Michael Coveney: Critics confer with Max in the Garrick
Six years after his debilitating stroke, and accompanied by his heroic wife, Irish playwright Stella Feehily, who has nursed him and guided him back to the coal face of British theatre, Max was in storming form.
These kinds of social gatherings - like the Christmas Day truce in the trenches - used to happen frequently at the Royal Court; Max uses them now to both renew and dissolve hostilities, spelling out harsh realities, the incompetence of the funding bodies and the uphill struggle he still wages.
It is astonishing that someone of his distinction has to go around, cap in hand, in order to pursue his vocation and shake up new writing and new theatre in his Out of Joint set-up, the company he formed when finally ousted from the Royal Court twenty years ago. His current grant from the Arts Council allows for just a paltry £120,000 for production costs over two years (with reserves in place of £434,000).
Since producing Richard Bean's brilliant Irish terrorist comedy, The Big Fellah, he's had to revive two of his own biggest hits, Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, and Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good - the latter in its 25th anniversary production and coming, weirdly, in the New Year to the new St James Theatre - and make plans for a new Richard Bean the National has passed on to him.
Not only that: he has reluctantly resorted to wheezes, such as charging members of the public an admission fee of £5 for attending rehearsals, or doing workshops in schools for £150 a session. Is this a dignified position for the most distinguished director of new writing in our theatre over the past thirty years? Do we not owe Max a modicum of support and investment on the basis of his track record alone?
Even if we do, that's not how public funding has ever worked in this country. No-one on the Arts Council ever said: my goodness, we have Peter Brook and Joan Littlewood, we must find a way of making sure they stay and work in our theatre for the next twenty years. It's the institution, not the talent, the Arts Council likes, the established company, the sure-fire project, the safe pair of hands and the touring small-scale product of play titles that are brand names or Shakespeare.
So this lunch was arranged by smooth, long-haired West End producer Karl Sydow (Max von Sydow's son), basically a good guy with a taste for the new, who's also on the Out of Joint board; he'd just come off a plane from New York where he had been setting up (possibly) a Dylan Thomas show with Terry Hands, former artistic director of the RSC now running the Theatre Clwyd in Mold.
Over drinks, Max updated us on his adventures, his recovering health, his Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, rugby tie (he fell into the theatre when he wandered into the old Traverse in Edinburgh on a rugby tour with Trinity) and Stella sang one of the beautiful Irish folk songs played in the background of Thomas Kilroy's translation of The Seagull directed by Max - years after its Royal Court premiere - recently in the US.
Smoked salmon and guinea fowl in the Irving Room - Max reminded us that people went to the theatre to see actors, not playwrights; the room is named for Henry Irving, not Irving Wardle, alas - was pleasant prelude to the serious business of arranging Out of Joint's next season for them.
The plays on offer? Stella Feehily's NHS-in-crisis drama, This May Hurt A Bit; Richard Bean's dystopian play of revolution and paedophilia (oh no, not again) in the wake of the burning of the Bounty, Pitcairn; a new drama about the gay Welsh rugby player, Gareth Thomas (suggested title - "Up and Under Milk Wood"?); Witches by Rebecca Lenkiewicz; and George Farquhar's rarely seen Love in a Bottle, a late 17th century classic described by Max as a serious play, not a Restoration romp.
After one or two departures - Max failed to appreciate that journalists don't often "do" lunch any more, or at least not on this sort of scale; so it was an early bath for Henry Hitchings, Patrick Marmion and Richard Brooks of the Sunday Times - we settled into teams and set about forging a season.
Michael Billington and Sarah Hemming cast Michael Sheen as Gareth Thomas and spoke of a supporting cast of dejected remnants of the Welsh rugby team; Jane Edwardes and Charles Spencer looked to be on a certain winner with their well-argued financial plans and star casting; but I prevailed triumphantly (with prodding from an Out of Joint executive) - the bottle of bubbly was mine! - with plans for a devastating double of raunchy topless Tahitian witches in the NHS play (I'd condensed two, maybe three, new plays into one, on economic grounds) and locker room beefcake with reference to the Royal Court classic, The Changing Room, in the rugby drama.
My sets were minimal, my casting ruthlessly pared to the bone, but I'd had sympathetic noises from Eileen Atkins for the female lead in the NHS/Bean/witches play, and she'd responded most positively to the idea of young men with their shirts off hanging around back stage every night. The cast of sixteen would have eight actors doubling up, plus Eileen, and she would be written into the rugby play as Gareth Thomas's homophobic mother, although Pam Ferris had already expressed an interest.
I was sorry not to make room for the Farquhar, which is slated to be work-shopped with drama students at LAMDA, but I suggested this be worked on more fully for the second season, with a score by Adam Cork, while Cork's London Road colleague Alecky Blythe is drafted in to work with Max on whatever can be salvaged from the NHS topless witches play.
Our costing on the back of an envelope amounted to £183,000, which included a £10,000 sponsorship deal with the University of Hertfordshire where Max teaches, co-production input from the Royal Court and the National Theatre of Wales amounting possibly to £50,000 and a box office income prediction of £16,000 across a five-week tour.
With a bit of luck and a following wind, this means that the season would cost £100,000 in all, which means that the reserves, perhaps in excess of £100,000, would be called on by the time the next season was due to be arranged. Out of Joint in addition raises bits and bobs such as £35,000 from friends (Max would ideally like to grade these in three categories: friends, best friends, and "fuck-buddies"), rehearsal room hire and sale of books and scripts.
Over the coffee and chocolates it occurred to me that my analysis and figures might not survive the scrutiny of Graham Cowley, the Out of Joint executive director, who was away on other business, and I pointed out that review coverage might be tart, not to say downright unfriendly, from my defeated colleagues Billington and Edwardes, who seemed particularly unhappy with the outcome.
Spencer, who is a club member, took Jane and Sarah off to show them the coffee room, while Billington dawdled in the corridor with sportswriter friend and colleague Michael Henderson, who was elsewhere in the club on another assignment. It was time to catch the bus home before memories - or indeed a re-run - of too long, ruinous afternoons "under the stairs" kicked in.