Interview: Producer David Pugh spills the beans
21st March 2008
INTERVIEW: DAVID PUGH
The top West End producer, who has been responsible for hits such as Art, The Play What I Wrote, Equus and now Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage (Gielgud), chats frankly to Philip Fisher about the art of being a theatre impresario.
A lot of producers are rich before they start – I wasn’t. And without being able to raise money, you can’t do the job.
INTERVIEW: DAVID PUGH
The top West End producer, who has been responsible for hits such as Art, The Play What I Wrote, Equus and now Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage (Gielgud), chats frankly to Philip Fisher about the art of being a theatre impresario.
Recorded: 21 March 2008.
Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is INTERVIEW: DAVID PUGH and you must use the full url as displayed in your browser’s address bar.
Philip Fisher: David Pugh is a name that ought to be familiar to all theatregoers, but probably isn’t. He’s been involved with some of the major hits over the last, well, many years now. Shows such as Art, which was his creation in some ways, certainly in London; Equus was his; and The Play What I Wrote. He also got involved in Ducktastic by the same team, which was less of a big hit possibly. At the moment he has two London shows, one has opened very recently – he’s just left Emma Rice who created Brief Encounter – and he’s got God of Carnage, the new Yasmina Reza play which opens about three days after this interview. David – welcome to TheatreVOICE.
David Pugh: Thank you, it’s nice to be here. Sitting in Sheekey’s, which is the best place to do it if we’re going to do this on Good Friday, don’t you think?
PF: Absolutely, and we both got recognised in Sheekey’s, which says something…
DP: There you go! I’m only here because of you. And it’s a fish restaurant; it’s a Good Friday so I’m nodding my cap to religion in a certain way. But I’ve literally just had lunch with Emma Rice. Brief Encounter has been an enormous success. I think part of that is not just Kneehigh and the wonderful way that they work – I found myself about eighteen months ago in Cornwall in one of their barns on the cliffs throwing beanbags at each other and shouting things. Something I never quite understood, but part of their process. So working with Kneehigh but also finding that wonderful, wonderful cinema that’s up there on the Haymarket and putting the show into there – those two have married together to make it one of the biggest hits in the West End.
PF: And how did Brief Encounter come about? Or how did your involvement in the show come about? It’s the film re-done on stage and it’s re-done in a kind of wild and wacky way that you would expect with Kneehigh. Where did it come from?
DP: I saw Red Shoes, I saw Tristan and Isolde and wanted to work with them. So I pursued Emma and tried to woe her into the commercial world – that dirty word – which they all think is a dirty word until they get the royalty cheque! So we spent a lot of time at the office talking through ideas, getting absolutely nowhere. It was Mother’s Day two years ago and I was just about to send a DVD to my mum of Brief Encounter. Emma went, “That’s my favourite film” so we said, “Do you want to do that?” When I say we that’s also Dafydd Rogers who’s my partner. So Dafydd acquired the rights to the screenplay and also the rights to the original play Still Life.
PF: That’s by Noel Coward for anyone who doesn’t know.
DP: So with the rights to both of those, off she went to create and start the process. We workshopped twice down in Cornwall. Just stunning – these three barns they have on the cliffs there. The way they work is very communal. I can cope with having to toss a salad and do the washing up, but the improvisation games threw me. I just thought I was a producer, whatever that means. So we did two workshops down there and then we wanted to go out. It’s quite a process we went through. We were going to go to Bristol Old Vic, of course. But, of course, it went down – thank you to the Arts Council… and Clarie Middleton who went in to rescue it… sue me please. We were going to go there, it would have been a lovely space for it. But we went to Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse, both of which served us very well. But we were missing something. I suppose a commercial producer would say, “Well, we need two names! What is Ray Fiennes doing?” Thankfully, he’s doing God of Carnage for me. Or what’s Mark Rylance doing, who we did talk about. He saw it last night, loved it by the way, before he goes to Boeing-Boeing. I’ll just ramble here at this point. We couldn’t do that, we couldn’t upset the way they work, this whole process.
