PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Matthew Warchus | Playbill

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Brief Encounter PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Matthew Warchus Just at present, Matthew Warchus is that rare thing, a director who pleases both his producers and the critics.
Matthew Warchus
Matthew Warchus Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Over the past 12 months, the British Warchus has brought over from London three plays: a revival of the 1960s sex farce Boeing Boeing, Yasmina Reza's latest comedy of bad manners God of Carnage, and a new production of Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy of a weekend in the country and the three upended relationships that result. All three plays have been praised by reviewers, both here and in England. But we all know that the laurel "critical hit" doesn’t necessarily mean anything at the box office. (Witness Desire Under the Elms.) Not so with Warchus. Boeing-Boeing became the first Broadway farce in long, looooong memory to make a profit. And if the hugely popular God of Carnage (with its four marquee stars) and Norman Conquests (with its "collect-them-all" novelty) aren't on the way to recoupment, I'll eat my Fedora. Warchus was recently nominated twice for the Best Director of a Play Tony Award, for the Reza and the Ayckbourn. He's enjoyed the honor of being nominated three times before (for Art, True West and Boeing), but has yet to win. This, however, may be his year. Warchus talked to from England. Being nominated twice in the same Tony category presents a kind of special problem for you. Do you find yourself wanting to win for one play rather than the other? Or, does it not really matter, as long as you win for one of them?
Matthew Warchus: Yes. Well, I said to someone the other day, I'm intrigued to find out what it's like to lose twice in one sentence. I don't actually think that's going to happen this time.

MW: Of course, there is the possibility that, as I bound up onto the stage, I'm slightly pissed off! It's nice to have such problems.
MW: Yes, exactly. You recently directed Boeing-Boeing, which is an out-and-out sex farce. And Norman Conquests and God of Carnage both have farcical qualities to them. You seem to have some facility with this sort of material, when there is mayhem on stage and the characters are desperately trying to control it. What is the key to staging farce well?
MW: We used to have a show in the U.K. called "Candid Camera." I think you had it in America as well. And it's given rise to a certain approach to directing for me. I'm intrigued with the way the experience of the victim in "Candid Camera" and the experience of the audience are entirely disconnected. In other words, you can't credit the victims for generating any of the laughter. The victim is having the worst day of their lives. And the audience laughs. It's obviously got something to do with relating to that kind of humiliation and having a certain amount of anxiety and fear about being in that position, and the laughter that's generated is a release from that kind of fear of humiliation. This is something I've been interested in in different ways — of increasing the level of suffering for the characters on stage, tightening it, screwing it up to a pitch. Their behavior reaches levels of intensity that can be seen from the outside as absurdity. But it's the only natural way for them to behave, given the circumstances that they're in. In rehearsing it, I like to invest in what it would really be like to be in that situation. When you commit to how frightening it might be, it motivates all kinds of absurd lengths you might go to, to save yourself.

