20 Questions With...Laurence Boswell
Date: 15 December 2003
Director Laurence Boswell, whose RSC production of Beauty & the Beast has just opened in Stratford, explains how to get the best out of Hollywood stars, the Spanish Golden Age & children's shows & reveals some exciting future projects.
Early recognition at the National Student Drama Festival helped to launch director Laurence Boswell's early career by bringing him to the attention of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he became an assistant director at just 21.
Since then, Boswell has continued to work regularly in regional, fringe and West End theatre. He became an associate director and later artistic director of west London's Gate Theatre in the early 1990s where, amongst many other highlights, he presented an award-winning season of rarely performed pieces from the Spanish Golden Age.
In 1996, he directed the premiere of Ben Elton's Popcorn, which transferred from the West Yorkshire Playhouse to the West End ahead of an extensive national tour. Boswell followed that up with a revival of Peter Nichols' A Day in the Death of Egg, starring Victoria Hamilton with first Clive Owen and later Eddie Izzard, who then took it to Broadway.
Over the past two years, Boswell has become Hollywood's favourite theatre director, grooming a succession of screen stars - including Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Freddie Prinze Jr and Anna Paquin - for West End debuts in This Is Our Youth, which, in 2002, ran concurrently with Up for Grabs, featuring superstar Madonna, an occasion that created such a stir it ran away with the vote in the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards for Theatre Event of the Year.
The director, with the backing of the Ambassador Theatre Group, has recently formed his own production company whose upcoming star-studded projects include a Romeo and Juliet with Gyllenhaal and A Doll's House with Calista Flockhart.
In addition, bringing his career nearly full circle, Boswell has been appointed an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, for whom he's just opened an expanded version of his children's Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast, previously seen at London's Young Vic.
In spring 2004, he'll curate a new Spanish Golden Age for the RSC at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. Performed by a 20-strong ensemble, it will feature five rarely performed 17th-century plays: Lope de Vega's The Dog in the Manger (also directed by Boswell); Tirso de Molina's Tamar's Revenge; Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz's House of Desires; and Cervantes' Pedro, The Great Pretender.
Date & place of birth
I was born, by Caesarean, in Coventry in the Midlands on 7 May 1959.
Lives now in..
Dulwich, south London.
A BA (Honours) in Drama at Manchester University.
First big break
I keep having breaks and then going off in different directions. For instance, at a university drama festival, I won all these awards and, after that, I got a job as an assistant director at the RSC - which, for a 21-year-old, felt like a very big break. Later, there was a really fine moment when Ben Elton sent me Popcorn. We knew each other, in a stand-offish way, at university - he was the existing campus hero, and it was my ambition to be the next campus hero. Seven years later, he sent me Popcorn. Clive (Owen) and Eddie (Izzard) doing A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was a bit a of a break because that then went to Broadway. Directing Madonna (in Up for Grabs) definitely felt like a break. As does doing this show, Beauty and the Beast - writing and directing it for the RSC on the main stage.
What does becoming an RSC associate director mean to you?
Ever since university, I could have wished for nothing more. Michael Boyd (RSC artistic director) played a significant part in my early development. I was performing in plays at school from about the age of seven. Really from then until the age of 18, I thought only of being an actor. I was lucky enough to be part of the Belgrade Youth Theatre in Coventry - Clive (Owen) was also a member and John Gaunt. At the time, Michael was an assistant director at Coventry and he directed shows with all of us. I didn't enjoy the rehearsal process and I shared that with Michael. He said: "I think there's more of a director in you than an actor. Try directing." That was 22 years ago. So Michael is partly responsible for steering me into directing. When he took over the RSC, he asked me to be an associate, to be part of the new brew, and I couldn't say no.
What do you predict for the future of the RSC?
Michael is going to give it a very unique definition within the range of British theatre choices for actors. The acting needs to be committed to quality, which includes in-depth training: for the body, the voice, dancing, moving, different techniques. At the moment, most theatre is about the short-term - it's freelance, it's market based. Michael is going to be a complete counterpoint to that. He's saying, if you want to seriously develop yourself as an actor or performer, come to the RSC, come for a year and you will develop your skills. It's the opposite of the prevailing market trend, and as a subsidised company, that makes sense. Rather than the RSC acting as a commercial company, it should offer artists the notion of development, training and growth. People want balance in their careers. They get to a point where they say, "Yes, give me a year of working on Shakespeare", and then they can go back to working in television, movies or the commercial West End.
On Beauty and the Beast, I'm working again with Gary Sefton and Darren Tunstall. We've worked together a lot over the years and have built up a very collaborative relationship. Victoria Hamilton is a very fine actress whom I had a very fine time working with on Joe Egg. Jake Gyllenhaal, who was in This Is Our Youth and who I'll do Romeo and Juliet with next year. And Paul Rhys - whom I did Hamlet with and Long Day's Journey into Night - we're planning other things too. I'll stop there, but there are loads I love working with.
What's the secret to working with Hollywood stars?
Treat them like anybody else. You have to be aware with some people that they may be putting themselves under a lot of pressure because they have a huge reputation, and being exposed on a stage can be a quite anxious thing. You have to relax them. If they don't have a lot of stage experience, you've also got to find a way of teaching within the process of directing. The real trick is just to get on with the job because that's what gives people confidence. Americans are no strangers to work. Their approach is: get in, let's do it, let's work. That's great.
Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth) is a darling boy, and now a very good friend. Shakespeare, it's just too hard to beat him. And Lope De Vega, who will feature in the Spanish Golden Age season I'm curating for the RSC. With my West End work, one thing I very much want to do is discover new writers.
What other directors do you admire?
A good friend of mine, Michael Boyd. I also used to love going to see the work of the avant-garde Pole, Tadeusz Kantor. It can be very hard for directors to praise each other. Putting any kind of play on is a sort of war, and you have to believe so fully in your own aesthetic that it's sometimes hard to appreciate other people's aesthetic or even find time to see other people's work.
Why is putting on a play like war?
Because it's so bloody hard and relentless! The first battle is getting anyone actually to be in your play - exposing themselves to more work, more pressure, more visibility and less protection than they'll have anywhere else. There's a physical strain to putting a play on, an actual exhaustion. And you're asking people to do all that for a fraction of what they would be getting paid in any other medium. Theatre economics overall are tricky. A lot of plays done commercially don't make money, so there's also that battle of convincing backers that what you're doing is worth doing. (Really, if you want to make money, get into software not theatre.) And the older I get, the more time I want on every production. The amount of time considered appropriate for putting on a play is completely ludicrous. That's a very good thing Michael Boyd is doing extending rehearsal periods. When Peter Hall formed the RSC, he started with six-week rehearsal periods; 25 years later, we still only have six-week rehearsal periods. It's got to change. As it is, you're always fighting time.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
The reality is, theatre is so low on their radar, it almost doesn't matter what we say. If they were listening, I'd remind them that theatre can create extraordinary models of our lives, it is important and this country has an unbroken and unrivalled acting tradition dating back 400 years. Football is regarded as important - and I love football - but we'll only be eighth best at that. At theatre, we are the best.
If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I cannot imagine any other form of life that would put up with me. One thing I do have fantasies about is living in the country and being a writer - but I'd write plays. That's about as far away from this life as I can imagine being.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
What a lovely idea. I'd want to be somewhere when incredible things were happening in art. Sometimes you get little clusters of artists, little clusters of great talent, and because they're all together, they create something incandescent and way beyond the considerable strength of their individual abilities. To have been around at one of those times, when talent was clustering and exploding in different directions, would be magnificent. For instance, I would've loved to have been a stage manager on the first day of rehearsals when Shakespeare came in and said, "I have this play called Hamlet" - to be there for the first read-through! Or to have been a fly on the wall when Scorcese and DeNiro were creating Raging Bull.
My favourite novel is Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. It's got to be the best book ever written. Ever since I saw Nicholas Nickleby, my dream has been to get that novel in its entirety on the stage - a mad, epic, three-day event, like Nicholas Nickleby. It would be terrific. I think the RSC should do it, too. I'm going to speak to Michael about it.
Favourite holiday destinations
Because what I do takes up a lot of time, holidays become very important in terms of family. I've got a little boy who's six, and a daughter who's fourteen. We recently had a great holiday in a place called Half Moon Bay in Antigua. That was just wonderful, it really did it for everybody. This Christmas, we're going to Sharm El Sheik in Egypt.
I think I first became aware of Whatsonstage.com around the time of Joe Egg, because we were nominated for some of your awards. I like the fact that you seem to be in touch with the same buzz I feel in the theatre. It's somewhere I pop in to have a look at what's going on. I'm also a big Google fan.
What initially inspired you to write Beauty and the Beast?
My daughter. Lottie's a very strong and independent-minded young lass. Seven years ago, I had taken Lottie to see a few shows she wasn't very impressed with, and I worried she would therefore think that theatre - the thing that meant I missed weekends and wasn't around at home to help with her homework - wasn't up to much. So I said, "Alright I'll do a Christmas show". I had a list of possible titles to adapt and I read them to Lottie. She loved Beauty and the Beast. Even as a young child, she had this capacity for seeing how girls are treated differently to boys, this innate feminism. She said she wanted to see something with the leading character as a girl.
How does the RSC version differ from the original at the Young Vic?
It's completely different. I'm seven years older, so my sense of the play is deepened. People who saw the original will recognise it in the first few minutes, but then it goes off in a different direction. And, because we're now playing on a big proscenium stage, I've had to rewrite the script extensively. It's become a very exciting physical mixture - there are such wonderful shapes you can create with 18 people.
Do you think there's enough good theatre for children?
Children's theatre can be a very cynical exercise - shows that simply hijack television brands, for instance - and, in the past, it's been seen as a poor relation. That's really breaking down now. Look at what's happening this Christmas. In addition to Beauty and the Beast, we've got both Nicholas Hytner and Trevor Nunn directing major new productions for children. Attitudes are changing.
How are you tackling the Spanish Golden Age season?
Head on. The first task was trying to find the right plays and I think we've got them. We've made some quite bold choices, ones that show the range and variety of the period. We've also put together a very experienced team of directors, all of whom are actor-centred. Once you have the right plays and the right directors, you're off. The truth is, there's no chance, or very little chance, that people will have seen any of these plays before, so it's like presenting a season of new work - which just happens to be 400 years old. We're creating our own conventions.
What prompted you to form your own production company?
I was invited to do it by Harold Panter who runs the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG). It's a fantastic opportunity for me to be able to develop ideas, to call up actors I like and say, let's do a project. I can commission writers, too. There's just so much more creative freedom. The first project will be Simon Gray's Holy Terror, which he previously did with Alan Bates under the title Melon (See The Goss, 4 Nov 2003). Simon Callow will star as a publisher having a nervous breakdown. We'll take it on an eight-week tour in February, and come into the West End in April. Then I have Romeo and Juliet with Jake planned, and Lenny Henry and I will do something, though we're working on finding the right material. I'm also going to do A Doll's House with Calista Flockhart.
How do you balance your RSC & independent commitments?
I am a servant of two masters. I've spent too many years as a director not having enough work; I'm not going to complain now about having too much. I should be so lucky.
Beauty and the Beast opened on 10 December 2003 (previews from 1 December) at Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where it continues until 22 February 2004. The RSC's Spanish Golden Age season runs from April to October 2004 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.