20 Questions With...David Leveaux
Date: 16 June 2003
Director David Leveaux, whose revival of Jumpers opens this week, revels in the sun & moon of Tom Stoppard & Harold Pinter, considers the importance of casting & seeks advice on good furniture websites.
Freelance director David Leveaux is equally at home in the West End and on Broadway. With an impressive string of credits to his name, he returns to London this month with Tom Stoppard's Jumpers at the National Theatre, having won critical acclaim for his Tony Award-winning Broadway re-mounting of the musical Nine, the musical previously revived at London's Donmar Warehouse and recast with Antonio Banderas.
After an apprenticeship (of sorts) under Peter Gill at Riverside Studios in the late 1970s, Leveaux went on to direct productions such as Therese Raquin at Chichester, Moon for the Misbegotten and Anna Christie in the West End and on Broadway, and Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
An aficionado of Harold Pinter's work, Leveaux has directed both No Man's Land and Moonlight for the Almeida Theatre - where last year, he also directed the UK premiere of Neil LaBute's The Distance from Here - as well as several productions of his favourite Pinter play, Betrayal, in London, Paris, Tokyo and New York, where it starred Juliette Binoche.
In the 1990s, Leveaux became an associate director of the Donmar, then under Sam Mendes' artistic directorship. There, his award-winning productions included Electra starring [Zoë Wanamaker] and the 1997 revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, which starred Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle and also transferred to the West End and Broadway.
Leveaux's production of Nine, based on the Fellini film 8 1/2, first played at the Donmar in 1996. The Broadway re-creation, which stars Antonio Banderas, last week won two Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. Leveaux himself was also Tony-nominated for Best Director of a Musical (See News, 9 Jun 2003).
Date & place of birth
Born in London on 13 December 1957.
Lives now in...
In London, though I've actually been itinerant for as long as I can remember. I made a company in Japan ten years ago, and it's still there, though I spend less time there now.
I didn't train as a director as such, except by being an assistant to Peter Gill at Riverside Studios. Before that, I went to Manchester University, where I read English language and literature.
First big break
It came about in a curious way. I got involved in my early 20s with Riverside Studios. When it went bankrupt - thanks to some local politics that were pretty frankly corrupt - I got involved in setting up an illegal occupation of the building to keep it open and running. Then the GLC (Greater London Council), as it then was, bought the building from the local authority to extract it from that cesspool. Once the building was back on its feet, I went to New York, simply because I'd never been and I wanted to take a break and take off somewhere.
It was there that I met a man called Joe Chaikin, who I'd seen do some Beckett at Riverside years ago. He invited me to hang out with him at LaMama, the off-Broadway theatre, where he was doing one of his winter projects. That's when I started reading American drama, and I read this play by Eugene O'Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and realised that this was what I wanted to do back in London. So when I came back, that's what I did at Riverside - and that production, starring Frances de la Tour and Ian Bannen, really took off. It went into the West End, and then Robert Brustein at the American Repertory Theatre asked me if I would do a production of the play there so I did, and that one, with Kate Nelligan and Bannen again, was picked up by the Shuberts and came into New York, opening on Broadway in 1983. I can trace the moment to feeling I can do this job to that play.
Career highlights to date
A Moon for the Misbegotten was one, absolutely. But I think also of the Pinters at the Almeida, directing Betrayal, No Man's Land with Harold and Paul Eddington, and the world premiere of Moonlight. It's definitely a highlight when Harold Pinter hands you a play in a brown envelope and says "this is it, this is brand new!" That triptych of plays that happened over three years was a really special period.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Electra with Zoe Wanamaker was very, very important. It also had a very interesting journey. It started in Chichester, then went to the Donmar. After that, I recreated it at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, from where it went to Broadway - and it was very exciting to do Sophocles in a Broadway house! Other favourites include Anna Christie in New York with Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, and also The Real Thing at the Donmar (and later on Broadway). That was my first encounter with Tom Stoppard's work.
O'Neill, Pinter and Stoppard are all playwrights I've returned to again and again, I'm passionate about them. I found myself at dinner one night at the Ivy with Harold and Tom, and at one point I remember saying that this was like being out for dinner with the sun and the moon! I think it was Tom who said, "So which of us is which?" I said I wasn't going to tell them! Though they are poles apart in terms of their sensibility, they are two writers who have both altered the way we hear the English language. They're very rare spirits.
I've just had a fantastic time with Antonio Banderas on the Broadway production of Nine, which I previously did at the Donmar Warehouse. He brought such guts, passion and directness to it, and he also has an innocence about his being that is just sensational. I also have to name Stephen Dillane; Frances de la Tour, who is not just a brilliant comedienne but can do anything; and Zoe Wanamaker, who has the fastest, most innate stage instincts of any actress I've ever worked with.
