Max Stafford-Clark on directing tried and tested plays.
Most of the plays I’ve directed have been new plays, where the focus – especially the critical focus – is all on the play and its author. As the director your work is usually acknowledged with a cursory adverb – “ably directed by…” or “fluidly” perhaps. Whereas when you direct a classic, attention focuses far more on the interpretation. With Our Country’s Good I’m revisiting something that had a terrific impact the first time round, and I know that in a way this production will not have the same ability to surprise. But I go into it hoping that for young people, or anyone discovering it for the first time, the impact on them individually will be just as powerful.
The big difference in reviving a play is that you go into rehearsals knowing that it works. Or at least that it should work… People have asked what I’ll do differently but I don’t know that it works like that. I know more about Australian history this time, but you still start at the beginning with new actors.
This was true with Top Girls (which we revived last year), although I tried to cheat with one moment: there is a line in the play that Carole Hayman, who’d been in the original production, had given a specific reading of that I’d loved and that I just couldn’t get the actress in the new production to get in the same way, and I couldn’t either. Carole came to see the play and we asked her to say the line but she couldn’t do it either. Perhaps I’d remembered it wrongly.
The idea for Our Country’s Good came when I was marooned in New York, having transferred Serious Money from off-Broadway where it had been a huge hit. It didn’t fare so well on Broadway. There’d been a black Monday and you just couldn’t have this comic approach to money that the play took. Each act of Serious Money ended with an obscene anthem by Ian Drury. I remember being in the theatre at the interval hearing a woman say “Well I did not understand one word of that and the only word I did understand I wouldn’t possibly repeat”. My only friend was the theatre’s barmaid who gave me free whiskies. I was at a loose end. I couldn’t rehearse for more than 90 minutes a day or I’d trigger overtime and when we did rehearse we’d do so under a single lamp or we’d be charged for technicians.
With time on my hands I went to the booksellers Barnes and Noble, looking for a novel. I bought Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker and it turned out to be the kind of book you have to slow yourself down with, I was getting through it so fast. The idea occurred of a double header, consisting of The Recruiting Officer with a new play about how it came to be Australia’s first theatre production. I approached Timberlake, whose play The Grace of Mary Traverse Danny Boyle had directed at the Royal Court and which I’d liked very much, to make a play of the story.