Stephen Unwin is an accomplished director of theatre and opera, as well as a writer and teacher. He founded English Touring Theatre in 1993 and, in 2008, opened the Rose Theatre, Kingston. Stephen has also written eight books on theatre and drama, and four original plays. He has translated twelve foreign language plays and written articles in books and newspapers. Stephen has taught in drama schools, colleges and universities in Britain and the USA.
He is currently working as a freelancer and he offers individual tutorials. Details can be found at www.stephenunwin.uk.
PC: What got you into theatre? Why theatre?
SU: Well, when I was about seventeen I wanted to be a painter, I cared about painting a lot and I still care about visual arts. But two things became clear at the same time. First of all that I liked words, I liked literature, I liked books. Second was that I realised that I didn’t want the loneliness of being a painter. I suppose the third thing is that I knew I was not Picasso! I was quite a good student painter and I got a place at Art school but then at the same time somebody said “You could get into a good university.” So I went to Cambridge and there, somehow, something clicked and I directed about fifteen plays by the time I was twenty one as a student. Which was an amazing thing to be able to do. I mean I was doing two a term with a whole load of people, some of whom have become really very famous which is quite an odd feeling. And that just made me go “This is what I want to do.” I look back on it now and I think maybe I was too dedicated, too focussed and I should have done other things. But I went in there thinking “I want to be the director of the National Theatre.” Ridiculous really. But it did mean by the age of twenty one I had done all these plays. That was really where it started. It was something about words, something about psychology and an interest in other people.
PC: In those early days did you consciously use some of the skills acquired as a painter?
SU: Yeah probably. I think that I was very aware of image and I think I still am very aware of the physical relationships between people. I think in those days I probably thought more visually with a danger of superficiality to be quite honest, now I think more psychologically and politically.
PC: What were the early influences of someone starting so young?
SU: There were a series of older people I met, who challenged me in very deep and important ways; without those influences I think I would be very different. Weirdly enough I think I might be more successful or I might just be flying a bit more. But I know that they were right. I was taught by a very brilliant woman at Cambridge who was a Communist and she changed things a lot for me.
PC: Was that Margot Heinneman?
SU: Yes, Margot Heinneman, I devoted The Guide to the Plays of Bertolt Brecht to her. She had a big impact on me. When I left Cambridge I quite quickly came into the orbit of the director Peter Gill and he challenged me in other ways. Two or three others also made me think differently. That is what I think the essence of education is. I’m very committed to education, I really care about education but I am also really worried about education.
PC: What is that essence of education?
SU: I think it’s challenge. I don’t think that it is just about downloading information into vacant brains. I think it is about working out how to get people to think for themselves. I valued the notion of the Director of Studies at Cambridge, someone who would say: “Why don’t you go and think about that?” Rather than spoon feeding you. Just kind of getting people to think again, think left field, think sideways: “Go over there, think about that, think about that, think about that.” Opening stuff up in all sorts of different ways is what I still care about but I think that is quite difficult to do in education now. It feels a bit sad somewhere, jumping through particular hoops. It feels achievement orientated. I don’t know if that’s true but that’s my instinct at the moment. Whether it is the theatre or any professions you’ve got to knuckle down and provide product, you’ve got to be productive and I suppose in education, I still really believe in ‘Only Connect’* that E.M. Forster phrase.
*’Only connect’ is the epigraph to Howard’s End and emphasizes the value in personal relationships.
PC: There is quite an emphasis on play texts in both Drama and English in schools. You place a real emphasis on the importance of the text and the writer. In The Well Read Play you talk about a workshop with Peter Brook where he was talking to you about the most important thing being the present moment and being in that present moment with the audience. Am I right that you disagreed with him and felt the most important role of the director is communicating the intentions of the writer?