A scene from God of Carnage
photo by Joan Marcus Like what the married couples do in God of Carnage.
MW: In God of Carnage, the husband and the wife have an enormous shouting match over whose idea it was to buy the tulips. From the outside, it seems absurd, but, in rehearsing it, you have to deny that it's in any way funny, in order to get the right pitch. You have to be in that kind of wild state of emotion where nothing matters as much as whose idea it was to buy the freaking tulips. It's a cliché, isn't it? — but by really rigorously going after the pain, the awfulness of the situation, you allow things to get to a pitch that all that can happen is the audience laughs. Ideally, you can't spot who on stage is triggering that laughter. It's the overall situation that is triggering the laugh. Whenever any of the actors was doing anything that was obviously triggering a laugh, I would try to remove it. Directing Boeing-Boeing was a real discovery for me. All I had to do as a director was try to make the situation worse and worse and worse. I'd say, "Well, it's bad if he's sitting in that chair when the door opens. But it's worse if he's standing over there when the door opens. Therefore, stand over there." Just to make it more uncomfortable for the people on stage.
MW: Yes. Ratchet up the level of discomfort, the level of humiliation. It's the emotion that makes the comedy wild, it's the emotion that the audience can relate to. It's not the funny business. It's not the gags. That absolutely stands with God of Carnage and Norman Conquests. What those authors of those plays provide, woven among the absurdity, is the shadow of loneliness and suffering and desperation. If you're committing to the awfulness of the moment, you are creating the opportunity for both laughter and depth in those plays. I found it interesting that, of all of Reza's plays, this is the only one where she allowed the location to be changed — in this case, from Paris to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I live near that neighborhood, and it's very believable that those characters are from that area of New York.
MW: Hope Davis lives there. She was our spy. Do you think there's something a little bit more American about the plot of God of Carnage, as opposed to Reza's other plays?
MW: It's an interesting question. First of all, I campaigned to move the setting of this play. Yasmina and [adapter] Christopher [Hampton] were both quite skeptical, and the producers as well. I pushed and pushed and eventually they agreed, and came round to the idea, willingly. The reason I pushed for it is, this play, more than anything else she's written, really thrusts itself into the lives of the audience. It's a play that you collide with, and see so much of what's happening around you right there on stage, played out. Marriage is something a lot of people can relate to, through their own marriage or their parents' marriage, and so is parenting, having children. It's very important that it doesn’t play as something that happens somewhere else. The provocative nature of that play works best when it happens on your own doorstep. I didn't want people to think, "Oh, those French people. What are they like?" I didn't want it to be exotic in any way. I think that when we did it in London, and we didn't set it in London, we possibly lost an opportunity to recreate the immediacy of her play for a London audience. But the problem would have been much greater had we kept it set in Paris for a New York audience. I think this play should always be reset to the area that's close to the audience. Now, whether there's something especially potent in the play about being American, it's slightly hard for me to say. I have an American wife, and I've lived in America for a while, from time to time. And I think there may be something in that. I was thinking about the way New Yorkers tend to "over-parent" their children.
MW: Yes. I think arguments about how best to do something, what's right and what's wrong, have great currency in the States. There is, in the States, such thing as Good Citizenship, which doesn't occur at all in the U.K. I think the arguments can become quite heated. The Norman Conquests is at Circle in the Square. You may be the only director I know who not only likes that in-the-round space, but also actually prefers it. You've directed there three times now.
MW: I love it. When I was asked whether I would be interested in doing The Norman Conquests, I said yes, but only if I could be in the round. So we converted the Old Vic theatre into an in the round space. And thankfully, Circle in the Square is ready made in New York. I grew up in Yorkshire, not far from Ayckbourn's theatre in Scarborough, which is an in-the-round theatre. The great thing about in-the-round is the actors can not play to the audience. They are stuck, immersed on this island of agony, from which there is no escape. The actors only play to each other. They can't nod and wink to the audience. The comedy only comes from the situation. That's why his plays that have been written for in-the-round always work better in the round. You're going to be doing a stage musical of the movie Ghost, with a score by The Eurythmics' Dave Stewart. Are there any new developments regarding that?
MW: Funny enough, day before yesterday we did the presentation after a two-week workshop. It sort of confounded everybody by being really, really good. When something is as famous as "Ghost," you have a lot of associations with it, and it being parodied. It carries a lot of baggage, a lot of it positive, some of it not positive. It's possible to lose sight of what a stunningly good story it is. What came across in the workshop is, yes, the music is working well, thankfully, and the whole thing is taking shape nicely. But the 60 or so people who were in the room watching were really knocked out by what an amazing story it is, and the sense that it lends itself really well to being a musical. The challenge is going to be how to do the film's special effects, how to tell the supernatural side of the story. Another London production of yours about which there was talk that it would come to Broadway, was your staging of Mamet's Speed-the-Plow starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum. But Broadway ended up with a different production of the play. Was that disappointing to you?
MW: Yeah. I really, really wanted it to come to New York. But, despite my almost entirely unsuccessful attempt to poison the New York company… Ah, a new theory on the mysterious departure of Jeremy Piven! You poisoned him!
MW: That's what I mean. Almost entirely unsuccessful. Just the beginnings of a glimmer of success!

Paul Ritter, Stephen Mangan, Jessica Hynes, Ben Miles and Amelia Bullmore
Paul Ritter, Stephen Mangan, Jessica Hynes, Ben Miles and Amelia Bullmore Richard Termine

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