So it was a case of finding somewhere different to bring it in to. We were offered the Garrick, it was offered the Duchess, it was offered the Trafalgar Studios. What else were we offered? Oh, the Gielgud at one point, as a filler before God of Carnage. That was always sound, but just didn’t feel right. So Emma and I went to look at lots of places. Can I just take a mouthful of drink at this point? Sorry about that guys. It’s not like me to be sober! So what happened was we went to look at places like an old tram station on Kingsway just by the Holborn tube station. It was brilliant, but January, damp and wasn’t going to work. And then we literally did find that cinema. We walked past that cinema one morning after breakfast, Emma and I, and we went, “Oh my God”. We rang up the CEO, Steve Wiener, and the call wasn’t put through the first time. But he called back and just checked us out. He shot up to Leeds with his wife, Jenny, to see it and they loved it. And I did the deal between the matinee and evening performance. The deals were in place with the cast, subject to his approval. So by that last Saturday in West Yorkshire, we suddenly had the go ahead to do it.
PF: Were you surprised by the success?
DP: Was I surprised by the success? Yeah, I suppose I’m always surprised by the success because I always lose my nerve halfway through. By the time I get to the middle of previews, I haven’t a clue whether I’ve got anything or not, or whether it’s the end of my career again and all my investors will leave me – all of those things. I am incredibly proud of Brief Encounter, I have to be honest, it’s a bit like The Play What I Wrote, which I think is the favourite thing I’ve ever produced. That’ll upset a few people, but do you know what? I was so pleased with it I thought, “Fuck it, if they don’t like it, sod ’em. I’ve done something I’m proud of so I’m going with it.” So I was pleased, yep.
PF: Why don’t we take you back to the start? How does anyone get to be a theatre producer? Well, how did you get to be a theatre producer? And then tell us a little bit about what it actually means in your particular case. Because I’ve met producers over the years, everything from the tiniest shows in Edinburgh up to biggest shows in London, what does it mean to you?
DP: There’s two conversations which we should have, because one’s my latest bugbear. My latest bugbear is – you say that how can anyone be a producer? Well, it seems to me at the moment that if you write a cheque, you get your name which says you’re a producer. Sixteen of them in some cases, I gather, on certain shows in London.
PF: Try New York, where that is a small number sometimes!
DP: Absolutely. There’s more producers than there are cast members! And that is my bugbear at this moment. I am very lucky. I have 84 investors who have stuck with me through thick and thin. We’ve had a few pass away on the way and I miss them. But they’ve been with me. They’re with me because they hopefully make money and they come to the first nights and come to the party. That’s why they’re there. I have a partner, Dafydd Rogers, we’ve worked together 11 years. The two of us work brilliantly together. We are the two producers, and we’re very proud of that. Sharing that with people who write a cheque that’s big enough for them to have their name up there – this is going to piss a few people off – I think it’s wrong. I think we should try and be proud of what we do. I would love to be called a creative producer, that’s what I try and do. I don’t really do transfers, I don’t really do revivals. I wouldn’t even call Brief Encounter a revival because it’s a different production in many, many ways. I love doing new work.
What’s a producer do, to answer your question? You’re a jack of all trades and master of none. You have to have the ability to either have money, which I didn’t. I come from Stoke – I was a boy from the potteries, Dad is a retired teacher and Mum was a school secretary. But if you don’t have money – a lot of the producers in the West End, let’s be honest, a lot of them were rich before they started – whereas some of us, and no sob story, you’ve got to have the ability to be able to raise it. As I said to you, of those 84 investors I have people like the wonderful Miss Rosalyn Boucher who puts in £500 into every show, and I have people who put in £20,000. I value them all. Without them, I’m nobody. I can’t produce. So you’ve got to have that money. You don’t necessary have to buy their name for £25,000 – as you can tell, it’s my bugbear at the moment. You’re a jack of all trades – it means you hope you have taste that other people have, in other words shows that people want to see. I think that sort of sums it up a bit, if that helps.