SU: I remember there was a group of us and he said “What’s your guiding light? What’s your principle that you hold on to?” And I said something like “It is just feeling, and you can never prove it, just feeling that the writer might have gone, hmmm yeah you’re onto something, that is interesting, you’re doing something for me.” Brook’s version and what quite a lot of other people think at the moment is, “No the only thing that matters is the present.” I very slightly worry about that because I think that history matters. It is not that I think that one can ever know what the writer’s intentions were, it is not that I am saying that, but you can have a sensation of whether, you can go about it with that, “What the hell is this writer doing?” or you can just say, “I don’t care.” I was struck by something recently, I didn’t see it so perhaps it’s unfair to say it but the stories about the very successful A View from the Bridge in the West End. The two Italians who arrive off the boat, they didn’t speak Italian, they didn’t speak like people who have just arrived for the first time, they spoke like all the rest of them did, apparently generalised ‘American’ not even Brooklyn, let alone Italian Brooklyn. I presume it was a way of making it more vivid or more immediate, but the problem is that: how can it be immediate if you don’t see a clash between the people who have lived there a long time and the people who have just arrived, that is what is immediate about it, is that clash. If you don’t hear it or you don’t see it in the way that they look, you don’t feel it; what is the story then? What is happening? You’re saying that it is universal but is it universal? Now, I didn’t see that production and people say it was absolutely fantastic, so I’m using it as an example. I think I would look at a moment like that as a sort of nodal point around which a discussion of contemporary theatre can revolve. Does it matter or is it irrelevant? My instinct is that it does because if you believe that people are the product of their time and place, if you believe in class, then those kinds of insights about the way human beings work, which I do, coming out of the left, a radical left position, then an immigrant is different: the guy who is just getting off the boat has a different status, social status from the guy who has lived there for 15 years: there are social structures. So the guy who is working all hours that God gives to try and put food on the table for his wife and his daughter-in-law and he is tired and he is exhausted by manual labour is in a higher position than the two boys who have just arrived on the boat. He’s completely fucked by the system but he enjoys the fact that he is in a better position than the blokes who have just arrived.
PC: Would you say the responsibility for the contemporary relevance lies with the audience interpreting what they see instead of the director twisting something?
SU: The answer to contemporary relevance is contemporary plays. Let’s have a play about Brexit. Let’s have a play about the inequalities of the world and the people who have been left behind. Let’s have that. Let’s have new plays. Old plays are quite difficult material, I mean A View from the Bridge is a very old play now, let alone King Lear. It seems to me that one should approach those old plays with a sort of weird double vision: on the one hand, “What about it is completely alive? Surprisingly alive?” and “What about it is weirdly gone?” You get both in any old play because the world hasn’t changed that much; I mean the world has changed but not entirely. So if you do King Lear you still have poverty. You still have social difference, you still have the poor naked wretches. But you don’t have Kings, well you do but they don’t mean anything. Brecht is brilliant on all this. It is a complicated relationship with the material from the past: you can’t be absolute. I just think you shouldn’t be absolutist about it. If we’re all the same and there is no such thing as history then there is no possibility of change which seems a rather depressing notion.
PC: Are there other examples of texts that can illustrate that social and historical context is so important?
SU: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is incredible because it is full of the weird perplexing nature of sexuality and hallucination. Fine but it starts with a girl who has been told that if she doesn’t marry the man who her father wants her to marry she has to go and live with a nun or die. In order for her to marry the man who she wants to marry she has to defy her father. By the end of the play her father is overruled by the government: Theseus overrules Egeus. If you don’t give Egeus, at the beginning, sufficient status, sufficient patriarchal power, you don’t see how the play itself unpacks that patriarchal power. So the plays radicalism starts to disappear. That is where I do believe in productions and plays which show social status, because then if you show social status, these plays, these great progressive plays: A View from the Bridge, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, which have all got this move towards a liberation of truth and a better life some how. You have to see the way things change within the plays, then you see their radicalism. Otherwise if they’re all just in their pyjamas and all just totally like now, what change are they going through?
PC: Would you say it is difficult to take an old text and modernise it because social status isn’t so clear today?
