During the coronavirus lockdown Herald arts finds out how local creatives are dealing with their downtime in regular series Arts In Retreat. Here Phillip Breen, director of The Comedy of Errors at the Royal Shakespeare Company which is currently postponed, shares his thoughts.
Tell us about what you do, and how you got started as an artist.
I’m a freelance theatre director and playwright.
The short answer is that I got started in the profession because I had a mentor, who was patient, tough, kind, direct and at times savage, precisely at a time in my life when I needed it. Then he believed in me and gave me a job, first as his assistant, then as a director in his theatre. He was also probably the most brilliant man I have ever met. His name was Terry Hands and so much exists today that wouldn’t exist had he not touched it. Buildings, theatres, careers in the theatre; lives basically. The Comedy of Errors will be the first professional production of mine in the UK that he will not see and thoroughly note. And maybe give a small word of praise. Which I love.
Terry died in February. I thank God that we met, and I am unbearably sad at the moment that he’s not on the end of the phone to talk with equal passion about the two most important things in life, theatre and Liverpool Football Club.
In a way, I’m pleased he didn’t live to see the RSC close its doors for the coronavirus, it was one of the loves of his life.
Where you spending the lockdown, and who are you socially isolating with?
I am spending the lockdown with my girlfriend Eva [the writer Eva Rice] in our place near Maidenhead.
How are you staying connected with the outside world?
Phone. Computer. Window.
Are you managing to do any kind of work?
I’ve never been busier. There’s not enough hours in the day. I have a commission to write for the Everyman in Liverpool, which I’m joyously tearing in to. Prep for a production of Anna Karenina, which I also adapted, which is due to go in to rehearsal in Tokyo at the end of June (no longer aside the Olympics though, which is sad). I’ve a thing to write for UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). And Eva and me have written two musicals together, which have been commissioned and are ready to go in to workshop, she’s written the songs and I have written the script.
I’m prepping a new play by the great Stefan Golaszewski (who wrote Mum on BBC2). It’s been a great time to GET THINGS DONE. Then there’s the small matter of The Comedy of Errors, that I have had THE MOST FUN making, and I’m very excited about it. It will be on at some stage, so we’re devising ways of keeping this brilliant company prepared, ready for the off whenever we get the word from top brass, and maybe finding ways of sharing things with an audience while on lockdown. Watch this space.
What – if any – are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown/isolation?
It’s all positive as far as I’m concerned. The main thing is that this will pass. There will be a world on the other side of this, that might just be a bit better than the old one.
I’m getting to do most of the fun bits of my job, the dreaming bits, see more of my girlfriend, keep fit, sleep. The downsides are there are no rehearsals. But that’s because there are no audiences. But, sad though that it is, that might also be a positive. It might be good for us to miss each other for a bit. It might be good for people to spend a while watching people mumble demotic in to a camera in 15 second scenes, so when they sit with an audience again and watch a live actor speak the poetry of great dramatic writers, they will be re-thrilled by it. As if for the first time. And for us too. It’ll do us good to miss it for a bit. To not have an audience for a bit. To think about the incredible privilege we have of playing for our audience. To think about that moment at 7.14pm, at Stratford, where there is a room full of people sat there willing us, desperate for us to be brilliant and the stage is empty and the musicians are tuning up, and we step under the lights and play a play like we’ve never done it before.
It’s an exciting time for actors and audiences to reset their relationship a bit. To see the deep and ancient beauty of actors, plays and audiences. Five hundred people sitting in a room together meditating on what is TRUE. Perhaps scrape off the barnacles of the culture wars that have blighted the hull of theatre’s ship. This is a moment for us in the theatre to look REALLY hard about touching EVERY soul, not just the ones that have the same opinions as us. Maybe for a period we’ll focus on what IS true and what IS common to us all, rather than on what OUGHT to be true and what divides us.
I think people all over the country will see actors rejuvenated desperate to play for audiences. You’ll see heart and soul and some thrilling nights. Hopefully everyone will feel less inclined to want to tell people things, perhaps we’ll feel less like the little gods of our own digitally constructed realities, because a virus affects everybody. What a silly position that is for people to take. What more stark reminder could there be that we are all part of the same world? We should keep that flame alive in our work.
Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation?
I’m very lucky. I’m working with Eva Rice, Stefan Golaszewski, Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, David Peace, Bill Shankly, Tolstoy, Katherine Rundell, Jilly Cooper, all those actors in the current (vintage) RSC, the brilliant academics like Carol Rutter and James Shapiro who help us understand so much. So I feel very entertained and very nourished.
What book would you recommend?
One book? Red or Dead by David Peace. He wrote the Red Riding Trilogy and the Damned United. If the Damned United (his controversial book on Brian Clough) is a diaboliad, then Red or Dead is about a hagiography. It’s a book about the life of Bill Shankly, who built the modern Liverpool Football club. He took Liverpool from a mid-table second division team to being the champions of England. It’s about the obsession that is required to do that, and it’s about what happens when that is taken away. The second half of the book is about what happens when Bill Shankly no longer has Liverpool Football to run. What that obsessive mind does when he doesn’t have a focus. It’s like an epic working class King Lear or Paradise Lost. Liverpool’s rise as a cultural epicentre of football and rock and roll in the 60s and early 70s mirrors Shankly’s rise, and Liverpool and Shankly are screaming at the Gods on the blasted heath by the early eighties. It’s not about football. It’s just the setting. It’s about ambition. competition, love, obsession, the reasons we get up in the morning. It’s a masterpiece. You get the football fix too.
I’m also reading the Hagakure (the ancient manual for the Samurai) – it’s full of good advice on getting through difficult times.
This Country, BBC 3. All the good stuff.
Paddy Cunneen’s brilliant compositions for The Comedy of Errors. And Schubert. The piano trios. If Schubert’s not on in heaven, they can stick it.
Any other tips for not going stir crazy?
Be ruthlessly honest about what you need and what you enjoy. Ask simply for what you need. And do the thing you enjoy. My mate, who’s a doctor, reckons that most mental stress can be addressed by eating well, sleeping well, doing some exercise, staying hydrated. So I run. And drink a lot of water. Running helps any situation.
Also, this is part of life. Being unhappy shouldn’t overly concern one (that’s in the samurai manual). Otherwise how would we know what happiness is?
What will be the first thing you do when self-isolation is lifted?
Go to rehearsals/Tokyo (whatever comes first). Probably mourn the period of self-isolation and have a night in.
What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?
I hope it’ll be the end of the bone-headed ‘culture wars’. The end of our childish obsession with purity. I’ve been really impressed with how much more adult and responsible all the public figures are being, what they do when they HAVE to tell people things they don’t want to hear, what happens when they HAVE to speak to EVERYONE in the country. (Like it or not Owen Jones has got to live in the same country as Jeremy Clarkson). I hope this new fashion for being an adult, understanding that some things just ARE difficult and nuanced and best left to people who know what they’re talking about. I hope taking responsibility will catch on. I hope that we demand more adulting, and say less, and listen more, prize knowledge, cut our politicians some slack, help them be better. Make it a better place for them to work. Let’s have a better relationship with difficulty, nuance and things we don’t understand.
My sister and my cousin work for the NHS in Liverpool. One’s a bed manager and one’s a physio. They go in to work – risking their lives for low wages – and they pay high parking costs to private car park operators. They get shouted at by folk. They don’t have a coffee room, but they do get sold coffee. But they are determined to work. There are a loads of little things to be done that could make their lives easier. One hopes it’s not only large scale death that prompts people to demand that of their politicians. That can be done.
See this week’s Stratford Herald – out Thursday – when actor Adrian Edmondson will be our Artist In Retreat.