PF: What are your criteria for selecting shows? Or do you not have any criteria, is it just what feels good on the day?
DP: It depends on how much vodka I’ve drunk really! No, it’s whether I like them. I have to be honest. Sometimes you have to do shows to make the management fee, to make the office rent, to pay the staff. You have to do that. I’ll be honest with you, that’s why I did Rebecca. Rebecca has been the most successful tour for 25 years. We grossed £5.5 million. Nigel Havers had done the tour of Art for me – he’s an enormous name on the road – and I just came up with an idea of putting him in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. But we didn’t just dig out that old Samuel French copy. We got Frank McGuinness and commissioned him to do a new adaptation. It was a new production – Rob Jones’ design, John Driscoll’s projections. It was stunning, so we gave them their money’s worth. But I did it to make some money because I hadn’t got a show on at the time. So the motivations are like everybody, you need to get up and make a living. But at the same time, if I can keep my independence… to be an independent producer, not to be owned by these corporations. Stage Entertainment or ATG – that’s not producing, you have to fill their theatres. If I can keep hold of mine and Dafydd’s independence and do the shows that we want to do, in the main, and do them when and where’s right – that’s the biggest achievement that I can do. Well, that and making them a success!
PF: Let’s talk about Yasmina Reza. I think probably for everybody, before Art appeared within about 20 yards of where we’re sitting, nobody in England would have heard of her. Now, her new play – God of Carnage – is about to open starring Ray Fiennes in the next few days. I’m sure you want to talk about that a lot. How did you choose her? How did you decide to pair her up with Christopher Hampton, Matthew Warchus? Where did all this come from?
DP: A lot of the credit isn’t down to me at all. Yasmina and me have the most up and down relationship. I really like her. It’s on record that I’ve called her a snob, but she is! She’d be happier with Nick Hytner than me! But it tends to work. I really do like her, I mean that. But it all started purely and simply with a phone call. Sean Connery had been to see a couple of my shows and, through my chairman Michael Medwin, had invested money. So I got a phone call on a Sunday afternoon when I was watching the EastEnders omnibus – when I used to watch EastEnders before it got crap – and this voice in the answer machine was Sean Connery. But of course, it always sounds like a bad Sean Connery impression. So I picked up and it was him. His wife, Micheline, had been to see Art in Paris and he wanted the film rights. And Sean gets what he wants… usually. Charming man. And he wanted these film rights but it had to be produced on the London stage and on Broadway and he said, “So I need you to do that.” Of course, back then when Sean Connery tells you to do something, you do it. Now I go the opposite way.
So I took myself to Paris, you’re talking CSE Grade 2 French and a literal translation, but I could see the laughter, the crowd and three great parts. It was quite an obvious choice, Christopher Hampton, in fact I think Connery was part of that decision I have to say. So Hampton came on board. The original cast was going to be Albert Finney, Tom Courtney and Michael Gambon. It was Ken Scott eventually who was so superb. But what happened was, it took Hampton so bloody long to do the adaptation – 18 months – that we lost Gambon to do Skylight on Broadway. But I brought in Warchus because I’d seen his work in West Yorkshire. Warchus brought in Mark Thompson who’s sublime. The team: Hugh Vanstone, Gary Yershon, Simon Baker sound designer – the whole lot of us. Art became a phenomenal success. Then, of course, they all said to us, “It’s all down to Albert, Tom and Ken” and Matthew and I were so grand that when they said, “Oh, you can’t recast” we thought, “Well, bugger you, we’re going to!” Of course, we came up with this pure logic – who would not like to work for 12 weeks and earn £3,000 a week? Whoever you are, and alphabetical billing. Warchus would always oversee, but we would bring in young, exciting directors. We brought in what were trainee directors who trained under Matthew for one show and then became associates. During that time, our list was incredible: Thea Sharrock, Rachel Kavanaugh at Birmingham, Rupert Goold, Hannah Chiswick, Jenny Darnell – an amazing list of people we found who came in and worked for bugger all as trainees. Then a nice fee to direct a production. We did 26 productions, 26 different casts. I was accused by Time Out, towards the end of the run, of actually casting the shows from Hello and OK magazines. People said to me, “You’re not offended?” and I thought, “No”; I was just amazed people were so slow. I’d been doing that for three years before – they just hadn’t picked up on it. But I’m proud of most of the casts, there’s a couple of people I wouldn’t work with again and didn’t work…
PF: Can I just ask you a quick question? Was Michael Gambon going to play the part that Ken Stott eventually played?
