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Bristol Old Vic. So has Sam got a penchant for late 18th Century European romances? “No! I just keep getting asked! I’m fed up with doing things from pre-revolution France and Europe. To be honest, people always seem to give me posh things to do; things in verse, things that aren’t said now and things where people don’t say f***. It’s very strange. 1790 is a tricky period. It’s a really real time. I’m not sure if [in Les Liaisons] we managed to get the… lifefulness of it.” Whereas in Les Liaisons the romantic wranglings of the amoral aristocracy are put into perspective by the fast-approaching French Revolution, In Così, the grandiose romantic dramas of the characters are played out at the foot of Mount Vesuvius which, within a few years, will have exploded, burying all of Naples under a foot and half of ash and rock. “I sort of ignored that in this production as it comments of the characters foolishness. If they’re playing out their petty insecurities under a huge volcano and are all going to be swept away anyway – and thank goodness, then you just don’t care about them.”
Sam and Timothy West Having impressively spoken for nearly a quarter hour without uttering the inevitable, I let my guard down for a moment and find myself asking Sam about his theatrical pedigree. “I didn’t want it to be inevitable that I would become an actor, although I think it probably was. I’m not a very decisive person so it just became something I couldn’t avoid. I don’t remember deciding to become an actor – which is probably why it’s taken me until my mid-thirties to decide to do something else!” Was there ever a point when, despite his indecisiveness, he wanted to do anything different? “When I was about ten I wanted to be a chemistry professor, and I originally wanted to a physics degree at university.” West has retained his interest in science: “I think it’s very important. It gets a very bad press much of the time. I think we’re living in a very insular and introverted age so it’s about time we paid a bit of due respect to science’s ability to make us look at the world outside ourselves".
West has remained interested and aware of “the world outside ourselves” throughout his career and confirms that he is “a life member of CND and a letter writer for Amnesty.” He has, however, resigned from Greenpeace: “I went through a very strong anti-green phase and voiced over an anti-green documentary called Against Nature which was written by a communist colleague and still holds the record for most complaints for a Channel 4 series – I was quite proud of it! It was basically saying that humanity is a great success, that we need more people, that cities work well and that wild animals should be kept in cages so they don’t kill us. It was saying that environmentalism has got people very depressed and that they don’t struggle against their opression. There was lots of great footage of liberals in in Hampstead saying ‘we mustn’t build this dam!’ and lots of very poor people in India saying ‘we need this dam to have electricity and water’ and you sort of think ‘yeah, build the dam, f*** the sloths!’” West feels passionately about people – “I think animal rights were becoming a distraction from people’s rights. I even started to think that animals don’t have rights like children or refugees do, because they didn’t demand them.” West believes that humanity’s ability to produce art and speak sets them apart “the vast majority of the things I devote my time to are language based so there is rudimentary communication amongst other species, but nothing approaching what we do. There are no ape operas!”
"There are no ape operas!"
As a documentary voice-over man, screen and stage actor, director and part-time musician / philosopher, it is clear that West is very much a Sam-Of-All-Trades – but does he think he will ever settle down to just one thing? “I don’t know, to be honest. I, er, don’t know.” He indulges in a trademark ponder before continuing “I’d like to do another opera – but not immediately – it’s too much like hard work – and I’d very much like to do another play – act in one, that is – because I haven’t done one all year.” Would he ever act in a play he was directing? “No” he says authoritatively before adding “well, um, possibly, possibly, I’d have to cast myself first of course [a potentially confusing audition] and be absolutely certain that nobody could do it is well as me. I suppose it’s possible I might think that, but my opinion of my peers is probably too high for that to happen.” While he currently has a preference for neither acting or directing, West does feel that his experience as an actor has “undoubtedly” made him a more sympathetic director, but does it also have the drawback of making him over-aware of any rehearsal room tension? “The dressing room should never be a tense place” he says quickly, “not if it’s done properly. Emotional, perhaps, but safe and warm and loving. One very big advantage of having been an actor is that I’ve worked with a number of remarkable directors over the years and you pick things up, but to be honest, I don’t think I’m good enough to talk about directing yet, I’m still making it up as I go along.”
Opinionated, passionate and erudite, yet spectacularly self-effacing, Sam West is in many ways as enigmatic as the ending of Così Fan Tutte. However, while Sam West may be unwilling to puff on his own kazoo, let alone blow his own trumpet, there seems little doubt that his career is going to include many more major successes for him coyly to play down.