SU: You have to know what you are doing. You have to do it consciously and carefully. I am a huge fan of Ibsen and there is some talk of me doing A Doll’s House and I want to do it. One thing that I have been thinking about A Doll’s House a lot is this: for a girl to leave her husband now is pretty easy compared to what it was in 1878 in Oslo. I think I am going to try and work out how to do it in a modern context, it is not about it being true, it is about it being dynamic. What I suspect the thing that would give the audience the shock of: “Oh my God, she is really going to do that?” Which is what that original audience would have had, is if you emphasize the child, if you make the children much more important, whether you do that through projections, I mean I don’t know, but somehow you make it about a woman leaving her kids in order to be true to herself. To which a modern audience would go “You selfish bitch. You can’t do that!” That for me is a way of re-energising the debate. Now, I’ve still got a problem if I do it modern: identifiably ‘now’, there are all sorts of things in the play that then don’t work or are hard to translate. So I’m trying to work out how you can have a modern language without those pitfalls coming up because there is no doubt about it, the way that people in western Europe and America, most of the world live is a million miles away from the way that the bank managers and their families of 1878 in Oslo lived.
PC: I suppose one of them, with that play and with other old plays, is the speed of communication.
SU: Speed of communication and she is not allowed to borrow money. So what are you going to do with that moment? My line of inquiry is not about “Doing it properly!” as opposed to fucking around with it. I don’t have anything like that, but I do have: what is the radical, interesting, progressive nature of the writing? The challenging nature of the writing? How do you preserve or even energise the conflicts in there? Like that moment in the Dream where Theseus overrules Egeus, “I do overrule you.” The tyrranical father is told, “No, get back in your box, just no, you’re not allowed to tell your daughter who to marry.” It is amazing. I’ve been reading a lot of Elizabethan social history and one of the big questions at the time particularly in the aristocracy was should fathers have the right to dispose of their daughters? That was the immergence of the notion of companion at marriage, which was you marry the person you love. That was actively being discussed at the time, so however you do that play, you want to make sure when you start, you see a father who means it and who has got the power to mean it, it’s not just because he is nasty, that’s not interesting. The social formation of character is more interesting than the psychological one. He is doing what he thinks he should be doing. It is his job to look after his daughter: “No, you marry who I tell you to marry because I know better.” Just like you know better than your baby does. What happens at that moment when you don’t have the power anymore?
PC: How do you, as a director, manage and control how the rest of the text is infected by that energising decision? For example, Woyzeck, it is very much open to interpretation because of the history and origins of the text but once you make an interpretative choice in one direction you lose three other themes or ideas that are significant. When you are considering what that radical and progressive moment of a text might be are you happy for other themes and ideas to be lost for the purposes of a single production?
SU: I’d come at it from a slightly different way, which is to say that a setting is not the same as the story; you can set it whatever way you like but what you have got to work out is: what is the story in that setting? These are stories of change, how does that soldier end up killing his wife? What is it that makes that happen? What are the forces at work on him? It is an extraordinary social play, Woyzeck. So if you put it in another world, I don’t really mind, I’m not bothered about that, but are you going to find a world or a translation or a thing which makes that story of change credible or powerful? As opposed to the new setting just being a visual idea. I always want to know: how is it going to change? How is it going to impact? How is it going to role forward? Brecht, as usual, is brilliant about this sort of thing, one of the things that he talks about is highlighting choice. He had this exercise where you go, “Instead of succumbing to her father’s wishes Hermia decides to runaway to the forest.” In order to play that scene properly you need to find a way of showing her defiance. Can she show him the defiance? Does she sit on the defiance? What does it take? What does it cost her? What does it take for her to defy her father? That’s psychological, that’s a big risk, an enormous risk in life. Likewise, in A Doll’s House you can’t just think that she leaves because she had a row. She left to be reborn, it is that big a play, it is that big a concept, Ibsen’s idea is that big. So that in reconceiving it you are trying to find out how to sharpen up, reanimate the story. Going back to your question: I have no idea how this Doll’s House will work out or how to do it. The danger I’ve got by going modern is that: how will I get the pressure of what Krogstad is bringing? How will that work? Yes there is a lot of women that will feel there is a patriarchal society but there’s not many of them who have to swan around saying, “I’m a silly little thing” all the time. Particularly once they go to our world. So that is going to be hard to work out how to do that. Ideally, I want to find a way to animate that, to make sure that stuff is still alive and not just ignore it.
