5th June, 2005. Exclusive Interview with Richard.
You are currently directing a play called the Woman Before by Roland
Schimmelpfennig. Could you
tell me more about it?
It's up and running now of course, it finishes on 18th June at the Royal Court; it is a very unusual play. Roland Schimmelpfennig is a young German writer, we've done one of his plays at the Court before, upstairs in the smaller theatre called Push Up. He's also had a play down in London called 'Arabian Nights'.
'The Woman Before' is a strange tale of a family moving house overseas. The husband is busy packing, the wife is in the shower, there is a knock at the door and this woman is standing there. An old friend and lover of the husband. "You said 24 years ago you'd love me forever. I've come back". He says "what for?" and she says "You of course". She claims he still loves her.
He has the wife coming out
of the shower so he closes the door and the wife says "who
were you talking to?". He says "nobody" so the wife goes to the door and there she
is still standing there. That's the very beginning of a very weird tale of his
marriage which has been very healthy up until that stage but then begins to fall
apart. The woman before played by Helen Baxendale wreaks revenge on them because
she finds outs that his son has claimed to his girlfriend he is going to love
her forever and she then seduces him and they have sex. She then murders him
and his wife. A bit of Madea(1) comes into it, a
bit of Greek myth. So the husband is left without a son, without a wife and the
woman before leaves him and he is a lost soul.
It is very complicated, very funny and very dark and very sad.
Do you have ultimate choice on what plays you direct at the Royal Court Theatre? What do you look for?
Well, I am associate director at the Royal Court so I have to read a lot of plays anyway, its not just the ones that I direct.
I suppose what we are looking for in a play is an original voice, a voice that has something to say. We only do new plays at the royal court - new writers. We have a young writers section, an international section encouraging international writers, we have residencies and the younger writers scheme has a showcase every two years and I directed in that.
The thing about Roland Schimmelpfennig's play was that there aren't
many people writing that sort of stuff in Britain at the moment and it was just
a page turner inasmuch as you never knew what he was going to do next. The other
thing about the play I should say is that it jumps in time so the first scene is
the wife coming out of the shower and she says "who have you been talking to?" and
the second scene is ten minutes before the woman before arrived. Then it
jumps to two hours later. This is done with a screen on the stage, it's all
very precise, the time changes, and that's what makes it fascinating. So you
see, a scene may start half way through then you go back to find out how you got
there which makes it very very enticing and very interesting.
What we are looking for in a play is an original voice, a voice that has something to say.
There are some films like that but never in a play, it must be very hard to do?
It is a bit filmic in that sense but we make a big effect. We have sound effects and a big screen and the whole stage has a neon sign around it which turns on for the scene changes and time changes. We are looking for an original voice that has interesting things to say.
I am casting at the moment for another play by Malcolm Taylor which will be in the Edinburgh festival, the Traverse festival, which is called "East Coast Chicken Supper" - it is absolutely different from The Woman Before. "East Coast Chicken Supper" is about three Fife drug dealers. One of them has gone away and come back. This is a first time writer, he has never had anything he had written done before and he just sent this play into the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh in the post. There are not many plays that get done like that.
to work at the Traverse and I know the Artistic Director there and
he keeps sending me plays. It would be lovely to direct at the
Traverse and because I have my past association I am quite keen to
direct there but I have never found anything until this
play came along. The characterisation is extraordinary and vivid,
they speak in a very erudite way for drug dealers and it is a very
funny play. It is a play which I think says to me that here are
three people that are extra-ordinarily bright but because of the
cards that were dealt to them in life they never really get to
university and achieve any potential but it is clearly there from
the way they speak and they way they behave.
When is that play?
That will be appearing at the Traverse in August and I start rehearsing at the end of June. Then I have to go to New York in July. There is a play, I directed at the national that is going onto Broadway, called Primo. That opens at the music box on the 8th of July.
What was that like in primo being a one man play? It must be quite a tasking process?
Well of course I know Tony Sher very well, he is an old old friend and it is because the material is so good. We did a workshop first of all at the National Studio.
One of the things about being in a concentration camp is that all of your orders were given in German whether you could understand the language or not and if you didn't respond properly then you got beaten. So we did a workshop which was about one person's narrative, about how you tell a story with one voice.