DP: Yeah, he was. Gambon was going to be Ivan. He loved it, he’d read the literary but it was just Christopher was so bloody lazy he didn’t get the adaptation out in time.
PF: Let’s move on. So the latest Yasmina Reza – God of Carnage. Tell us all about it.
DP: Well, I was working on another Yasmina Reza play – The Unexpected Man – which I was going to do with the wonderful Jeanne Moreau. This always cracks me up – I thought she was this grand French diva, I had to go to Paris to this hotel to meet her, and she’s from Oldham! Nobody knows that and it makes me laugh enormously. She spent the first four years of her life in Oldham and then Brighton and Hove. So we were going to do that with her, and I brought her to London to see Gambon in Skylight. Which she hated. And I couldn’t get her to commit. The RSC came along and said they wanted to do it, so it ended up being Gambon and Eileen Atkins. Everybody else liked it, I thought it was boring and they were unsexy. So I chose not to be involved. Then Life x 3 came along, which I never understood. I couldn’t work out how to do it commercially. It’s the same play three times and still I couldn’t get it. So I took it to Trevor Nunn, who was running the National, and was doing new plays, and he said he’d do it. So they did it and it was quite a success and transferred to the Old Vic. But it wasn’t really my production, I have to be honest. Then she did a couple of other plays in Paris – the Spanish tragedy which wasn’t bad. But nothing really grabbed me until Matthew got the phone call first from Yasmina to say she’d written this new play and she wanted him to direct it. He said, “Well, who’s going to adapt it?” and she said, “Well, I’ll ask Christopher.” He said, “Who’s going to produce it?” and she said, “Well, who do you think?” He said, “Well, David didn’t do a bad job on Art so let’s ask him.” So I got the phone call. I think it’s better than Art. That will be controversial in itself. But I think it’s more accessible. I think she’s writing brilliantly for women now. I knew that when I read it, I loved the idea of it. Not being married with children, but as one does have an awful lot of god-children, I could see their arguments for and against. Like the white painting is a catalyst in Art, what the ten-year-old son has done to the other ten-year-old son is the catalyst in God of Carnage.
PF: A little more like Life x 3 then in that case with the invisible children?
DP: No, Life x 3 was boring. This is brilliant! That’s what I think anyway. There was something more bitey about this. This is someone who doesn’t speak very good French, so you’ll have to bear with me. But I work with the most brilliant dramaturg, who’s the literary manager at the Royal Court, Ruth Little. She works for me Wednesday evenings. She is just a genius, I can’t live without her. And she said to me, “David, this is really a great play, you’ve got to do it.” So this was reason enough for a boy with limited O-levels to have a bash at it. But I knew I had to get a fuck-off cast. And we did. It’s Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Greig, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott. The whole team who did Art came back together. We sat outside my office on a Summer’s day, last summer… that would make sense, wouldn’t it? We all sat there and drank a lot of rose wine and reminisced about all the wonderful stories, the funny stories, some horror stories… that’s enough about Sean Connery… and we literally put the whole thing together in two hours. It was like an old team coming back together, we had a lot of laughs. I think creatively Mark Thompson’s a genius, Hugh Vanstone… they all are. We’ve loved doing it. We open Tuesday night, who knows what they will say? Brief Encounter, I think, is wonderful – it’s very much me. God of Carnage I think is terrific but I don’t feel the same passion because I don’t connect that much to the characters. I’m an old burlesque, Variety artist – ask anybody really – I’m very much The Play What I Wrote and Brief Encounter. But I think it’s bloody good. I think what it is – we’re on Shaftesbury Avenue doing a new play (it’s a translation, but so what), with that cast. Isn’t that what the West End is supposed to be about?
