INTERVIEW: MAX STAFFORD-CLARK
The artistic director of Out of Joint theatre company talks to David Benedict about The Permanent Way by David Hare, and the genre of documentary theatre.
What we are trying to present in verbatim theatre is a closer encounter with the truth.
INTERVIEW: MAX STAFFORD-CLARK
The artistic director of Out of Joint talks to David Benedict about The Permanent Way by David Hare and the genre of documentary theatre.
Recording date: 9 January 2004
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David Benedict: This is TheatreVOICE and I’m David Benedict. The fastest route to directorial success is to direct classics, do a modern version, do an updated version, do a spectacular version, and all the critics will notice you. My guest this afternoon, Max Stafford-Clark, has done entirely the reverse. His career has been spent almost exclusively shepherding, ushering and directing new writing. Everyone you can think of from, I don’t know, Sue Townsend, Caryl Churchill, Hanif Kureishi, April De Angelis, Sebastian Barry, Mark Ravenhill and, of course, David Hare, have worked with Max, in one of various guises. First of all, good afternoon to you Max. Now, you began working, I believe, at the Traverse, in Edinburgh, in the sixties?
Max Stafford-Clark: That’s right, my first professional production was in 1966, and I directed at university, and I kind of pretended that I had prior professional experience when really I hadn’t; and the first play I did had an actress in it called Susan Williamson, to whom I am forever grateful, and I, the only thing I had that she didn’t was a car, and I used to drive her home every evening and she gave me every evening a fifteen-minute seminar, on the practical side of directing. So she would say, “Well, if you want David to direct this scene, don’t get him sitting behind a table, you’ve got to get him standing up, you know, tell him to move”, and the next day I’d come in and say, “Um, you know, I’ve been thinking about the scene and perhaps, David, it might be a good idea if you er, you know if you tried um, er, standing up.” And of course it went much better and then I’d drive her home that night and she’d tell me the next step.
David Benedict: So after a crash course, you become artistic director of the Traverse; and you then formed Joint Stock Theatre Company, a revolutionary theatre company in terms of its practice in, I believe, 1974, with, as far as I can tell from my research, with David Hare.
Max Stafford-Clark: Well David wrote the first play, and David Hare and David Aukin were instrumental in helping me get the company established; but the first director, the first three plays Joint Stock did, were directed by Bill Gaskill, and by me, jointly, and those were The Speakers, Fanshen and Yesterday’s News. So we co-directed those three plays, and I suppose I was, I was then in my late twenties and Bill was some ten or twelve years older than me; and he had run the Royal Court so he had a great deal of experience, and in most ways he was the senior partner. But certainly I had come from a background of experimental work which had been influenced by Grotowski, and different Polish groups that had done what’s now called ‘site-specific’ or ‘promenade’ work, whereas Bill had been influenced by the Berliner Ensemble and by Brecht, and the Royal Court and had had the discipline that comes from working in a very precise, proscenium arch, so we both brought very different things to Joint Stock, and those first three shows were a learning curve for both of us.
David Benedict: The third show, Yesterday’s News, is of particular interest now that you’re currently directing David Hare’s The Permanent Way, which is now previewing at the National after opening at York in late November last year. As far as I understand, Yesterday’s News was probably the first of the Joint Stock shows that actually kind of changes the role of the actor, because the actors become researchers as much as they are actors. How did it come about on Yesterday’s News?
Max Stafford-Clark: Yes, it was the first verbatim play. We had embarked on a rehearsal period with Jeremy Seabrook, and he was going to write a play about the collapse of the state, that’s to say that in working class England people used to be neighbourly and help each other and it was the collapse of that kind of feeling; but the play wasn’t heading anywhere and it did seem we were getting stuck, and we’d landed ourselves with a rehearsal period which was long, with a date to do the play at the end of it, and the play wasn’t coming along and it stalled, and I think it was David Rintoul, one of the actors, who read about this incident in which Colonel Callan (it was a kind of nine-day wonder in the papers) had shot some of his own troops in Angola, and they were mercenaries who had been recruited, some of them were ex-army, some of them were indeed schoolboys who had just left school, and we followed the story. Paul Camber, another of the actors, found the number of the recruiting officer, who’d got them all out there. We talked to a journalist; we talked to a young man who was a schoolboy who had gone out there and was terrified out of his life; we talked to his girlfriend at Pimlico Comprehensive; we followed the story up and met two of the mercenaries involved in this small army; and once we found the people the show began to get, pull together very quickly. So yes that was the first verbatim project that I was involved with.