We had four actors and Antony Sher. Three of the actors were German speakers and so we did sort of concentration camp exercises and improvisation where they would speak in German and that gave a better understanding mapping out a little bit of what it was like to be in a concentration camp. There was no violence or anything like that but they shouted in German and we had survivors come in who had survived in concentration camps to talk to us. We had a psychologist come in and talk to us about what it was like to be deprived on dignity and all the rest of it. At the same time we did some work on the text which Antony Sher had adapted from Primo Levis Book "If This a Man". So we did the workshop for two weeks and we then embarked on a five week rehearsal period. I asked for five weeks because it was a huge amount to learn. It was very gradual and we would work from 10 until 1, and then an hour after lunch. Then we would watch some video of research rather than push too hard so we had a fairly light schedule, but we did take five weeks to learn it.
We opened at the National, then it went to South Africa because Tony is South African and had always wanted to (as he had never) work in his own country. So we took it to the Baxter theatre in Cape Town. Then it came back to London but of course the Cottesloe is programmed very far ahead so we took it to Hampstead instead and now it goes to Broadway and then that will be it.
We did a workshop which was about one person's narrative, about how you tell a story with one voice
There is a DVD of it by the way. It will have an interview of me in it. The DVD is produced by Heritage Theatre National Angels Video Production. It is based on Primo Levi's poignant text 'If This Is A Man'.(2)
You are known for your belief that an actor should not act out a part until they understand their character. Could you describe what you mean by minimalism in acting?
Well, of course I hope actors never over play a part ever. By minimalism I mean you do as little as possible depending on what the text demands. You have to obey the text and often I think that a lot of actors are really not obeying the text. They are doing something showy that they think is effective in adverted commas. So with Minimalism I start rehearsals at a very very low level - just saying the lines to each other and listening to each other talking about who the characters are and what the relationships are, building up a background. So for example, in the play I am about to direct about the east coast drug dealers I expect we will try and find some east coast drug dealers to talk to.
So minimalism is basically doing what the text asks you to and what the character suggests to you and not elaborating it or dramatising it. To be as real as possible and believable as possible.
minimalism is ... doing what the text asks you to and what the character suggests to you and not elaborating it or dramatising it. To be as real as possible and believable as possible
What do you think of Edinburgh as a place?
The reason I am directing at the Traverse is because I worked there in my very early days and I have got very fond memories. It is a different theatre now of course, a nicer building. I love Edinburgh. It is a very very beautiful city.
What do you think to the recent spate of reality television?
It is really quite serious for actors because it so much cheaper to produce and therefore it is taking over from drama to some extent. There is not as much drama being made because reality television is so cheap. Things like the present big brother seems like just a bunch of freaks to me and I have no interest in watching them whatsoever. I have been offered "I am a celebrity get me out of here" and the idea of it just appals me. I was however offered something that is like reality TV that was to go to a châteaux in France for a month and learn French which if I found I had time I would have loved to have done but I was too busy.
One of the funniest moments on television is your portrayal of yourself as the haunted actor in Father Ted. What is the most amazing fan encounter you have had?
Well, I get shouted at all over the place in the most unexpected places in the middle of nowhere like in the middle of Angora Gora crater in Africa thinking that we were the only folk around and suddenly you hear across the African heat the famous catchphrase.
How do you react?
People of course ask me to say it and I don't say it. I just smile. I don't make very much of it. I try and get on with whatever I am doing. I remember being in a shop in Glasgow once looking at greeting cards and this bus stopped outside. I looked up and the driver gave me the thumbs up and I thought the bus had stopped at the bus stop. But in fact he had stopped because he saw me, and there were all these passengers on the bus and then he sort of made the sign of autograph. So when I got out the shop I realised there was no bus stop at all and he had just stopped there and I signed his piece of paper and off the bus went.
Of course sometimes it happens in the most strange places when you think that no one is around.
What is the strangest request you have ever had from someone?
In a fan letter someone asked me if they could come and cut my nose hair for me because they had noticed it was rather abundant.
Any Marriage proposals?
No marriage proposals or anything like that, I have a woman who comes and sees all my shows but she is fortunately quite sane, just a very very devoted fan.
Are you considering writing an autobiography?
I didn't mind the biography by James Roose-Evans. I have no desire to do an autobiography, first of all, I don't really thinks its that important and I don't think I am that important. And secondly, my memory is appalling. I never kept a diary or anything. So there will be no autobiography.
You seem to have avoided scandal with the press. Do you put this down to good planning or clean living?
Well, its dull living. I do interviews because it required of you by your contract but I make it clear that I don't talk about my private life. The press are always talking about how scrupulously private I am but I just feel that my private life is all that is left really and that my public life is very public. I just feel that actors should be anonymous as far as possible and I don't see any reason why I should talk about my private life which is the reason I don't allow journalists in my home not because it is a pigsty just because that is mine and I don't want to share. All these programs, okay magazine and things like that where people show their homes etcetera, I find that rather crazy.
I keep my house private. Once I shut my door, that's it. Obviously, I do interviews and I answers questions but when it gets into the nitty gritty I just say no I don't answer those questions. Of course, they find allsorts of ways to try to pry, seemingly simple questions that are always leading into something much more private.
I keep my house private. Once I shut my door, that's it
Your friends have often said you are married to your career. Do you ever regret the career you have chosen?
No. No. Becoming famous with One Foot in the Grave and becoming a celebrity changed my life and it gave me access to all sorts of areas that I wouldn't have had access to, and I have enjoyed it. But I wouldn't like to be too famous like David Beckham. My movements are unrestricted. I don't go on public transport but I can go into shops and If I have got to sign the odd autograph at the same time that doesn't worry me, at least I can move about.
If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, who would your top guests be?
Oh Dear. I suppose alive or dead, Nelson Mandela. I suppose everyone would choose him. I did a film once with Marlon Brando, called "A Dry White Season" and we got to talk but not for very long.
Was he an inspiration to you as an actor?
Yes he was an extraordinary actor. I never saw him on stage but he was one of the great film actors. I suppose I wouldn't mind having him as a dinner guest.
What about more recently?
I am sure there are many, Jacque Pate, the French actor, I am very fond of his early work. He was a bit of an influence in my life and the Japanese director Ozu(3), his visions were very very influential. I am not very good at these name thinking games.
You must have been 53/54 when you started "one foot in the grave". What was it like playing a pensioner at such a young age!?
I was 53 and Victor was 60 but Victor was never sold as a pensioner - he was made redundant early. He was hoping to work until he was 65. At first I turned it down because I thought I was too young which is silly because it was only five or six years. I suppose I hadn't really thought of myself as playing older people and I was surprised to be asked.
You played a role as a top executive advertiser in "How to get ahead in advertising". What is it like playing all these different kind of professional roles?
One of the things about acting is that we get to play different types of people. Although I was brought up working class I am better at playing professional types rather than working class types. I don't know why. I am better at Doctors and Lawyers. I did enjoy for example playing Jeremy Parsons Q.C, in Crown Court. That was a great job. And I got to go to the Old Bailey on a regular basis to watch the barristers and the Q.C's at work.
Finally, do you have a message for your fans?
One Foot in the Grave made me very famous and it means a lot to many people. It has helped a lot of people and I get loads of fan mail which is great. It is very humbling.
Richard's current Play, The Woman before, is showing until the 18th June at the Royal Court Theatre. Visit www.royalcourttheatre.com for more information. Richard will soon be appearing as Baron Hardup in Cinderella this Christmas in a production by the Ambassador Group. For more information visit: http://www.thestage.co.uk
Primo is the theatrical production of Primo Levi's poignant 'If This Is A Man'. It was adapted by Antony Sher and directed by Richard Wilson and is available on DVD from all good stockists now! It will also be hitting Broadway this summer at the Music Box Theatre.
(1) Greek Mythology. Madea was a sorceress who bewitched Jason.
(2) Primo is hitting Broadway this summer for 32 performances only beginning Friday, July 8 through Sunday, August 7. Opening night for PRIMO, which is based on Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz, as adapted for the stage by Antony Sher, and directed by Richard Wilson, is Monday, July 11 at the Music Box Theatre (239 West 45 Street).
(3) Yasujiro Ozu is Regarded as one of the world's finest directors, and renowned for his most 'Japanese' of styles. He made his first film in 1927 and went on to direct 55 features before his death in 1963.