Director Simon Curtis hasn’t worked in theatre for nearly five years, since his revival of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged ran at the Criterion theatre in 2005. But in that time he has worked extensively on screen, gathering directorial credits including the series Freezing, starring his wife Elizabeth McGovern, dramas Five Days and A Short Stay In Switzerland, and the BAFTA-winning all-star mini-series Cranford.
Now, Curtis returns to his theatrical roots – he started his career at the Royal Court – to direct the revival of 1970 play Serenading Louie by Lanford Wilson, an American playwright he knew more than a little about already.
CB: Why did you want to direct Serenading Louie?
SC: [Donmar Artistic Director] Michael Grandage asked me. He and I had been talking about me doing a play at the Donmar for a long time and he approached me with this play saying ‘This is a play you won’t have heard of’ and I said ‘I beg to differ’. I’m the only person I’ve met so far who actually has seen it. In my 20s I was in New York a lot of the time and I ran into this play at the Public Theatre in the early 80s, with Dianne Weist and Lindsay Crouse in the cast. Lanford Wilson was a big star in New York theatre in the late 70s and early 80s. He wrote Burn This that [John] Malkovich did and Fifth Of July that I saw, my first theatre experience in New York, with William Hurt and Jeff Daniels in the cast. So he is a big figure in my theatregoing life, so I was thrilled to have the chance to do it. And of course when I saw it in my 20s it seemed to be about these old people struggling in their marriages, and now of course I realise that the characters were only in their mid-30s and I’m way the other side of their age.
CB: The play is about two old college friends who are reaching a crisis point in their lives and their marriages. Its themes of unfulfilment and lack of purpose in life could make it a rather depressing play…
SC: Yes but it’s also… We’re setting it in the 1970s, which was a very complicated, transitional time in American culture, and the characters, some of their dilemmas are eternal dilemmas and some of them are very much specific to that period. Basically they were a generation caught between their parents, who were very much post-war characters in America, and people younger than them who were experiencing the 60s. Our characters graduated in 1955 and were in their mid-30s in the 70s, so they sort of missed out on the 60s altogether. In some ways they are a bit like characters in a Chekhov play where the world is changing inevitably and they don’t quite know where they fit into the new world.
It’s a very dangerous but entertaining play. There’s a lot of humour and warmth in it, as well as the agony of being at a crisis point in your life.
CB: The themes are rather similar to those in Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road, aren’t they?
SC: Yeah, that’s not wrong. For me, this play, even though it was written very much out of the sort of experimental theatre of off-Broadway in the 60s, goes back to the great American plays of Miller and Eugene O’Neill, it’s in that tradition. But it also goes further back to Ibsen and Chekhov.
CB: Are the themes identifiable for audiences today?
SC: Yeah a lot of it is eternal stuff. Maybe we have our mid-life crises a bit later now but people still [think] ‘Is this all it is?’
CB: Has Lanford Wilson been involved in this production?
SC: Yeah I went to cast in New York, where I cast both the men in the play. I met him then, for the first time, so that was very exciting.
CB: Is there more pressure directing the work of a living playwright than there is directing a classic?
SC: Almost all my career I’ve worked with living writers, from the Royal Court and… In the last play I did [Otherwise Engaged] I was very privileged to get to know the late Simon Gray. I’ve always loved working with living writers. He’s [Wilson] not in the room but he is on the phone and on the email.
CB: How did you cast your leads?
SC: Just by meeting lots of people and them being the ones I wanted most. There’s no real story apart from that. I’m really glad that we’ve got at least one authentic American in the cast [Jason Butler Harner]. Whenever I’ve done an American play in London – I’ve done several before, including the British premiere of Sam Shepherd’s A Lie Of The Mind – I’ve always gained a great deal from having a real American in the cast to keep us in the right area.
CB: As a director, how much preparation do you have to do before rehearsals?
SC: I don’t know the answer to that. You are working with your team, the designers, talking about it, learning about the play. I’ve done most of my work on television; I’ve just directed Cranford, which was a cast of 42, for three hours of material and we only had two days to rehearse it. So in some ways, five weeks to explore this play with a cast of four seems very luxurious. That’s the appeal as well.
CB: What’s your approach to rehearsals?
SC: Well some directors like to stage it immediately. I don’t; I like to talk through the whole play and get us all to bring up the questions and things you don’t understand, and hear it aloud. Almost a radio version of it. So some of those questions are resolved before you start staging it.
CB: How much influence do the actors have on your vision for the production?
SC: Well in some ways it’s a collaboration. I like actors and I like to hear actors’ opinions and very often their ideas are better than my ideas. You can’t work with the kind of actors I’ve worked with – in the Cranford cast, for example, I’ve got Judi Dench, Jonathan Pryce, Imelda Staunton and Julia Mackenzie – you don’t listen to people like that at your peril. It’s not only about experience. This cast already have impressed me a great deal with what they have brought to the room.
CB: What is the role of your assistant director?
SC: There’s so much detail from the ‘70s that we need help with, so he’s very good at researching all of that and teaching us. If any of the actors have a question on the reference, he’s very good at illuminating that reference.
CB: You have directed a lot on screen. Do you have to adapt your methods to working on stage or are they the same?
SC: Treating the script with respect, trying to make the script work… every actor has a different version of how you can help them, and so part of the work of a director is to intuit the way you can help that actor most. So a lot of things are exactly the same. On the other hand on television and film you are making final decisions all day every day, because every day you are doing five scenes for the only time. Whereas in theatre you can say ‘We’re not sure it’s quite working but let’s see how it feels after the weekend.’
Equally sometimes in television or film if there is a difficult scene you only have to do it once and then ‘thank God I never have to do that again’.
CB: Do you find screen and stage equally satisfying?
SC: I suppose I feel very lucky to do this kind of work in both and the truth is both have brilliant things and both have tricky things.
CB: What can audiences get from stage that they can’t from screen?
SC: Well I think more and more as people watch things individually, they watch things on screens at home and everything, I think there’s a lot to be said for the communal experience and I think that is why theatre is having a resurgence. I also think, as grown up psychological dramas are becoming rarer and rarer in TV and film, theatre has an opportunity to fill that gap.
CB: What is your role after the show has opened?
SC: I don’t know, every time it is different. I like to drop in and watch it and keep a dialogue with the actors, but equally I’m very keen for it to become theirs. I hope to leave it to them.
CB: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
SC: Just sometimes I feel so lucky to be in the room when great actors are doing a great scene.