Working on Jumpers now is the first time I've worked with Simon Russell Beale, but what an extraordinary actor he is; so is Essie Davis, who I've also never worked with before. I saw her play Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, and I'll never forget a line that I'd never noticed before that she has. When Blanche won't leave the house, Stella says, "I'll go with you." Essie had total access to where Williams had written that line form. You could spend your whole life waiting for someone to say that to you. She gave the line that kind of grandeur. She's an extraordinary discovery to me.
Do you agree with the axiom that 95% of directing is in the casting?
There's a very big truth to that, in that if you get the casting wrong, it's an uphill battle. Putting the right combinations of actors together is very important, too. With Nine, we have 18 women in the company, so the chemistry has to be right between them. Maybe 95% of directing is in the casting - but then there's the other 95%!
Do you prefer directing old plays or new ones? Is it a conscious choice to concentrate mainly on revivals?
Not really. It always seems to me, and perhaps I'm naïve about this, but I don't feel it's particularly different to working on a new play like Moonlight, where there's absolutely no record of what it's been like or can be like, to working on something like Jumpers, where although it's in the repertoire and around in people's minds, the truth is that every time you approach it, it is entirely new to you! It's a high-wire act with a brand-new play, because you're going into new territory. But every time you make a piece of theatre, you're trying to make it an event for the present. Whether it's The Real Thing or Nine, they come up differently - they're different events. Not because you're reacting against another production, but just because you're doing it the way you see it.
What's the best thing you've seen onstage recently?
I'm not saying this just because we're sitting here at the National, but I just recently saw Nicholas Hytner's Henry V, and Adrian Lester was fantastic in it. In New York, I saw Take Me Out, which was a really, really good play. Richard Greenberg is a very interesting writer.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of theatre?
Having actually seen how difficult it is to make anything enduring in theatre cultures that do not have flagship theatres like the National and RSC, and how confusing that is, we must not under-estimate their importance. Irrespective of whether the work being done there is in on an up or a down phase - it's a live thing, so things change - their very existence makes the statement very simply that we do recognise as a society that it is still worth interrogating ourselves. The moment a society doesn't think that it has to interrogate the way it lives, that way lies tyranny.
I'm very interested in politics and history, and I've just been reading a book about the Palestinians - Drinking the Sea at Gaza by Amira Haas, that is fascinating.
Favourite holiday destinations
I'm not very good at holidays, but I went for the first time last year to the Maldives, and I couldn't believe it! It was amazing, incredibly exotic. I also love Corsica - I haven't seen water so blue, it was like a joke!
I'm in the midst of having my whole flat stripped out, so I need some advice for a good website for furniture - I have no confidence on my own at all. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!
What attracted you to directing a new production of Jumpers?
Nicholas Hytner and Tom (Stoppard) both mentioned it to me. Nick was very keen to do it in his first season, and when I looked at it again, I realised I'd not read it for years and I thought it was amazing. I thought it was a play fundamentally about moral relativity; but setting that aside, it's like reading The Real Thing as reconceived by The Wooster Group! I was so hugely impressed that - the thrill and exhilaration of the philosophical process apart - the fact of the matter is that it's a play about a kind of yearning for something more. It explores the idea that there must be something more to life than what is strictly measurable. It's a play that stands up not just for the right of the absolutely reasonable proposition that there may be a God of some kind; it also stands up for it with tremendous weaponry, and I just found that astonishing.
What makes Stoppard such a brilliant playwright?
What he writes is so massively layered, yet without being like a lecture or neurotic! I'm not sure that neurosis is the same thing as feeling. Every time you get into a rehearsal room with these things, the clichés start gathering like black crows on the telegraph wires. You have to watch out for them, but if you keep it light and alive, the ambush of feeling is so much greater.
What else does the director have to watch out for?
It's easy to fall over into earnestness and solemnity in the theatre. The further I go on, the less I think that has to do with the theatre. It's better to find a way to walk a wonderful tightrope where you can balance the ridiculous and the rhapsodic at the same time. It's one of the hardest things to do, but it means you can make serious points with a lightness of touch. I have a phobia about solemnity. In your early 20s, it's hard to be serious without being solemn. But the older I get, it's a wonderful thing where you can feel it's not a clenched fist holding on anymore, but where you can relax the fist and just hold it.
Do you have a favourite line from Jumpers?
My favourites are shifting about at the moment, but one of the ones I love very much is a line of Dotty's: "I won't see him if you like; I'll see you, if you like."
What are your future plans?
I came straight to Jumpers from Nine, so I want to take a beat after Jumpers and won't do anything else between now and going to do a new production of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, that we'll begin rehearsing in December before opening in February. Alfred Molina is playing Tevye, and he's a big part of why I was attracted to it. It's also a fantastic chance to take that musical and strip it of the schtick that has become attached to it, and look at the piece itself. It's a fantastically brilliant story and a great opportunity to take it back to New York.
- David Leveaux was talking to Mark Shenton
Jumpers opens at the NT Lyttleton on 19 June 2003 (following previews from 7 June) and continues in repertory until 9 September, after which it embarks on a regional tour.