PF: It is what the West End is supposed to be about, and it’s great. Let’s move you on. You just mentioned The Play What I Wrote so let’s go for that next. So that was working with The Right Size – a pair of almost-like vaudeville comedians. Tell us about how you got involved in that one; that must have been great fun.
DP: It’s my favourite show. It was hard work. First of all, I’d seen The Right Size at the Edinburgh Festival doing Do You Come Here Often? Dafydd, my partner, said, “You know you’ve always wanted to do that Morecambe and Wise show that you don’t know what you’re doing with but have always wanted to? Why don’t you do it with them?” So I took them out and they said no, it was the holy grail of comedy. We took them out again, and again. A lot of alcohol later, and watching a lot of black and white stuff of Morecambe and Wise, they said they had come up with an idea. So we did a workshop and they showed me the first 20 minutes. They said, “We need to bring in a mate to help” – I didn’t even know who he was then, this genius that is Toby Jones. So there was three of them. I was sitting in the Union Chapel, this dingy old bloody church hall up there at Highbury corner. They’d spent a week and would give me 20 minutes. Toby Jones played me very camply, which I never understood! I should explain to people that David Pugh features within The Play What I Wrote. Toby Jones performs me, albeit very camply. I don’t understand him! So we went to Liverpool Playhouse and went out with the wonderful Jo Beddoe, who ran the Liverpool Playhouse so brilliantly then, unlike now, and she gave us a chance. We went there for four weeks and died every night. Every night me and Ken Branagh were in a karaoke bar, not singing but just working out what the hell to do. There’d be rewriting – Hamish and Sean, Toby, Ken, myself. It was bloody hell. My parents came to see it. My Dad came and said, “Well David, I’ve seen a lot of stuff you’ve done – it’s all been very good – but I have to tell you, this is rubbish.” Thanks Dad. But that was really good. But then we worked and worked and worked at it. We couldn’t get guest stars up there, but the lovely Sue Johnston came in as a favour.
PF: And what happened when you got to the West End with it?
DP: It just took off, it was like a first night you’ve never experienced. We really didn’t know what we’d got. When Ralph Fiennes walked on stage, nobody quite believed it, including ourselves. It just took off, and every review was a rave, with the exception of Germaine Greer, who was desperately trying to find somebody with a microphone on Newsnight, who didn’t like it. She was absolutely buggered, I think she found a lollypop lady outside a school the next day or something. But anyway… thank you Germaine. It’s so funny how you remember the bad review! But people just loved it. We packed out, and it was a great success. And I loved doing it. I’m working with the three of them again, but not together. I haven’t yet succeeded in bringing them together again, I so want to. But I’m doing a new show with Toby and Foley is working with Mark Rylance. They just did this I Am Shakespeare webcam show which I thought was, in parts, brilliant. And Rylance I’m just an enormous admirer of, so those two together are great. But the next thing I’m doing actually is Calendar Girls, Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls. He’s adapted it for the stage, we’re doing it at Chichester opening in September, and Hamish McColl is going to direct it.
PF: Who do you have starring in that? Do you know yet?
DP: We’re just literally about to start casting. We did a reading of it some weeks ago. Act One – I couldn’t stop laughing, and Act Two I cried possibly a tad too much, so we need to pull back on it a bit. But I’m really, really pleased. I’m going to tour it all over the UK. Nothing against the West End, I prefer touring actually I think. But it’s just a really lovely, lovely piece. So it’s Hamish, Rob Jones designing… a lot of our “regular team” we’re lucky to have. So I’m really looking forward to it. Sorry, I digress…
PF: Let me take you away from your regular team in that case, though you did mention that on Art you did work with Thea Sharrock who at the time was probably at Southwark Playhouse I would imagine…
DP: She was pre-Southwark Playhouse.
PF: Then she moved on beyond that and is now a superstar doing the National and wherever else. She also did a show for you, Equus, which got probably more publicity than any straight play I can remember for what one might regard as completely the wrong reasons. Do you want to talk about that? To what extent where you involved in deciding to cast Daniel Radcliffe? Harry Potter to anyone who might not know…
DP: It happened like this. There are showbiz stories and people go, “Oh, you wanker”, but this is what happened. Quite simply, eighteen years ago when I had a very little, small office on Shaftesbury Avenue opposite the Gielgud Theatre, where we did Equus, I had a secretary called Marcia Gresham. She was superb, and she got pregnant, which was a bit of a bugger because it was only me and her running the office. We were producing Steel Magnolias at the time. But she had a son called Daniel. And that is Daniel Radcliffe. And Daniel Radcliffe spent the first nine months of his life in a Moses basket underneath her desk while we produced Steel Magnolias. So that’s how I knew Daniel Radcliffe. So that seed was well and firmly planted. Equus, for me, I’d seen it when I was 16 and a half coming down from Stoke on the train. I saw it when it transferred to the Albery when Michael Jason, that wonderful voice, playing Dysart, and David Dickson playing Alan. It made an incredible difference to me. This might sound really tosser-like but it really isn’t meant to be. I really saw things in Alan that I saw in me. I didn’t want to play Alan, because thank God I knew I couldn’t act very well. Somewhere deep down I wanted to, but there’s a lot of things. I was going through this turning the light switch on and off four times at sixteen, not sure what my faith was or whether I should be going to church or not, what I was worshipping or what my sexuality was. All of those things. And it made a difference, to me, seeing Equus. So I always wanted to do it, have a bash. I didn’t know why.
Nine years ago now, I went to see Peter Shaffer in New York and said I wanted to do it. He said no, because he’s said no to everybody. But he said, “Find me the boy. If you find the boy, I’ll think about it.” Of course, cut then to what was two years ago when I asked Daniel – then sixteen – to come and guest star for me in The Play What I Wrote, which he did. He brought the house down for three shows, two on boxing day. And I went, “Oh my God”. At that point, Ken Branagh was supposed to be directing Equus – I asked Ken to do it. I really wanted him to play Dysart at the time and wanted him to direct it. Perhaps that’s why it all went wrong. So Daniel did a reading, Peter came over from New York. We did the reading at the Old Vic where it originally started, and Daniel was superb as was proven. Everybody was dubious but I just knew he could do it. We did have a change of director – Ken and I fell out over the way to do it, about the updating of it and stuff. So Daniel had committed but I needed somebody to direct. I think Thea Sharrock will become a superb director – at the moment, I think she’s very, very good (if she’s listening). She’s a dream to work with, we row, we fight, we speak every morning at 9 o’clock. In fact, any moment as we speak… it’s now 3.30 on Good Friday… she should be having her baby. If not, it’s two days over schedule and we’re on a tight schedule for New York. I loved working with her. So we got Daniel, we got Thea. Then it took some persuasion for Thea to go to John Napier because he designed it originally. In a way, she wanted to do her own production but we hadn’t got a better way of doing it than Napier had done it. So we went to Napier and did it with him. And then of course we wanted our Dysart, and Thea and my Dysart was Richard Griffiths. For the own pain that he’s been through in that character. But nobody wanted him.
PF: And I think you’d both worked with him before, hadn’t you?
DP: Yes, we did Heroes together. Did Thea direct him in Art? No, I don’t think she did… They’ll all rewrite history, but Shaffer didn’t want Richard, his agent didn’t want Richard, the Shuberts didn’t want Richard. Nobody wanted Richard. They said he was fat, let’s be honest, that’s what they said. We said, “Bollocks” – he’s a fucking genius actor. Yet again, I’m starting to brag here but I’m only bragging because I fought so much against all these people who didn’t want him, he was wonderful. And the relationship between Richard and Daniel worked so sublimely. And will do when it opens in New York. I hope.
PF: David Pugh, thank you so much. That’s been wonderful, absolutely fascinating. Bye