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Michael Coveney: Max Stafford-Clark fights back with a new book

The veteran director has lifted the lid on his many years of correspondence with the Arts Council

By • London
Max Stafford-Clark with his wife Stella Feehily
Max Stafford-Clark with his wife Stella Feehily
© Dan Wooller

Max Stafford-Clark has written what he calls a howl of rage against Arts Council cuts. But his Journal of the Plague Year, published in the New Year by Nick Hern, is much more than that. It's the sustained testimony of a dedicated and distinguished theatre artist who, in any other country, would be feted by his native culture, not made to feel like an unwanted outsider.

The history of how we have treated great theatre directors like Peter Brook and Joan Littlewood, as well as Max, came to mind last night at the opening of Coriolanus in the Donmar Warehouse. The hero feels under-appreciated after he's won his country a famous war and turns his back on them at the very moment they banish him: "There is a world elsewhere."

Brook and Littlewood weren't banished, but the way they worked was unsustainable in the funding priorities at the time they most needed support. Brook removed his operations to Paris and Littlewood simply retired, dismayed and defeated. Stafford-Clark battles on indomitably, reduced at one point to flogging his workshops at Out of Joint to the general public, reducing the company's output to one show a year and reviving the modern classics - Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good - to ensure full houses, critical acclaim and West End exposure.

In his book, he recounts his trials and tribulations in a long correspondence with Arts Council's officials that borders on hilarity when he addresses them, Coriolanus-style, as dunderheads and philistines. But the book also records his sense of entitlement - Coriolanus again - derived from an interesting and privileged background (he had two fathers, one who was killed in the war, one who raised him and married his mother) and his remarkable recovery from a debilitating stroke.

He summoned a few critics to lunch in the Garrick Club last week to provide an update on activities and reiterate his view that the Arts Council has been bullied by "a harrumphing coalition government"; but he and his producers, Graham Cowley and Karl Sydow, have simply carried on, as busy as ever, never once supposing that the cuts in funding to Out of Joint were based on a feeling that their best days were gone, or that Max's stroke might presage a cut back in activity anyway.

For a time this might have, very marginally, have been the case. But when the shit hit the fan, Max and his colleagues did a lot of research and development work thanks to many colleges and theatres including the RSC and the National. Max's partner, the playwright Stella Feehily, has written a play about the National Health Service, This May Hurt a Bit, at one of whose workshops Neil Kinnock played his own great hero and compatriot Aneurin Bevan.

Also announced for later this year is a new play by Richard Bean, Pitcairn, co-produced with Chichester and Shakespeare's Globe, about the consequences of the Mutiny on the Bounty, which happened in the same year as the French Revolution, 1789. And the company is also researching a play about witches with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Max asked us over the souffle and roast guinea fowl how many witches we thought had been burned in England, Scotland and Germany. No-one came close: 3,000, 6,000 and 32,000 is the astonishing triple answer.

And as if to prove there is indeed no limit to his renewed energy and ambition, Max - who is, at 71, as intellectually brisk and sprightly as ever, if physically much slower - filled us in on "a long project" with LAMDA students on George Farquhar's early play, Love in a Bottle, the story of an indigent playwright coming from Dublin to London.

There's only been a couple of performances of Love in a Bottle this century, and Max approached it as an interesting apprentice piece; he now thinks of it as a work of genius, and Stella Feehily is filling it out, too, with some extra scenes.

Now, here was a bonus: Max had brought along four of the drama students to regale us with a couple of those scenes and challenge us to separate Farquhar from Feehily (who had abandoned the Garrick to go Christmas shopping). Of course, we couldn't guess at all, Max subtly demonstrating how critics are completely unable to place credit or blame where it's due as they know nothing at all about the art form they review; sly bugger, Max, but darned clever. On the other hand, of course, it could possibly be the case that Feehily is as good a writer as Farquhar, or at least an excellent pasticheur.

He's a great student of the quixotic and arbitrary nature of criticism, Max, prompted to recall a review of Milton Shulman when he took one of his most recent shows, A Dish of Tea With Dr Johnson, to the Arts Theatre in London.

Fifty years earlier, he had directed a Trinity College, Dublin, revue at the same venue and Shulman had proclaimed, "The one good thing about this infantile undergraduate revue is that none of these young people will ever be seen in the professional theatre again." It was therefore, says Max, a particular pleasure to return there. Coriolanus vindicated!

Tags: Michael CoveneyMax Stafford-ClarkCaryl ChurchillRichard BeanStella Feehily


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