David Benedict: There have been several others over the years, that you have worked on, including Falkland Sound, which was, clearly, about the Falklands, right through, recently, you did a pairing of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Robin Soans’s A State Affair, which which looked at an estate, the like of which Andrea Dunbar might have lived on.
Max Stafford-Clark: Yes, it was, it was before and after the heroin epidemic that sort of began in the mid-eighties, and The Sunday Times had been running a whole series of articles inspired by a rather right-wing sociologist called Charles Murray, about the underclass and the signifiers of the underclass and the danger of single-parent families, no male role model, the outbreak of violence, criminality, and so on; and there was indeed a conference at Church House in Westminster, at which Jack Straw spoke, and a number of other journalists and figures spoke; and so the play was an investigation into what had happened to turn what was, in Andrea’s day, a collapsed working-class society, into a semi-criminal underclass; or that’s the agenda that The Sunday Timeswas setting. And so in the course of the research, yes, we talked to lots of kids, certainly, but also policemen, bail hostel wardens, a vicar, health workers, health visitors, and a bail hostel warden, people involved in the lives on exactly the same estate that Andrea had lived on, and then put the two plays together, for an evening.
David Benedict: That was part of, that links to your tradition, which I believe began when you were artistic director of the Royal Court, of linking a play from the past and a play from the present. It began with The Recruiting Officer, at the Royal Court, and you’ve since made a hallmark of that, doing linked productions since formation of Out of Joint, about ten years ago. If we fast-forward to The Permanent Way, how, how did this come about, was this, was this re-linking with David Hare who you first worked with in ’71, was this, was this you going, “Ooh, I think we could do a play about the railways,” or was that him coming up “I’ve got a good idea”?
Max Stafford-Clark: It was prompted by an article in Granta, by Ian Jack, which he then turned into a short book called The Crash That Stopped Britain, and it was about the collapse of the railways, but it also had a nostalgia for Victorian engineering values, and really it was about how the ethos of the Harvard Business School had become pervasive, that if you run a chain of shoe shops you can run a chain of restaurants, if you run a chain of restaurants you can run a railway, all you need is management skill. And the Victorian engineering skills had become demoted, downgraded and outdated. And so the book had, was fascinating and factual, but it also had a nostalgia for a time that had passed; and I met Ian Jack and talked to him, and indeed his father was an engineer; and I then met David separately to talk about The Breath of Life, I think, (which I was doing in Sydney), and he said he didn’t feel he had a natural home at the moment, that the National, since Richard [Eyre] had left, didn’t seem for him, and he was, he said if you ever think of a project, let me know, so I sent him Ian Jack’s book, and his response was immediate, and enthusiastic, and we then did a workshop at the National Theatre Studio, last February , in which a team of actors acted as researchers, and went out and met people working in the rail industry, and, indeed, the thesis I suppose of the play is that privatisation has not been a good thing; and are these crashes, Southall, Hatfield, Potter’s Bar, Paddington, connected with privatisation in any way? And that two weeks, of (eleven of us altogether) going out and talking to people involved in the rail industry, people who were the survivors of crashes, people who were bereaved, people whose children had been killed, was extremely instructive, and the play was based on those people we talked to; what we didn’t know at the time was that David would adopt the verbatim format, or that a large part of the play is based exactly on the interviews with people we talked to.
David Benedict: So, I mean, this debate has been voiced for a long time now, probably since the emergence of the Caryl Churchill plays you did in the seventies, like Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Cloud Nine, of who, actually, who actually writes these plays, you know, how much of The Permanent Way is David Hare, how much of that is you, how much of that is the actors? Is David doing an edit job, or is he writing a play?