PC: I live in Essex and it has a fascinating relationship with femininity, the whole idea of the ‘Essex girl’ I think the dictionary definition is “unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous.” Teaching young girls in Essex, who are often very, very bright, but have this external pressure, a cultural pressure to fulfil the stereotype, to act in a way that says: “I am a silly little thing.” It is a stereotype that is reinforced more generally in the media but is more intense for a girl from Essex. That can be a modern context for plays that explore the duality of womanhood like A Doll’s House or like Hedda Gabler.
SU: Yeah. I think what I keep feeling is that the world has changed, but it hasn’t changed completely. Of course it should have changed but it hasn’t. So you work out what does feel new and what doesn’t translate and what does translate. Funnily enough, Essex girls, I did a production of The Taming of the Shrew and what I knew was that you had to find a version of Kate, who hadn’t read Simone de Beauvoir, if you see what I mean, because once you have Kate as a feminist it doesn’t work, the play can’t work. What I did was, I did it modern, but I did it at the peak of girl power, so she was, actually she was a bit Essex I’m afraid, Katy Ainsworth played it brilliantly, she was this bolshie girl, fighting people all the time: a spitfire. Then she meets a guy who says, “You must be fucking joking if you think I’m in love with you! I want your money.” We had her dad who ran a car showroom in Basildon or something and made lots of money. So Petruchio turns up and meets this bolshie girl and goes, “Fine, I’ll marry you, I’m not bothered. I want money.” So what is really interesting about that the social structure stopped the play being such a problem. At the end when she says, “Alright, I’ll do anything you say.” Basically, she is going, “So long as we get two holidays a year and you don’t fuck me over.” Which is part of the deal that maybe some modern girls are making. I thought that was an interesting way to realise the energy of the play in a modern way. You can’t lose the possibility of change.
PC: The possibility of change is what attracts people to the theatre as a form. You have that journey.
SU: Exactly, because you see in A View from the Bridge, Rodolpho proposes that it can all be lovely, it can be beautiful, we can have fun, we can be happy. To Eddie Carbone’s depression (modern, industrialised, hard-working depression) that is a threat. You can then find that battle. But you can only find that battle if you see that, only a few weeks ago, Rodolpho was a fisherman in Sicily, whereas Eddie Carbone has been there for thirty years or whatever. He has become a totally cynical New York depressive: fucked over by really terrible, dangerous work for bad money on zero hours contracts. If they don’t speak differently they aren’t from different worlds. Or rather you have abstracted the worlds so much that… there is a brilliant thing that Walter Benjamin came up with, which I keep using at the moment, he talked about the “icy wastelands of abstraction” which is an amazing phrase I think.
PC: Abstraction seems to go hand in hand with generalisation. In The Well Read Play you emphasize the importance of reading plays carefully at the start of the process. You propose a series of questions to ask of a play. First, you ask: what happens? Then you ask: what really happens? Exploring the idea of subtext. How do you get to that unwritten detail? The unwritten change? How do you discover those when you’re reading a play in preparation for a production?
