Michael Blakemore is perhaps the only director working today who can claim critical and commercial success on two continents and in twice as many theatrical genres. He has reaped acclaim for his work on dramas, comedies, new musicals and musical revivals, in both London and New York. In past seasons, Blakemore has made his mark on and Off-Broadway with, among other efforts, Michael Frayn's classic farce, Noises Off, the Hollywood-detective musical City of Angels, Peter Shaffer's comedy Lettice and Lovage and Death Defying Acts, an evening of new one-acts by Woody Allen, David Mamet and Elaine May. However, he has never been more prominent than he has over this past season, in which he staged hit productions of Kiss Me, Kate and Frayn's Copenhagen. Always the bridesmaid, but never the bride, award-wise, on May 14 he took home Drama Desk awards for his direction of both works. He may do so again at the Tony Awards, for which he has also been twice nominated. Blakemore spoke with PBOL from London.
Playbill On-Line: You've had more success as a director in more forms of theatre than any director I can think of. How do you account for it?
Michael Blakemore: I don't think it's so very clever. I think it's the same exercise, directing whatever you direct. It's responding to the text, or the music, or the work that you have to do, and then trying to realize it in performance and make sure it gets its best shot. I think "director" is rather a silly name. I think it ought to be "realizer," something like that. You realize the work, you don't so much direct it; it's there in a sort of nascent form and your job is to bring it the kiss of life.
PBOL: So, with Kiss Me Kate and Copenhagen, which couldn't be more different, you approached the works in the same manner?
MB: Yes, I did. They're very different, but the first thing the director has to do is engage the work on the page. That is the same exercise. All I can say is that it doesn't, to me, feel much different, doing a play that is essentially about concepts and ideas, like Copenhagen, and doing something like Kiss Me, Kate, which is a very savvy piece of work whose sole function is to delight and engage an audience.
PBOL: With Kiss Me Kate, you by and large decided to trust the material, not the usual route in these days of revised Annie Get Your Guns and Finian's Rainbows.
MB: I saw the original production of Kiss Me, Kate, when they brought the Broadway production to England in the early 1950s, and it was one of the most delightful things I've seen. I remember what a delight the thing was. No matter what, you can never get back to what was then. Because you live in the times you live in, you're going to bring those times to the stage, even without realizing it. At the same time, with a work like Kiss Me, Kate, its virtues are virtues -- possibly theatrical virtues and social virtues -- that we've lost or forgotten. And part of the value of them is to somehow recreate them, somehow show that there were some splendid things about them. I don't think our production remotely resembles the original. Still, I tried to get back to the cast of mind in which that show evolved.
PBOL: In directing Copenhagen, did you often find yourself saying, How can I direct this play, I don't know what the hell they're talking about?
MB: No, I didn't. Because I took some days of instruction from Michael Frayn about the physics. I had some background in physics and chemistry from school, and I studies medicine for about three years, so I have a sort of vague scientific background. Obviously, on a first read, I didn't entirely grasp the concepts. But, they're so elegantly expressed by Michael, that they're not impossible to grasp. He educated himself highly in the background of the play. I made it my job not to become a nuclear physicist, but to understand all the science in the play. And when we were rehearsing it, the first job was to make the cast familiar with the physics in the play, so that when they spoke about it, they seems to be speaking with knowledge they had possessed for years. PBOL: How did the set come about?
MB: In the published version of the play, there are no stage directions of any sort. Michael simply tried to get into words what the play was about. I knew, for the play to work, the audience had to be asked to listen. Therefore, the simpler [the production] was, the less you promised them distractions, staging distractions, scenic distractions, the better chance you had of them going with the play. Originally I didn't even want any chairs. I just wanted a circle in which we could produce the parallel between the rather uncertain behavior of human beings and the equally uncertain behavior of particles. And then I had the idea -- we did it in the round in London and we were wondering where we were going to put another bank of seating --that maybe we should suggest something like a lecture hall or a bullring or something where the spectators were actually part of what was going on. It aids the audience's concentration on the stage.
PBOL: Do you think there's any trick to going back and forth between British and American plays?
MB: Well, I'm kind of stranded half way in the Atlantic, because I'm originally Australian and temperamentally I feel far more akin to the Americans than the British, although I've lived the bulk of my life in England. I've always been attracted to American theatre and had many opportunities to do the great American plays when I was at the National Actors Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
PBOL: Your account of staging Death Defying Acts Off-Broadway in The New Yorker was hilarious. Any chance you'll publish further diaries of your theatrical experiences?
MB: No. I kept that diary with the view of maintaining my sanity. It wasn't to do with the personalities so much as I was doing three separate plays by three separate authors. It was bound to be a difficult passage. I felt that if I could make use of it and somehow express it, it would mean that the agonies wouldn't be totally wasted. But then, when the plays were on and the evening was a success, it was a happy ending, so I thought, `Well, maybe I can make this public, because its all turned out well in the end.' But if we had failed, I wouldn't have dreamt of publishing it, because it would have seemed like self-justification or revenge, which it was never intended to be.
PBOL: Still, it sounds like you'd write a pretty good memoir.
MB: Well, I'm writing one at the moment. I'm writing one of my early years in England, the time when I was an actor and I was also writing a novel, up until the time when I became a director and life got dramatically better. At that point, the copy, of course, doesn't get nearly as interesting.
--By Robert Simonson