Max Stafford-Clark: Oh he’s certainly writing a play. I mean these definitions may be important to academics and journalists, but they’re not important at the time: what you get is the play, and his forensic skills as a journalist, and his editing skills as a writer, are very much to the fore. So we assembled a bunch of material, he found the story through it; yes certainly, it, what you hope is that this way of working has an authenticity, and bears a closer relationship to the truth than you sometimes find in the theatre or on television or in cinema, but it is a hybrid, it’s not a television documentary, and a lot of, I mean there is a number of characters who David has never met, who have been met by the actors, who then come back and improvise in a question and answer session, the interviews they’ve had, and they have their notes in front of them; but it’s far from being the exact words as taken down by tape-recorder; and through a two-hour interview with, let’s say, an executive working for a rail company, David selects the two paragraphs that he wishes to use, so yes, it is dependent on both skills from the actors that you don’t normally request and require, and it uses different kinds of writing skills, but it’s very much David’s play, no question of it.
David Benedict: But presumably, one of the great strengths of this type of working is the ownership that the actors feel; because they’re not just turning up on, you know, a week before rehearsals begin, handed a script and go away again, learn it and get on with it, this is something that they very much feel connected to.
Max Stafford-Clark: Absolutely, they have an ownership and a responsibility, and they thrive on that, because, as I say, there are characters that they, they’re the only people in the company who’ve met; and of course as the play goes on to its run in London we’ll meet them too, there are indeed a whole lot of survivors who are coming to the play on Monday, most of whom I’ve not yet met. So yes, the actors do feel a commitment, and a responsibility, because they’ve been involved in the generation of the play.
David Benedict: Um, responsibility, amongst artists, is quite a thorny question, obviously, but, with work like verbatim theatre, it does throw up, it seems to me, very precise questions about who your responsibilities are to. If you’re just writing a play, or indeed directing a play, normally, presumably, one’s responsibility is, to the writer, to the text, and just do it, that’s that, and then you make it as good as you possibly can and move on to the next one. I assume that that question is rather more vexed in, in the case of verbatim theatre, or a show like this in particular?
Max Stafford-Clark: It hasn’t become a thorny issue, and it hasn’t been an issue that we’ve debated. It’s certainly true that you, that I think all of us feel a responsibility to present the stories that we’ve heard as clearly as possible, and not to stitch somebody up, not to present people as villains and we don’t do that. I think the play, for example, the character who is called in the play, ‘Head of Railtrack’, clearly was inexperienced in the rail industry, he came from, he was the managing director of other companies, and was moved into Railtrack; and his dilemma, as the, his rail empire began to collapse round him, is movingly expressed; in no sense is he seen as that man was by the press as the villain of the piece. I mean there are cartoons that represent Gerald Corbett as, villainous, I mean in the [press], and we don’t go down that route. And people, I suppose what this way of working does is it doesn’t intersperse an opinion between the audience and the person we’ve talked to, so the audience are allowed to draw their own conclusion.
David Benedict: Do you think that’s entirely true, is there not a degree of editorialising simply in the choice of who’s in and who’s out, and how the argument is, how the argument is put together?
Max Stafford-Clark: Yes, undoubtedly there’s a selection and there’s editing and those things do point in a particular direction but it, none-the-less there is, there is an absence of opinion, an absence of editorial opinion, that I think characterises this kind of work; and it does seem like, and you are trying to, present a closer encounter with the truth.
David Benedict: I mean I think one of the great successes of this piece is that lack of conscious “Right, and here’s what we think,” I mean I think people that don’t know anything about political theatre assume that it’s bad agitprop, that it’s a lot of people with, with firm opinions…
Max Stafford-Clark: … and clear opinions that they have before the play begins which they are presenting; I have never done that kind of work, I have never written, I’ve never directed or approached a play with a clear political opinion. I mean there are companies that do that and proclaim it in their title, like Gay Sweatshop or 7:84, that have a declared political position and choose plays in order to exemplify that position. I suppose this kind of work is saying, “We think there’s a story here, and we’ll tell you what we found”, but we’re not approaching it with a particular agenda in mind. Obviously there’s a link somewhere between privatisation and what’s happened in the railways, obviously there’s a link between heroin and what’s happened on those northern council estates, but beyond that you represent what you found.
