Director and actor Samuel West has always struck me as a very serious character. Whether it is the roles he plays or that harsh, angular face, joviality has never been connected with him in my mind. In actual fact, I couldn’t be more wrong, writes Matthew Amer.
When he talks about theatre, about what he believes plays can and should achieve, or about what he is aiming to do with his new production of Waste, West talks with the weight, assurance and seriousness of a Hamlet or a Lear. There is a whole-hearted and spirited belief behind his every word, and he takes time to ensure he has chosen exactly the right adjective or verb. But tempt him away to past performances, or, most passionately, sport, and a wonderfully dry, quick-witted, self-deprecating humour arises.
How is he finding the Almeida, I ask. “Just down the Upper Street,” he replies, completely surprising me with the most obvious of deadpan comedy responses. His production of Waste finds him working at the Islington theatre, just a matter of yards from his front door, for the very first time, and though some might have taken this as an opportunity for excessive lie-ins, West is still up with the larks. His reason: “I can never prepare in the evening; I fall asleep.”
Banned by the Lord Chamberlain when it was first written in 1907, Waste is a tale of political and personal collision, as radical independent MP Henry Trebell finds his affair with a married woman threatening his power and ideals. West describes it as “very, very modern and very, very shocking; the perfect marriage of the personal and the political”.
“The events of Waste could have happened this morning,” he says, paraphrasing a piece he wrote for the Almeida’s newsletter, “in fact, they probably did. We just won’t hear about them until next week, or possibly next year.”
"The events of Waste could have happened this morning, in fact, they probably did"
He is right, of course. Political scandal is not confined to one period in history and personal peccadilloes will always be used against a man or woman in office. “If you put it in modern suits and set it in a conference room instead of a 1920s office, it wouldn’t look or sound very different,” West confirms.
Though Waste was written in 1907, by the time it had escaped the imprisonment of censorship, time had moved on, and Granville Barker wanted to rewrite his piece to reflect that. The result is a drama set around 1924; the First World War is a memory, mentioned in passing, and there is hope for a future that is yet to be crushed by the Wall Street Crash and the Second World War. Though the plot could come from any time period, the mood, punctuated by three different governments in the space of 12 months, is quite specific.
West’s cast, which includes Will Keen and Nancy Carroll, would, the director tells me, have been taken to parliament to soak up some of the high political atmosphere had it been in session at all during the rehearsal process. With that not possible, West called in a few experts, “just to stop [the cast] listening to me quite so much”. Tony Benn and Martin Bell have both shared their wisdom and knowledge with the actors in the hope that their experience would enrich the production.
It all sounds very organised, very methodical, and if you read a few articles about West, this sense of a rigid, pragmatic, thoroughly researched approach tends to come across. It sits happily in my mind with his stern features and perceived demeanour. Yet he is more than happy when he can wash his hands of problems and just not worry about them: “It’s fun to work in a building when it’s not your building,” he admits of his time at the Almeida, “because you’re so terribly relieved when things aren’t your problem. I find the same thing when I’m acting now. I’ll be in a scene and I’ll be thinking ‘Ooh, that’s a difficult scene change… Anyway, bye; I’m going to learn my lines.’ I simply love it not being my problem sometimes.”
West was, until 2007, the Artistic Director of Sheffield theatres, so he understands what it is like to be on the other side, trying to make a venue as hospitable for productions as possible, rather than focusing on just one show. His tenure came to an abrupt end when the theatre closed for refurbishment leaving him without a space to run.
"They got on very very well off stage, so that they could go on stage and beat the mental and physical s**t out of each other"
I get the impression that he still regrets not being able to keep the company going in one way or another in the interim, in the way that London’s Young Vic managed. He has since seen various heads of departments move on to pastures new as, like him, with no work taking place they have nothing to do. Yet West refuses to allocate blame in any direction, he just worries for the future of the institution: “There are a million reasons why a theatre should close, and only one why it should stay open, because it’s very, very easy for an audience to get out of the habit of going.”
