In conversation with
by Alice Saville
photography | Mike Hoban
“I was snatched out of a virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel,” begins Tennessee William’s essay, A Streetcar Named Success, as he records the transformative effect of his first play The Glass Menagerie’s wild popularity. Sickened by the comfortable excesses of success, he decided that “security is a kind of death,” and retreated to Mexico to struggle once more, writing A Streetcar Named Desire. Benedict Andrews’ success has been longer in the brewing, but his restless willingness to keep struggling, keep moving is clear in the list of countries he spans. While living in Reykjavik – chosen in almost polar opposition to Australia, where he was born and made his name as a director – he’s flung out a wild series of productions of operas and plays in Berlin, Sydney, Copenhagen, and – most recently – London’s Young Vic theatre, where his production of Tennessee William’s Streetcar is due to open this summer.
Andrews is well prepared: he directed the play at Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin last year, laying out what he calls “the raw, brutalist sketch underneath this production. I wanted the play not to hide behind the Southern accents and nostalgia, so we did it without the sound and perfume of the poetry, and free of the pretense that the actors were anything other than German.” But in London, in a production that stars Gillian Anderson as the fading, cantankerous Blanche DuBois, “it’s really interesting to clear that approach away and think about the very special sound of Tennessee William’s voice.” The contrast between the two approaches is something that’s “encoded in the fabric of the play. It’s a war of theatrical style – Blanche Dubois says ‘I don’t want realism. I want magic!’ His plays aren’t documentary realism. He was a poet, and the worlds he invented were suffused with this poetry and the sound of the text in the mouth, and the incredible accent of the South. The task for me is not to allow that romance to become the route to a kind of nostalgia or fakery.”
It’s hard to imagine the twin evils of nostalgia and fakery being allowed to menace Andrews’ famously unsparing direction. In autumn last year he’d been directing Macbeth as part of a cycle of Verdi's Shakespeare operas – each of the three with a different director, but using the same stripped-down box set. He explains: “Nicola Raab’s is classical and extremely elegant, Peter Langdal's is full of warmth and joy and humour and comedy, and that bursting-with-life quality I think Falstaff should have, and then mine [a slightly rueful, abashed quality tinges his voice] is...rambunctious, very raw, nightmarish, psychological, violent. I think that reflects our personalities as artists."
There's a stereotype of opera singers as intractable divas, and choruses as famously reluctant to stand for long periods, or negotiate sloped stages – but Andrews insists “I certainly don’t tread lightly. I’m very demanding, and I ask them to be demanding of themselves; the best of them are hungry for that. With actors you can get lost and explore – the rehearsal period is like a turning of the soil. You don’t know what will be there, so you're searching and nurturing and you hope that at the end there’s some kind of truth there. Opera is already beautiful, so the question is how to play with that, how to step it up. It’s a very different challenge."
I was curious about how Andrews came to accept this different challenge. He explains that “opera is a big part of my life now, and a central part of my practice – it’s a turbo-charged version of what I’ve done in theatre as a director.” But it’s also a question of exciting, lucrative opera directorial roles coming to find him – seeming to contradict himself, he goes on to say that “although opera’s been elbowing its way more and more into my life, being in the theatre, directing and working with actors – that’s really where I come from and what I will always be doing.” His voice fills with a new affection and warmth as he describes his most recent theatre show for the Sydney Theatre Company, Jean Genet’s dark and murderous melodrama The Maids, which will transfer to New York this August as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. “It’s a Chinese box with minute layers of reality and fantasy. Two sisters are obsessed with their mistress, and within the piece they play out moments they’ve had with her in a kind of nightly murderous ritual. In some ways it’s a meditation on acting and actresses, so having women who I think are two of the greatest living actresses – Cate Blanchett and Isabel Huppert – playing those roles together was fascinating. When I’ve worked with Cate before, when we did Richard II, she was the one who really led the ensemble, but here there were two queens sharing the space – it was a beautiful privilege being in the room.”
Andrews’ association with Cate Blanchett first flourished at the Sydney Theatre Company, where she took her first steps as a professional actress – long before Hollywood called her away she played Patient Griselda in a 1992 production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. He was resident theatre director there from 2000-03, and Blanchett more recently shared the role with her husband Andrew Upton from 2008-13, after moving back to live in Sydney in 2006. I wonder how connected Andrews feels, a decade on and living oceans away, to the city’s theatre scene. He explains, with a slight sense of discomfort, that “I’m less and less part of it – I still feel a connection with the body of work I made there, and can see its legacy, and that there are really exciting things happening there, but I’ve necessarily had to step away more and more.” Part of this is a result of his choice to make his home in Iceland and to become immersed in theatre and opera in Northern Europe and Britain. But there’s also a sense of turning away from Sydney’s theatre culture. He staged a play he wrote, Every Breath, there to astonishingly vitriolic reviews, with The Sydney Morning Herald tearing into its most famous theatrical son for writing a work that “leaves its audience feeling little but sympathy for its performers...[it] gives those who think Sydney’s theatre scene is being held hostage by auteur-wankers a clip full of told-you-so ammunition.”
Andrews is frustrated that these responses “seemed wildly divergent to reactions outside Sydney – the play has since been translated into several other languages, and casts and directors have talked passionately about it. I don’t know if it’s about a suspicion of new writing that’s more formally adventurous – they almost seemed to be demanding from the play a very simple, soap opera kind of resolution.” He also addresses, cautiously, the idea that this might be “tall poppy syndrome – it’s like they’re punishing me for writing plays too.” But what comes across most strongly to an outsider’s eye is a kind of social conservatism in the play’s reception, a distaste for its nudity and masturbation scenes that could be associated with the right-leaning political shift in Australia today. As it is, Andrews explains that “for my whole adult life I’ve looked to Britain and the Royal Court, which has nurtured some of the most formally adventurous plays anywhere. I don’t want all my plays to premiere outside English – when I was starting out I was so hungry to read plays that didn’t look like other plays, by authors like Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp.”
These in-yer-face stylistic influences are associated with the 1990s theatre scene that found something nasty in the kitchen sink, and flung it at an unwitting, and often very, very angry British public. Years on, Andrews’ position on the (far more accepting) London theatre scene is respected and ingrained. His wildly successful Three Sisters opened at the Young Vic in 2012 to rave reviews and long runs despite, or more likely in part because of, its reduction of the sisters’ forest to an immense pile of mud, its furious blasts of Pussy Riot, and its irreverent approach to the text. In it Solyony says “Why did God give women orgasms? So they’d have something else to moan about,” and Masha snaps “What the fuck does that mean?” It’s exciting to imagine Andrews taking a similarly rough-and-tumble approach to A Streetcar Named Desire, to imagine a GCSE-set text being lit on fire in front of hundreds of cheering South London students. But the fear of “nostalgia and fakery” still looms over a production that, unlike Three Sisters, comes with a ready-made, richly scented text that can’t be translated and wrestled into shape. Blanchett has called his rehearsals “muscular – brutal, even,” but quoting this back to Andrews, he responds that “as much as being muscular, I always wanted to get into the nerve system of the writer, and to find the text raw and present.”
Tennessee Williams, in the essay often published as a foreword to the play, wrote that “the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies.” Benedict Andrews is ready for the fight.
This article first appeared in the Bottoms Up issue of Auditorium | Spring 2014
Benedict Andrews' portraits photographed exclusively for ©Audiorium by Mike Hoban