Henrietta Bredin talks to Simon McBurney about his latest challenge: doing Beckett for the first time
I am standing in Simon McBurney’s kitchen, discussing pigs (he’s not only kept them but also slaughtered them, butchered them and made over 20 different sorts of salami), memory and language (both capacious and exact in his case), watching him brew coffee (freshly ground, delectably strong), grill toast and spread marmalade (home-made, dark and delicious) and realising that his insatiably curious intellect, his grace and economy of movement are as compelling in a domestic setting as they are on stage.
With Complicité, the company he founded in the early 1980s, he has devised, directed and performed in works that have exploded people’s preconceived ideas of what theatre should be, expanding imagination and perception with performances that have been visually startling, mentally stimulating and, frequently, wildly, deliriously funny.
Now he is submitting himself to the minutely detailed instructions provided by Samuel Beckett in Endgame. ‘Text is where I come from,’ he says. ‘I grew up in a house without a television and, as a result, I was always reading. People talk about the visual nature of the pieces that I make and I think that comes from the imaginative engagement you have if you do a lot of reading. Also, my mother used to write plays for us children to perform, and, living in Cambridge, a university town, there were frequent student productions, of Shakespeare in particular, that required children. My school did a lot of Shakespeare, too, so before I even got to university I think I had performed in 20 or 25 Shakespeare plays. I was steeped in the language and never found it difficult. I can’t actually remember a year of my life when I wasn’t performing a piece of theatre.
‘Now I find that performing someone else’s text is an incredible liberation. Many of the pieces I’ve made I’ve written myself and, while that gives you a great freedom, at the same time it imposes an horrendous restriction, in that you have to create and select and distil the material, working out where it gets a bit slack, tightening, balancing. What is wonderful with a work like Endgame is that Beckett’s text and stage directions appear to be so prescriptive but, when you keep within those parameters, you feel as if the choices are infinite. You simply have to give yourself up to him. You say right, I’m going to do this on the assumption that I think he was a fairly intelligent man, I’m not going to question that fact and I’m going to assume that he meant every single word he wrote down.
‘He first wrote the play in French and then, translated into English, he revised it about a dozen times before reaching a final version. It’s so distilled that it forces your imagination to be very disciplined but at the same time powerfully intent.’
McBurney’s gaze and concentration are so powerfully intent that you can almost hear the crackle of circuitry as ideas spark in his brain. He speaks in perfectly formed sentences, which he occasionally retracts and re-embarks upon if he feels they are not sufficiently well formulated. And he is the only person I have met under the age of 75 who naturally and unhesitatingly says ‘an horrendous’. With unerring timing, I ask him about the richness and precision of Beckett’s language just as he takes a mouthful of toast.
‘Mmm, yes. He plays with the sound of words as well as their meaning — the feeling in the mouth. There’s an exchange about seeds and whether they’ve sprouted and the word “sprout” keeps being repeated and it becomes this extraordinary object in the mouth of the actors: “Have your seeds sprouted? Have you scratched around to see if they’re going to sprout?”’ (He’s pronouncing every word with as much relish as he is applying to the crunching of toast.) ‘And when we came off stage the other night, Mark Rylance looked at me and said, “That was like jazz.”’
It’s a good analogy. The two actors haven’t performed together before and they are like a pair of highly skilled improvising musicians, tossing riffs of dialogue from one to the other. For three of the four actors in the play — McBurney, Rylance and Miriam Margolyes — it’s also a first encounter with Beckett. I imagine them during rehearsal, hurling themselves at the text, gnawing at it, tearing bits off and giving them a good chew, just to work out, by constantly saying it, how to deliver the text and give it its full meaning.
A bark of laughter. ‘Exactly. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy doing very much. I find it extremely difficult to make decisions in advance because I think that being ready for anything to happen when you approach a piece of theatre is absolutely key to bringing it alive. It’s to do with leaving space for the light to come in. If you’re too rigid, if you prescribe too much, there isn’t enough space. And that’s a paradox with Beckett because in so many ways everything is prescribed. You’re told where to go, how many steps to take, even whether to say things violently or vehemently or wearily. But those notes are like the dynamic markings in a score. If you think it’s too prescriptive to be told to play a chord fortissimo you’re missing the point. The precision of the instruction reveals layer upon layer of meaning and resonance.’
I wonder if this driving determination to be open to impulse, to be endlessly curious, can be a frightening business.
McBurney sits bolt upright. ‘It can be absolutely terrifying. I get extremely frightened and I always imagine that anything I embark upon is going to be a failure. It’s exacerbated by being in charge, having to bring everybody else along with me. Sometimes when people come into this process they find it too alarming; the notion that the captain of the ship has no idea whether America is in this direction or that direction. They want reassurance and I can’t give it. But I do have confidence in the act of investigation, of trying to understand. And I also, in my background, have an incredibly strong grounding in the practicalities of the theatre. I know what will work.
‘I do sometimes ask myself why I am so interested in these explorations and I think it’s to do with an insatiable desire for beauty. Only by exploring, by questing, can you find the new and the beautiful, and that maybe is a little dangerous. My father was an archaeologist and he had a compulsive curiosity and fascination with the deep past, a constant investigation of who we are. Beckett interrogates that issue perfectly and so to me it feels an absolute and natural extension of things I’ve always thought about. I feel quite at home, completely at home.’
Endgame is at the Duchess Theatre.