David Benedict: And again, one of the strengths is the complexity of what you found, both in terms of the fact that you don’t present villains and good guys, I mean there are, there are very, very touching scenes of, of people’s bewilderment and, and clear confusion over things that have happened and things that have been done unto them. Presumably, it’s very, its all the more stimulating when, when you come across people that, that have doubts because that allows you to, to air more sides of a question.
Max Stafford-Clark: I think you’re always surprised, in this work. Just to give you an example, if I may, my first encounter, on A State Affair, was with a policeman who we’d arranged to meet in the West Yorkshire police headquarters across the road from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and he was twenty minutes late and he came in and he said, “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, “I’ve had to, I’ve been distributing some leaflets and pamphlets into the gay and lesbian clubs and pubs in the Leeds and Bradford area, cos I don’t think the West Yorkshire constabulary is taking it’s responsibilities to the gay community very seriously,” and you realise that there are aspects of the police force that, post the Lawrence Inquiry, have actually become extremely politicised, and know exactly what they’re doing; it certainly took me by surprise, someone who was pamphleting on behalf of the gay community wasn’t what I’d anticipated meeting at all, and the afternoon I had was fascinating, and one I couldn’t have predicted in any way, and in the course of the afternoon he took me round his patch, in his police car, and you were aware that far from trying to catch people, actually his objective, in Stanislavski terms, was the reverse, was not to catch people, and to prevent things happening. He said, “Oh you’ll enjoy talking to her,” and he beckoned this young woman over who had a kid, and he said, “Margaret what, what’s happened to Ben, is he still in?” and he was still in prison, the boyfriend, she had a kid, and, and obviously it was, it was a fairly grim story, and she was interesting, and we moved on and he said, “Oh well I could probably pull her in for possession, but you know.” So you had a sense of them as mopping up the casualties caused by capitalism and industry collapsing in that part of Yorkshire, rather than being out to fulfil a criminal quota and catch people, which was surprising, I hadn’t anticipated that at all.
David Benedict: You obviously can’t wholly anticipate what anybody’s response to any play will be, much as you, one might try and direct scenes in order to elicit a certain response. What, what kind of responses have you been getting, both from those who you interviewed, and, and those who maybe connected with the railways who’ve been to see it?
Max Stafford-Clark: Well we opened in York, and that’s a railway town, so we got quite a lot of people who work in the railway industry coming to see it, and they were fascinating, they corrected a couple of inaccuracies in the text, but their response was very moving, there was one train driver who stood up in a post-show discussion and said, he thought it was the best play he’d ever seen, but also said that if he expressed the opinions that were put on stage he’d be dismissed from his job. So it certainly touched people who work in permanent way gangs and work as drivers in the rail industry, and there’s no doubt that privatisation has set aspects of the industry against each other so that it’s a two-tier system, some drivers are getting paid twice as much as others, and that’s a divisive system, and I think that there wasn’t anybody we met, who we talked to in the course of researching and rehearsing the play, who defended the mode of privatisation that’s been used, and that was a shock. There was nobody in the industry who said, “Look, it could have worked, this is, this how we could’ve done it,” nobody said that.
David Benedict: What happens to it, after the end of the, it ends at the National at the end of March?
Max Stafford-Clark: It ends at the National at the end of April, and it then tours with Out of Joint again, to Leeds, Oxford and Liverpool, and that’s the end of this engagement, but we have been invited to a festival in Sydney, and I think there’ll be a, certainly the box office response would indicate that there’s a further life for it in some form.
David Benedict: Speaking of, of future plans, what’s, what’s on the agenda once this tour’s over, what, what will Out of Joint be up to next?
Max Stafford-Clark: I don’t know.
David Benedict: And on that uncertain note, Max Stafford-Clark, thank you very much.