SU: You sort of stumble across it somewhere and you feel your way to it. I just did a production of Present Laughter by Noël Coward, on a tour out of Bath with Sam West playing Garry Essendine, this is a play about a famous playboy who was an actor, writer, theatrical magnate – he is sort of a version of Coward. He has got loads of friends, everybody wants a bit of the action and he is incredibly famous. You think: “lucky boy”, he has got everything that you could possibly want. But what the play is sort of driving at, weirdly, is that he is incredibly lonely inside and you get flashes of it in the last act, and earlier but particularly in the last act. That is the subtext of the part, I am convinced. So what happens is: Garry discovers what he really needs and wants in life which is slightly different from what he thought he needed and wanted in life. Or what’s the subtexts of A Doll’s House? Nora discovers that to be true to herself she has to work out who she is by herself. The play doesn’t ever quite say that but that’s weirdly what is going on: all the exploration that she is doing is going, “Who the fuck am I? What do I stand for?” And she doesn’t know. You can see that, for example, in that first conversation with Mrs Linda, she is all on edge. Of course, subtext is an incredibly difficult thing to define. But what I think you have to do is: you have to start from what happens. The reason why I think what happens is so important is that, going back to this thing about change, a good story enacts change. In these great plays there is a transformation or at least the attempt at transformation: “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (Hamlet) The way that people change through time, through drama, through the interaction with others. I think that is how subtext starts to emerge. But you can’t go to the subtext until you know what the text is, until you know what the story is and particularly the story of change.
PC: As a director, in that initial reading, you formulate ideas of subtext and then do you develop them with the actors as well?
SU: I sort of have hunches, I say to Sam, “He is just really lonely isn’t he?” And he’ll go, “Yeah, he is.” Then you say, “But you’ve got to be really sociable.”
PC: Is there anything else specific that you look out for when directing a play?
SU: The other thing that is so important is contradiction. What is the contradiction in the part, the character? The contradiction in the moment, in the scene, the world? How do you highlight that contradiction? How do you bring that to the surface?
PC: I suppose the current education system emphasizes the concrete fact over complexity. Contradictions are often a stumbling block with young people working on plays.
SU: I know. “Character’s should be consistent!”
PC: Attempting to emphasize that contradictions are to be celebrated is quite difficult.
SU: In good plays and good teaching, the contradictions are made plain. What Brecht called ‘complex seeing’: showing the contradictions. The contradictions of society are so often the subjects of drama: one person wants one thing and the other person wants the absolute opposite. That crunch. In A Doll’s House, Nora’s contradiction between, on the one hand, she has worked really hard, she has been really tough in order to raise that money, but why does she behave like a little sap with her husband in the first act? She can’t can she because surely she is tough and good with money? Play that contradiction and then you understand the character. The contradictions reveal the society.
PC: I think young people can be too quick to confront contradictions when developing their own work. They act on impulse and confrontation whereas a complex character in a play often suppresses impulse and avoids confrontation.
SU: That is when you look at the social context, because the character can’t. It goes back to the Stanislavskian thing, “Well, what do I want? I want that. Why can’t I have it?” That immediately imposes a contradiction but that again is seeing people through time.
PC: In So You Want to be a Director you stress the importance of having the experience of art, music and other culture – being culturally ‘well-read’. Why is that so important for directors and actors?
SU: If the theatre is going to be any good it is from an experience of life, not just an experience of theatre. When I work with young directors I am always saying, “What movies do you watch? What food do you cook? Who music do you love? What is your country like? What do you think about politics? That has all got to feed into your work. There are lots of bad things about getting older, but one of the good things about getting older is that you are able, in a room, to go “Ah well, now look, this humiliation that the character is going through, I know that because I have been through a version of it.” You have more life experience. It’s good, I mean it is tricky, but it is good. As the director you’ve got to be the person that knows more about this shit than anybody else in the room. The person who has got all that stuff to hand.
PC: That depth of cultural awareness and breadth of knowledge relies on time. The ability to have those off-piste discussions to encourage depth and breadth of thought is the missing piece in education at the moment.
SU: I think that is what it really needs to be about. You meet a young director and you ask, “Why do you want to be a director?” And they say “Because I like directing, I like theatre.” “Yeah fine, but what stories do you want to tell?”