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Whipping up a storm

Mary Wakefield talks to Angus Jackson about directing David Hare’s latest play

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

Mary Wakefield talks to Angus Jackson about directing David Hare’s latest play

If I’m never quite content with a glass of water in an interview again, it’s Angus Jackson’s fault. There we were in a soundproofed meeting room on Friday evening, the National Theatre a whirl around us: jazz in the foyer, gossip in the restaurant, Bertolt Brecht in the Olivier. Jackson and I in our box of calm, a black-and-white still of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson for company.

PR enters stage right: ‘Anything to drink?’ I think: if I’m lucky, there might be tea. Jackson says, ‘A large glass of white? Perhaps…’ — he cocks his head — ‘a Sancerre?’ And it’s suddenly clear, before we’ve even begun, what a rare talent Jackson is. If, a few seconds ago, it seemed brave of Nicholas Hytner to choose such a young director for this winter’s ‘it’ play (David Hare’s The Power of Yes), it now seems inspired.

Two great balloons of wine arrive, and we start with a portrait of the director as a young boy. Here’s this angular, articulate, slightly saturnine figure, an upcoming British director of the sort usually described as ‘exciting’. What sort of a child was he? A slightly alarming one, I think. He grew up in Birmingham, the son of a factory worker and a physiotherapist, but he was never one to slouch about in front of Countdown. Physics and double maths A-level, then physics and philosophy at Balliol, all the while directing and producing plays, playing percussion, editing the Cherwell and entering debating competitions. What made you choose directing as a profession? I ask.

‘I didn’t think I was cut out for the world of theoretical physics and…directing seemed right,’ said Jackson. ‘It’s a job for people who don’t fit in anywhere else. So after Oxford, I just got on a train to London with a friend of mine and never came back. We stayed on people’s floors, found a flat and started writing letters asking for work — until we got some.’

In his first job — at the New End Theatre — he discovered Amy Winehouse.

‘I had to find and rehearse two little girls for the show, so I auditioned all these 11- to 13-year-olds — hundreds of them — and cast two. One was this quiet little girl called Claire, one was this crazy live wire called Amy. She was extraordinary. I spent hours and hours with her and she kept trying to matchmake me.’ Was there any indication that she’d go on to be a rock goddess? ‘Yes, definitely. She was this fascinating, uncontrollable creature. But I’ve never seen her since.’ Jackson sounds a bit sad. Perhaps Amy could get in touch?

After Amy: ‘Loads of other stuff. Um, I was at the Bush Theatre for a while as assistant director to Dominic Dromgoole, working on Samuel Adamson’s first play, David Eldridge’s first play, Conor McPherson’s first play in London. It was an amazing time,’ Jackson grins. ‘Then a stretch with Peter Hall doing Stoppard and Chekhov.’ And by his mid-twenties he was, at Patrick Marber’s request, directing Dealer’s Choice at the Birmingham Rep. ‘Which was where I used to go as a child to watch shows.’

What did you learn from working with other directors? Jackson massages his jaw, leans back, says, ‘Nothing really. I mean, you always are the director that you are. You can assist as much as you like, but you remain essentially the same.’ So what sort of director are you? How would theatre people describe you if you weren’t in the room? ‘What sort of a question is that?’ Jackson squirms a bit. ‘Well, Michael Grandage said I provided energy. I certainly don’t mind taking on difficult subjects. I like high-stakes work. I like it when the gloves are off.’

It’s not confidence exactly. Confidence implies complacency. It’s more that Jackson seems kinetic, full of momentum.

He is famous for having the courage to think big in terms of set design: ‘I always like a bit of scale.’ And he isn’t afraid of a fight. Jackson’s biggest break (before this one) was being asked to direct Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen at the National. Just a mention of Kwame’s name, and his face brightens. ‘Have you met Kwame? He’s an adversarial, smart, great guy. We immediately sparked up this combative relationship.’ Jackson sounds like a schoolboy talking proudly about a favourite pal. ‘One time we had an epic argument in the middle of the well in the National backstage. And our stage manager came up to us and said, “I’m going to move you to a room and shut the door. You’re having such a massive row that everybody will think you’ve fallen out.” We were baffled because we were having a great time!’

He mentions (some way into the wine) that he kite-surfs (like windsurfing, but with a big kite) and it seems to sum up his directorial approach: harnessing elemental forces, whipping up a storm to propel the action. Do you tussle with David Hare then? I ask. It seems unlikely. ‘No, but we work very well together. What makes the this show [The Power of Yes] so amazing is that it’s so current. When people hear we’re doing a play about the financial crisis, even if they don’t go to the theatre, they’re burning to talk about it. It’s a corrosive, raw, acid issue. A live one!

‘I like so many things about the play,’ he says. ‘I like the fact that it’s not set in a room with French windows. And I like the language. Even though I’m being inarticulate with you now, I do love language. The play’s like a piece of music.’

Yes, that’s all very well, but is David Hare any good at maths? ‘David refers the maths to me!’ says Jackson. ‘I’m very comfortable when the equations start popping up. But actually we’ve all been working very, very hard to understand the whole thing together. It’s difficult, but we’re all committed. I mean, I asked one of the actors, Pete Sullivan, to do a timeline of the crisis, and he turned up with a 30-foot timeline starting with the founding of the Bank of England! The play is evolving all the time and David is always bringing in sheafs of new pages.’ Doesn’t that annoy the actors? Haven’t they all spent weeks learning their lines? ‘No — they all love it! It’s a dynamic process.’

Jackson drains his glass. I remember a line from the trailer video on The Power of Yes website: ‘Capitalism works when greed and fear are in the correct balance.’ Is it a very anti-capitalist play? I ask cautiously. Is there a banker who suffers some horrible fate? On the tape-recording my voice is a little wonky with drink, but Jackson’s reply is as energised as ever: ‘No! It’s far more interesting than that — it’s an ongoing investigation. A look at how we got to this point.’ And are you guys really going to figure out the root cause of the recession, when even the world’s best economists are struggling? ‘But that’s the great thing!’ says Jackson. ‘No one knows the answer. The journalists don’t know, neither do we. That’s why it’s so powerful. We’re all in this together.’

The Power of Yes previews at the Lyttelton Theatre from 29 September.

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