Michael Frayn's Benefactors is being revived at the Albery in an exciting new production by Jeremy Sams. Not only a director, Sams is also a translator (Les Parents Terribles at the National Theatre in 1994 helped make the young Jude Law a star) and a book writer (he wrote the book of the stage musical of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). And, in addition to working in opera and the theatre, he has composed music for plays, including two other NT hits, The Wind in the Willows and Arcadia. Theatrenow dropped in for a chat.
You've got a major musical [Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] at the Dominion, and now a straight play at the Albery. You obviously like to keep busy: "Yes! And the variety of work is fun as well as a challenge."
What attracted you to Benefactors? "It's a great play. It is, as you say, a change from working on a musical, and in this case one of the differences is that while Chitty is a jolly romp, Benefactors deals with real, social, issues. It's a serious play, but an enjoyable one."
Presumably Benefactors is very different from Noises Off? "Yes, in the sense that Noises Off is a farce about backstage goings-on in a theatre, whereas Benefactors is about social relationships, set against a background of the influence that architecture has on people, but, on the other hand, both productions go at a very brisk pace; both rely on speed to carry the story forward." How closely involved was Frayn in the production? "Very! His work is a dream to direct, and he's the most supportive playwright I've ever worked with. As far as sitting in on rehearsals and so on, he has an uncanny knack of knowing when to disappear and when to be around: when to make suggestions and when to back off. Which you can't say about every author!"
As well as theatre, you're also very involved in opera. Do you think the barrier between the two art forms has come down a lot in recent years? "Well, I think it's more common for directors to work in both fields. After all, it ultimately comes down to a question of being able to arrange people onstage and to tell a story.
"True, opera singers are very different creatures from actors, but ultimately everything leads back to theatre, and it's not surprising that people like Nicholas Hytner, who, in effect, started his career as a staff director at ENO [English National Opera], should then become famous as a stage director and end up running the National Theatre.
Are you working on an opera as well as a musical and a play? "Yes! I'm working on the Ring Cycle for ENO, and have recently done The Merry Widow for the Royal Opera. Every project is equally important, but at the moment, I'm obviously most excited about Benefactors. It's a great play, as I've said, and we've got a wonderful cast, so I'm very confident about the production and I'm really looking forward to the press night!"
Benefactors, by Michael Frayn and directed by Jeremy Sams, began previews at the Albery on June 19 and has its press night on June 25.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow