Tell me about the period in American history in which Serenading Louie is set.
The 1970s was a very specific time in American cultural history: paranoia and nerviness, student strikes, debates about Vietnam and Korea, and arguments about conscription. The play is insular but there are cultural references. The characters, although they’re only 35, have become the American establishment. You can trace their lives back: they graduated from college in 1955, and the difference between American culture in 1970 from 1955 is huge. To me now, 35 seems nothing as an age, but they were already suffering from mid-life crises. There is a Mad Men aspect to their lives and their marriages!
Why does this play interest you?
Every time I read it I come across something that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s so dense and intense, with plenty of clues about the characters. The play reads like an Ibsen or a Chekhov: they were the masters of psychological drama, raising so many complexities and contradictions, and exploring the wonderfulness and awfulness of human beings. Wilson’s writing has that intensity, and that ability to look at the detail and complexity of human nature. I’m one of only a few people who saw this play on Broadway, when I was in my twenties. I was in love with all New York theatre back then, and went to see Serenading Louie at the Public Theater. I started my career at the Royal Court, and there was an exchange between these two theatres in those days: we took plays to New York and they brought plays to us. It was a brilliant production, and from my perspective at that time it seemed to be a play about people struggling in their marriages. Now that I read it again, it seems to be about people in their thirties – so I’m on the other side of their age! – but it strikes me now that it’s a brilliant and dangerous play about the complexity of marriage.
In what way is it a ‘dangerous’ play?
A lot of the stuff that in life normally lies dormant in this play is actually spoken, and the words are very hard-hitting. There’s a line in the play between the men and the women, between husbands and wives, between honesty and secrets. And it has an unexpected ending.
Why do you think the play may be so under-performed?
I don’t know why Lanford and his plays are not so well-known here. He is a writer of massive stature in the States; just this week, he received the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. The first play I was ever in was one of his plays, and the first play I ever saw on Broadway was one of his, so he’s a bit of a hero of mine. Lanford himself hasn’t seen this play professionally produced since its last New York production in 1984. I’m a huge fan of American drama. Despite all the hoopla about the angry young men that changed British theatre in the late 1950s, I think that American writers were much more significant. Miller, Williams, O’Neill – Serenading Louie is a play in their tradition, a fantastically rich play. A play like Streetcar is, I think, one of the greatest plays ever written, and I’m not sure how many British plays of that time could also be put in that category.
You started your directing career at the Royal Court before moving into television; why did you make this move?
I was offered a job in the BBC. What interested me was that new writing had more of a chance to thrive there. We made theatre productions for television – so I had a foot in theatre and a foot in television. I produced 50 or 60 television versions of stage plays, commissioned new versions, and gave lots of theatre directors their first chance to work with a camera – people like Stephen Daldry, Katie Mitchell, Deborah Warner. It was like running a dream theatre: we could offer actors the chance to come to London for 4-5 weeks to be in a play without having to commit to a full run, so we could get absolutely anybody.
How is directing a play different from directing a film or a television programme, and why are you looking forward to directing a stage production again?
I’ve spent last year doing two 90-minute films of Cranford for the BBC, each with a cast of 42. The idea of doing an intense four-hander at the Donmar, where you can really focus on the actors, feels like the perfect job. In television and film you constantly have to make final decisions; you finish a scene and move onto the next. In theatre, I love being able to go back to the rehearsal room and let things marinate, so we can dig deeper.
Simon Curtis was speaking to Glenn Meads
Serenading Louie arrives at the Lowry from 30 March - 3 April and can be booked here.