all across the universe
Would you like to react to this message? Create an account in a few clicks or log in to continue.

Playwright Caryl Churchill

Go down

Playwright Caryl Churchill Empty Playwright Caryl Churchill

Post  eddie Mon Feb 06, 2012 8:53 pm

How we made: Max Stafford-Clark and Lesley Manville on Top Girls

'The play nearly ended in disaster. I had to fire the lead in the last week of rehearsal and recast it'

Interviews by Melissa Denes, Monday 16 January 2012 21.31 GMT

Playwright Caryl Churchill Lesley-Manville-far-right-007
Surreal dinner party … Lesley Manville (far right) in Caryl Churchill’s play, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, at the Royal Court theatre in 1982. Photograph: Sue Adler

Max Stafford-Clark, director

Caryl Churchill was a writer I very much wanted to involve in the Royal Court, where I was then artistic director. We'd done a few things together, and she had this idea for a play that opened with mythical women from history having a dinner party. The dialogue was overlapping, with all these dashes written into the script, a technique she'd pioneered in an earlier play, Three More Sleepless Nights. I said: "Caryl, this is terrific, but you've written it for a cast of 17." In 1982, a cast of 10 was pushing the boat out financially. Caryl said that was fine - we could double up, with the actors playing two or more parts – and so we rehearsed with a cast of seven.

It was very very daunting for the actors, particularly that first scene: they were speaking over one another and playing these strange characters from history [Pope Joan, the explorer Isabella Bird, Japanese concubine Lady Nijo, Chaucer's Patient Griselda, and Dull Gret, a character in a Bruegel painting]. That was the biggest challenge, getting the rhythms of that right. You're presenting the audience with a coup de theatre that has to be sustained for 40 minutes, bringing realism to surrealism. How much funny business can Dull Gret get away with? How do the characters respond when the pope walks in? The play was an emotional jigsaw puzzle – the surreal dinner party, the slick world of the 1980s office, a little girl's backyard – and making all that fit was important. It nearly ended in disaster: I had to fire somebody in the penultimate week and recast it.

We played to good notices, but not raves. Then it transferred to Joe Papp's Public Theater in New York, where it was shamelessly marketed as a London hit, and we were able to bring it back to London as a New York hit – which it was. The power (or tyranny) of a producer in New York should not be underestimated, and Joe Papp taught me as much about producing as Bill Gaskill taught me about directing.

I remember one day the doorman at the theatre saying, "Morning, Max. Joe likes the show," and going into the rehearsal to find all the actors capering about because the doorman had given them the same news.

Directing Top Girls was like being behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce: it's a wonderful machine that works, whether you can drive it or not. Of course, you never know when something's going to be a hit. If someone had told me in 1982 that this would be considered one of the 100 best plays of the century, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Posterity decides these things for you: there's no accounting for it, but it's very good when it works out in your favour.

Lesley Manville, actor

We only had four weeks to rehearse. I remember Max saying on the first day: "Look, you're not just a random bunch of actresses. I've got you together because we're going to discover what this play is." He admitted it was a bit of a mystery – it was a great show of confidence in us. Nine days before we were due to open, he fired Lynn Dearth, who was playing the lead, Marlene. That shocked us, because it was so late in the day, but you have to credit him for not giving up; I think he felt he had been neglecting the rest of us. He very quickly cast Gwen Taylor as Marlene, who astonishingly came in and learned it in nine days.

That first scene is a technical nightmare: there can be three, four or five of you speaking at once. You don't just learn your lines; you have to learn the other actors' lines so you know where to interrupt, too. Max had to be like a conductor: one actor would build to a climax, while the others went sotto voce, and we had to work out which lines were dominant. I played Patient Griselda, Nell and Janine (10 years later, I played Marlene in an anniversary revival). Famously, Max gets his actors on their feet very late in the rehearsal process; most of the time is spent working through the script. We used his technique of using transitive verbs to indicate our character's every thought change or intention – "I am saying this to titillate, or to mollify, or to cajole" – which makes you commit to playing it in a certain way. It makes the foundations of a scene very solid. You can then have good nights and bad nights, but you will never, ever dip to a point where you have lost a grip on the play - everything is in place. It was punishing, but exhilarating.

It was also very bonding: I made friends for life, and am still close to Lindsay Duncan and Deborah Findlay. We went to New York and had interesting times: I discovered brandy alexanders. At 26, I was the youngest: I spent a lot of time listening. I had left school at 16, gone to stage school – and, until I was 22, I hadn't really played anyone but myself. Then in 1979, I made a film with Mike Leigh called Grownups, which went out on the BBC and overnight this new career opened up. The Royal Court asked me to do a young writers festival, I met Max, and it was the start of a sensational decade. I had been in my comfort zone, and suddenly I had to rise to the challenge.

I got so much from working with those actors on Top Girls: they were all fabulous women, so clear, so powerful. I thought they were magnificent.

• This article was amended on 24-25 January 2012 at the request of Max Stafford-Clark. In the original, he recollected that Caryl Churchill first wrote Top Girls' opening scene in the form of monologues, which she later cut together in an overlapping form after a conversation in which he expressed a view that monologues-only would prove too difficult. Max Stafford-Clark now thinks that while his "30-year-old memory is of a conversation with Caryl in the Chelsea Physic Garden in which we discussed monologues for women", the script was actually delivered in the form of overlapping conversations.
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 68
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Back to top

- Similar topics

Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum