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The Diary of a Maestro

Meeting Neil Armfield

Cover: September 2010
September 2010Medium length read
 

We are approximately an hour into Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure – first performed in 1604 – when a phone rings on stage. The appliance is lying on the bedside table of a starkly lit Novotel-like hotel room, glass-walled bathroom and toilet included. It occurs to me that if a director invests this much in a water closet, he’s going to make damn sure the investment pays off. And so it comes to pass that Juliet, the young, pregnant lover of Claudio, a citizen of Duke Vincentio’s Vienna, fills a specimen jar with her urine for our viewing pleasure, and later, that prisoner Barnardine slaps down his hairy rear end on the selfsame polymer to provide the excrement with which to smear the glass. Even less politely, he then spews blood to the eardrum-exploding accompaniment of electric guitar. Next to me in the stalls, a smallish man with a cap of thinning hair is scribbling in the dark.

Neil Armfield has been asked by one of his protégés, Benedict Andrews, to look in on the progress of his hallucination on Shakespeare. Armfield’s attendance spawns five pages of neatly written notes. For Armfield it’s just another night at the theatre – his theatre. He would object to my description since Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney’s Surry Hills ‘belongs’ to everyone who works in it: until recently, the theatre paid every employee, from headliner to bit player, parity rates. But Armfield, as Belvoir’s artistic director for the last 15 years, and one of its founders a decade before he assumed that role, is its retiring master. This is not only an assessment of the director’s mild disposition; Armfield will be gone from the place by December.

His afternoon arrival at the theatre, on one day I spend with him, arouses an agitated “Neil’s here!” from somewhere behind a wall. This prompts a constellation of petitioners to throb around him in the corridor. For one thing, the designer of a fat suit requires his guidance. Armfield discovers actor Grant Dodwell, who is testing the said suit; thick padding beneath his Anthony Squires has provided man boobs, as well as that peculiar solid mass between paunch and crotch found on portly men of a certain age. Dodwell is among the cast of Gwen in Purgatory, the creation of young Australian playwright Tommy Murphy and on this day in its third week of rehearsals. What has Armfield to say about the costume and other details displayed for him on an iPhone? Armfield reacts in the way – I come to realise – that is his standard: a face that moves little, a quiet query here, a muted remark there.

The same flatline occurs during a meeting about Armfield’s Diary of a Madman, starring Geoffrey Rush; the revival is to be Armfield’s Belvoir swan song. Three wisps of red wig hair require the director’s comment. Would Geoffrey like to see these in Hawaii (where he is playing a Disney pirate on the Caribbean)? What does Armfield think of the fabrics for the new eiderdown? What about the scatter cushions? What about the actress who isn’t keen on shaving her hair? And how about the costumes for Armfield’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, to be staged in Houston in October? Nothing seems to ruffle the calm, or disturb the impassive bespectacled face, of the artistic director.

The only recognition of his perversely crammed schedule is a small smile and a droll concession. “It’s a show-off day,” he tells me, “we’re actually discussing four shows.” As if studying a peculiar planetary phenomenon, Murphy wonders how it is that Armfield never appears fatigued or over-committed.

The fourth show within Armfield’s ambit, is in fact, where our day begins. Its extended title – The Marriage of Figaro or the Day of Madness – seems germane under the circumstances. In one of Opera Australia’s large rehearsal rooms, Armfield is seated on two office chairs, stacked one on top of the other. He is slight and unassuming in jeans and a short denim jacket. On the long table beside him is a copy of the Beaumarchais play on which Mozart and librettist Da Ponte based the work, a couple of Italian dictionaries and the score, which Armfield admits to following only with difficulty. The director is appraising the stagecraft of the star singers in Mozart’s comedy. The women sport long ‘rehearsal skirts’ over their daywear and the shoes they will wear on stage. But Cherubino, alias mezzo-soprano Sian Pendry, is wearing jeans, as befits her ‘pants role’, and rutting an ironing board. The director advises that the action by the girl-crazy Cherubino should be slower, less frenetic, “as though in a dream”. Around him spins a vivid fantasy. Bartolo, the comically vengeful lawyer, sings out “La vendetta!” as stalactites of spittle hang from his lips. Operatic heart-throb Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose shaved head gives him the air of an extraterrestrial, practises faking a leg injury; the lecherous Count, star baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, learns how to run and crash headlong into the trompe l’oeil set, and Susanna, the spirited maid, tries out fainting.

Armfield suggests various moves and engages in gentle repartee with the cast. He listens patiently to their problems, encapsulated in one singer’s wry announcement: “I am acting and singing at the same time.” There is clearly no tyrant-director in the house. (“He never uses fear and he’s never condescending,” I had been told by Murphy.) A voice beside me, in awe of the gentle man crumpled in denim, damns directors who abuse actors and whispers, “Look at him, he’s like a monk.” A monk who tells me he recently led Susan Sarandon out of a crisis of confidence during Broadway rehearsals of Exit the King, one of his greatest successes. “‘Gentle’ is a good way to describe Neil,” says Murphy, “but that doesn’t explain all of it – because he’s determined.”

On the opera stage, Armfield has directed Mozart, Wagner, Strauss and a series of four operas each by Benjamin Britten and Leoš Janá?ek. Armfield has a particular connection to what he describes as the “psycho-sexual tension” in the highly charged operatic dramas of these last two composers. As a swooning lover of the thunderously original Janá?ek, I feel deep gratitude for Armfield’s part in making the great Czech an indispensable inclusion in the often less-than-adventurous Opera Australia repertoire. Talking to Armfield one day, I make a groupie-like attempt to screw all my admiration into a ball and toss it lovingly in the director’s direction. He is unmoved, playing my compliments with a dead bat.

Exterior calm, a friend of the director tells me, “doesn’t mean there isn’t deep anxiety operating underneath” when it comes to work. Armfield admits that one of the reasons for his departure from Belvoir is his reluctance to face the same harrowing mid-year burden of play reading to decide the next year’s season. Outside of work, a solid group of Armfield friends seems to agree, the director’s life is without detectable order. As fortune would have it, he enjoys a long-standing friendship with arts administrator Mary Valentine, who keeps even closer watch than Grace, his ever-present labrador. “He’s completely chaotic and confused outside the theatre,” she laughs. He is also simultaneously “incredibly laid-back and incredibly particular”, “incredibly frustrating” and an “incredibly strong and good person”. She offers, too, that Armfield is “endlessly curious”, in support of which Valentine cites a lengthy overheard conversation devoted to the colour grey. Also widely reported is the director’s failure to respond to phone calls and other entreaties. Within the theatre, too, communication can be fraught. Decision-making, especially casting and choosing directors, can be agonising for all concerned. “You don’t want time to be a defining thing,” jokes Valentine. Hopeful playwrights submit work for the master’s attention but, according to playwright Louis Nowra, they may have forgotten they ever wrote it by the time the director says “No”.

Tommy Murphy, who has worked with Armfield as assistant director, is chuffed that his lobbying to have Gwen in Purgatory slip into Armfield’s final season has paid off. The 31-year-old’s eponymous nonagenarian is in a purgatory of her family’s devising, isolated in a house on the edges of suburbia. Yet she is not without manipulative skills. She and her Australian family provide familiar territory for Armfield, who was raised in Homebush in Sydney’s west, where his father worked for 40 years at the local biscuit factory. The set is spare, anonymous and dotted with unlabelled removalist’s cartons. As I watch a rehearsal, Armfield allows his actors to interrupt the process, frequently to tell anecdotes or make observations. On one occasion, veteran actor Sue Ingleton is seemingly immobilised by her emotions. “This is terrible,” she says, reflecting on the circumstances in which Peg, her middle-aged character, finds herself – sacrificing her own needs, again, to those of her mother.

At this rehearsal there are myriad details of delivery, movement and positioning to be resolved. “I’ve got to call her to account here,” says Ingleton, trying different registers for her speech. Melissa Jaffer, who plays Gwen, takes herself through variant readings of her character’s stubborn resistance. “I’m very happy for us to go from many angles,” says Armfield. And they do – over and over. The director is walking a path through the set, mapping Peg’s big moment. He rubs his chin and examines a particular spot on the floor through heavy-rimmed glasses. Now he is rising and falling on his toes, as if testing the quality of the boards. To Jaffer: “What’s it like, Melissa, if you don’t sweeten that [line] so much?” The actor immediately responds, recasting the mood. After what feels like perhaps 30 attempted variations of the scene: “I think both of your instincts are so terrific. I think it’s completely on track. I’m just suggesting knocking it about a bit.”

A frequent collaborator, Nowra believes Armfield’s seemingly open approach to rehearsals is, in reality, cannily controlling: “All good directors have to have an element of rat cunning. I have seen Neil with actors, taking them through step by step, inch by inch – where they’re going to turn, what they’re going to say, how they’re going to say it. The actors later think they created the part because Neil doesn’t force the issue … He has a beautiful sense of holding back his ego about this. Neil allows them to think they have created the part, when, many times, he’s just like a gentle cattle dog who’s manoeuvred them there.”