He has, of course, taken lessons from his time in Sheffield, as he does from every project – “the art is in stealing from the good people” – and has not written off taking charge of a venue again in the future. In addition to experience, though, his time in the north also allowed him the opportunity to stick his head in at the Snooker World Championships, held annually at the Crucible theatre. He didn’t even have to ‘cue’ for tickets.
It is not a bad perk of the job for a sports fan, which West surely is, citing sport and theatre as two of the last forms of truly interactive entertainment left. His timing, however, was not perfect, as he missed a 147 break, snooker’s perfect score, by a matter of minutes. “A lot of people came past me punching the air and saying ‘that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen,’” he says. “I thought ‘Okay, if that’s the best thing you’ve ever seen then I’ve got my work cut out. We’ve got to get those people in to see plays that are at least as good as what they’ve just seen.’”
Sport is very important to West, not just in the games he follows, but in the terminology that runs through his speech. His first project on leaving Sheffield was a revival of Dealer’s Choice which did so well at the Menier Chocolate Factory that it earned a transfer to the West End. His description of the production’s cast could just as easily be applied to a cricket team; they “batted right down the order” and needed “to be at the top of their form”. Somewhat less eloquently he adds: “They got on very very well off stage, so that they could go on stage and beat the mental and physical s**t out of each other.”
The success of Dealer’s Choice may have seen the production hit the West End headlines, and increased West’s kudos within the industry, yet he feels his forays behind the scenes have hindered his acting career. Balancing the role of performer and director is a tricky task; too much weight on one side and the other suffers as a result. “I think it doesn’t make for top visibility always,” West agrees. “I think if I was trying to be as visible as possible then I would devote myself entirely to acting, because directors aren’t as prominent in the public eye.”
"I was a pin up in a gay Dr Who fanzine"
He doesn’t do badly for an actor with a lower profile. Obviously one can only speculate about roles he may have been offered had his name been further up a list, but he only has ten days’ rest once Waste has opened before starting rehearsals for his next acting production, The Family Reunion at the Donmar Warehouse. He also made his Broadway debut earlier this year in the American premiere of Caryl Churchill’s most recent play Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? “It was great,” he laughs, “partly because it only lasted 39 minutes. In London you would have been in the Ivy by quarter to nine!”
It seems odd that an actor who played Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year and three days should be suffering from lack of exposure, especially in the current climate where the RSC’s most recent Danish prince, a certain David Tennant, sold out his West End run faster than you can say “To be…”. But such is the fickleness of a forgetful industry. It was, after all, almost seven years ago that he last played the role.
“One comes off having failed at a different bit every night,” West says, not regretfully but with truth, of his time in Elsinore. And yet the experience, which saw him working with director Stephen Pimlott, who passed away last year and whom West holds in the highest regard, is one that West cherishes. “I’ll never have hit a century or played for England or gone to Mars, but I can at least comfort myself that I played Hamlet for a year at the Royal Shakespeare Company.” It was a role and production that many might refer to as ‘defining’.
You would think that, then, would be the peak of his thespianic career to date. But no, that accolade goes to a far more intergalactic experience, appearing in “the last ever episode of the old Dr Who. My career highlight is a line I had to say to Kate O’Mara, which was ‘30 seconds to computer achieving full power status mistress.’ It’s not considered the greatest part of the [Dr Who] canon, but I was, briefly, a pin up in a gay Dr Who fanzine, which I thought was quite close to the pinnacle of my career.”
Dr Who, Hamlet, West End and Broadway success, a strong Artistic Directorship behind him; when you put it like that, West has not done too badly so far in his career. There are still ambitions; more film work would be nice and he would dearly love to work at the National Theatre again: “it’s absolutely my favourite theatre, my dream job,” he says. But behind the professional ambition, there is a personal one that, if I am reading the tone of his voice correctly, will always take precedent. As he heads into his early 40s, he would like to have a family. Is it on the horizon? I ask, stepping into slightly uncomfortable territory. “Ah…” he pauses, having led me into this conversation. “I’m living with my girlfriend who’s a lovely playwright [Laura Wade]. That’s all I’ll say at this point.” West may have his greatest production in his sights, but it does not involve a stage.