Paul Hunter is about to direct You Can't Take It With You - the festive offering from the Royal Exchange Theatre which is produced in association with the theatre company Told by an Idiot. We caught up with Paul to find out more about the piece, the company and his own plans for Christmas.



Tell us a bit about the play?
I think Kaufman put it best when he wrote to his wife Beatrice: “you know it’s a slightly mad family, and has to do with the daughter of the house, the only sane one. She falls in love with the son of a conventional family, and the play proper concerns her attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable elements…But it has a point, as you can see – that the way to live and be happy is just to go ahead and live, and not pay attention to the world.”

How are the rehearsals going?
They are going extremely well. There is an enormous sense of fun in the room which is essential – for any play, not just a comedy. The actors seem very liberated and able to play. Fundamentally the play isn’t about plot or narrative but about characters and it will work if the audience really want to spend a couple of hours in the company of these people. I’m certainly enjoying spending time with them.

What do you feel You Cant Take It With You offers audiences who are seeking an alternative to the pantomime?
What you get is a genuine piece of really good family theatre, and by that I mean something that grandparents and grandchildren can enjoy at the same time – moments where across the generations people laugh at the same moment. It is something which theatre doesn’t always pull off, the idea of really good family entertainment outside pantomime. Movies do it brilliantly, like Pixar and Toy Story, but theatre sometimes theatre lags behind. But You Can't Take It With You is that rare thing - a fantastic family show which everyone can enjoy.

What challenges does staging a piece at the Exchange bring to a director?
The biggest challenge is really making the most of this extraordinarily theatrical space, and maximizing that. Not attempting to turn it into something it isn’t, but fully embracing the fact that the audience are all around you, and doing that with a confidence so the performers feel at home in the space. There are some practical issues which I’m sure I’ll face, like timing entrances and exits in the round, but on the whole the challenge is making the most of everything that the extraordinary space has to offer.

Told By An Idiot may be a new company for many patrons who come along. What makes this company unique and so highly thought of?
At Told By an Idiot what we are not trying to do is re-create reality on stage, which is something we believe TV and film can do much better. We try to revel in the artifice of theatre and celebrate the relationship between the performer and the audience – so there is a very direct and open relationship between the actors on stage and the audience. Another thing which is particular to us, and which we are passionate about, is comedy. In this play comedy clashes with something else, so there are moments when you are really laughing then suddenly can become poignant or moving. I’d also say at Told By An Idiot, we love a sense of real playful anarchy, so at times our work can feel quite wild and almost teetering on the edge of being out of control.

What’s the funniest thing to happen in rehearsals so far?
For me, it was when one of the actors was presented with a prototype costume which will be removed from him live on stage in a particular fashion at a particular moment in the performance, and he then proceeds to dance. I would say when we first rehearsed this, it was the funniest thing I have seen not only in rehearsal, but the funniest thing I have seen for some time.

Why should audiences see this production?
This is one of the great American comedies. I also think it is one of the great plays of the 20th century. I always knew it was a great comedy, but the more I have worked on it with the actors the more I think it is a great play as well. It is a brilliantly structured piece of work, and not very often done. There is something American about its lack of cynicism. A lot of comedy these days is full of irony, but this is utterly bereft of that. It is full of joy and optimism. And without sounding too political, given the times we live in, I think is quite refreshing to see a play like this.

What’s your favourite Christmas play or film and why?
My favourite is The Apartment, a film by Billy Wilder, which some people might not describe as an overtly Christmas movie, but the reason I’ve chosen it is partly because the film takes place over the Christmas period in a New York office, but also because I think it is one of the greatest comedies ever made. It’s so great, that relationship between Jack Lemon as the office guy and Shirley MacLaine as the elevator operator, and how they eventually get together.

What would your ideal Christmas involve?
The obvious answer (which I have to say) would be with my wife and children. That aside, it would involve some nice champagne, watching Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull (a good festive movie!) and some sort of festive drinks on New Years Day. I think New Years Day is a neglected occasion, a perfect opportunity for drinks.

What are you plans once the run has finished?
Told By and Idiot begin work on a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream to be presented at one of the national theatres of Finland, with a combination of British and Finnish actors, so I will be going to Helsinki in January to being work on that.

Paul Hunter was speaking to Glenn Meads

You Can't Take It With You is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 7 December 2011 - 14 January 2012.