For his part, Armfield aims to “bring people to a common understanding of the play” while “hoping that everyone maintains their individuality”; this, he accepts, is “slightly contradictory”. Winter sunshine is entering through the high warehouse window and marking the floor around the actors. Jaffer moves her hand towards Ingleton. The gesture “looks a little too young”, Armfield says. Peg, on the other hand, “could be more demonstrative” when she finally picks up the house keys – a symbol of her acquiescence – “because it’s great for us to see the glint”. Tiny white-haired Jaffer departs from the script, feeling moved to reflect on her own life: “My mum was just like this.”

Armfield, who is 55, attributes his nuanced eye to being a third child – a witness to the lives of those ahead of him. “I’ve always looked at the behaviour of my family and been very aware of how people have acted at extraordinarily emotional times – how they’ve walked, the tone of voice, the kind of restraint that often also visits at times of greatest pain. I’ve found those kind of apparent contradictions always absorbing.” Being gay extended the viewing distance: “I guess every adolescent grows up with secrets, but the secrets of sexuality seem to be bigger.” As a result, he felt himself “separated from the assumed emotional life in any situation”. In a noisy restaurant, over a late meal after a day of madness, he concludes, “You grow up as more of an observer.”

A store of childhood memories provides a deep echoing well for Armfield’s work. He recalls the death of a cousin, and the visit his family paid to the boy’s mother the morning after: as she walked down the corridor towards them, his aunt was smiling – a smile that was “so full of this terrible experience she’d been through the night before”. Armfield says, “I’ve often thought about that sense of her walking towards us, of us standing on the porch, on the other side of the screen door, and what was held in her walk and on her face.” He describes this period, which coincided with frenetic activity in drama and musical production at high school, as a time when “shadows were stalking the family”.

The year before, on the morning of 3 January 1972 – Armfield states the date with precision – his 22-year-old brother, Ian, left Australia for Europe on the Fairstar ocean liner. He was going away to die. Before his departure, their mother, Nita, asked the eldest of her three sons to sit on her lap one last time. Armfield remembers “the words she used, and the simple way that she held him – the elegance and the rightness of that kind of gesture”. Nita, too, was stalked throughout her life by the cancer that killed her son and that afflicts Armfield’s surviving brother, Ross. Journalist David Marr says his great friend has lived “surrounded by this genetic lottery”. In the face of that, Marr says, “life becomes incredibly important and you don’t mess around with it”. When I ask Armfield if the loss of his brother surfaces in his work, he replies, “It comes up all the time in a sense, and I realise a lot of the work is a kind of mourning.”

I suspect Armfield’s minutely observed recollections are not simply those of a bereaved relative; they are also the memories of someone who, like a writer, instinctively stores images capable of revival and reinterpretation for an audience. Armfield’s unblinking attention renders his direction “almost like choreography”, Tommy Murphy says. “He can be asking an actor to lift their little finger in a particular way and somehow by giving that guidance, he’s also unlocking something much bigger. By directing the actor to move that way, he unlocks the world of the play … he gets the bigger picture.” But finesse takes time. As Armfield’s Gwen rehearsals wore on, Murphy was becoming impatient for a result. The director’s sometimes exasperating punctiliousness was recognised long ago by his friend Patrick White. Having sat through a week’s rehearsals of his own play, The Ham Funeral, White dubbed Armfield’s repetitive and painstaking process “little Neily’s search for meaning”. For those unfamiliar with the acerbic writer’s expressions of affection, this was indeed one.

Although Armfield leaves Belvoir at the end of 2010, his calendar is already marked with a series of dates in foreign opera houses stretching to 2017. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, to name a theatrical monster, beckons. But no more the debilitating trawl through acres of scripts; no more the pressure of the next season. Shedding those burdens, however, means saying goodbye to all the rest. Nowra holds that theatre is his friend’s “playground and children and family”. No longer having them, he believes, is “going to be his great emotional problem”.

On opening night, with patrons decked out in fur and glitter in the expensive seats, Armfield delivered a playful, joy-filled Figaro. His matter-of-fact inclusion of a vacuum cleaner, an ironing-board and a hairdressing helmet in the Countess’s boudoir were sweetly amusing and reminded us that centuries-old follies were very like our own. The production itself was quite unlike Measure for Measure with its shit-icing (an effort I confess to valuing despite its many provocations). Directors such as Andrews, Armfield tells me, are the ones he has encouraged precisely because they may challenge his own theatrical principles. “Everyone’s method of working,” he says, “has its own kind of mystery.” Accompanying the director to his premiere was a member of his extended family. It was ‘Gwen’ – not in purgatory, but in the best seats available in Mozart’s heaven.

Gwen in Purgatory will be performed until 19 September at Belvoir St Theatre, The Marriage of Figaro at the Sydney Opera House until 23 October.

About the author Jana Wendt
Jana Wendt is a former TV journalist and columnist for the Bulletin, and the author of A Matter of Principle and Nice Work.