Simon (fallow was having a bad day: ‘the worst so _far’ he said. We had just come from Scottish ()pera‘s rehearsal room where (‘allow is directing [)ie l’letlermaus in which he will make his British debut as an opera director. Even my inexperienced eye could see that directing 33 metnbers of the chorus in an anarchic party scene would tax the tnost resilient temperament.
‘lt would never happen in a play.‘ said (‘allow controlling down his exasperation. ‘ln a play they’d all have lines.‘ We had moved on to the Baby (irand cafe and ('allow turned to the two pots of tea for sustenance. By an oversight of the waiters. both contained hot water. 'Ah. an innovation.‘ he said dryly.
In his book Being an Actor ( ‘allow was openly critical about how the theatre was ‘organised entirely round the will of directors' and how we suffered from what is commonly called ‘director's theatre.‘ But if he is worried that he is guilty of some of the directorial faults he complained of. he doesn't show it.
‘l'm not a very permissive director. Sometimes I can see very clearly how to do it and they can't and I‘m quite capable of trying to push actors too strongly in a certain direction because I believe it is the right one.‘
l'nderlying what he says however is a sense that some deeper need is being frustrated. ‘What I long to do is to work iii tremendous detail. to get right behind the work. and to work with the actors so that the piece slowly becomes theirs. so it really belongs. It's very hard to remain open to everyone‘s input when you have a big crowd scene like this afternoon‘s.‘
His exacting nature as a director springs perhaps from what he calls his ‘compulsive temperament.’ ‘()nce I get goingon something I can't leave it alone. That includes alcohol or anything you care to mention. But it‘s not an addictive thing. When I decide to stop. I just stop.'
Watching him during rehearsals ('allow. with his stocky build. curly hair. beard and single earring. looks more like something otit of ( 'armen than [)ie l-letlermaus. characterised as it is by buoyant. swirling waltzes and its lively. flirtatious mood.
‘When they first asked me to do it I said no. One had suffered so much in those dreadful woozy productions of l’letlermaus which bore no possible relation to life. They had no organic sense. just a sort of mishmash of numbers and gags. Horrible. And so middleaged. Btit I‘ve always loved the music and listening to it again closely I thought it's not middleaged. it's really sharp. funny. sexy music.‘
He decided too. in his clear- minded way. that l’letlermaus was a realistic piece. "l'hat was my decision. and it‘s not subject to negotiation.‘ Looking carefully at the plot. with its bright social life. its indiscretions and liasions. its brushes with the police and the law. he reasoned ‘it's really a story of Viennese . . .yuppies‘.
Abandoning an early impulse to set it in contemporary New York. he decided to set it in modern day
A man with many strings to his bow -— actor. director. writer— Simon Callow is now taking on Strauss‘s strings. with his British opera directing debut. He told Sally Kinnes why his updated [)ie l’ledermaus suits Glasgow 1988.
(ilasgow with a newly translated libretto by Kit Hesketh Harvey (of Kit and the Widow). ‘I thought why not let the audience experience what the audience in Vienna experienced. 'l‘hemselveson stage.’
(‘allow is insistent that the yuppie image fits (ilasgow. declaring astonishment at the city‘s recent transformation. ‘Fifteen years ago it was quite a different city. It always had incredible spunk and courage and energy but it was desperately depressed and violent. There was nowhere like this’ he says. a sweeping gesture taking in the urbane. Coffee-house atmosphere of the Baby (irand. "l'his is a completely yuppie place. but I like it.‘ He turns to observe it more closely. ’But I suppose I’m a yuppie . . .of sorts. . .‘
His voice trails off and I became conscious of a picture on the wall of one of Peter Howson's working class heavies. an aggressive reminder of the other side of the city. (ilasgow it seems. at least in the popular imagination. has gone from depression to yuppiedom without any ofthe intervening stages.
‘What's great about (ilasgow.‘ says (‘allow as though explaining this problem. ‘is that it‘s not trying to make itself into another city. 'I‘hank (iod. What‘s going on is a tremendous amount of renovation. and that's what‘s so thrilling. to see the old (ilasgow emerge frotn beneath the grime.‘ He also draws parallels between (ilasgow and Vienna; its social mix. its love of gossip. its beautiful architecture.
‘Every day I walk to work along the
river. under Kelvinbridge and there is this extraordinary little bar with trees hanging over the water. You could be in Zagreb. He enunciates the word with characteristic emphasis. careful to give the word its exact weight and betraying his long years ofbeing an actor.
(‘allow is best known for his stage work. notably for Amadeus and. more recently for Faust. His film work has been restricted to smaller supporting roles and he tells against himself the story of how he was asked to be in A Room with a View. fully expected to be cast as the dashing young lead. and was asked instead to play a rather portly vicar. ln television. though he insists the medium is full of ‘really (lull people' he has achieved considerable success with his role as the amiable young fogey in ( 'ltanee in a Million. who is the repeated victim of coincidence.
His current workload is formidable; after Feldermaus he goes directly to the National to direct one Alan Bennett play and act in another. he has written a film script which is due to be shot next year. and he is writing ‘on the hoof‘. a biography of ()rson Wells. Just now he has even tnore energy than usual as he has put himselfon a yeast-free. rash-relieving diet. Amongst other things. for the diet is ‘severe and extreme‘. he must cut out alcohol. ‘lt‘s slowly driving me mad. I drink a lot ofalcohol normally. with great pleasure.‘ Abstinence leaves him feeling less fatigued. ‘but less emotional. which I regret.‘
If he is the sort of actor who seeks to take possession of a part in an emotional way. as a director he has to be the practical problem-solver who is beseiged with everyone else's difficulties. ‘You have to have an opinion about absolutely everything. [don‘t mind being the person who is asked questions all the time. though I’d much rather they took their own initiative. What I hate is being the person who has to energise people. That kind of thing is intolerable. People who are uninterested. who just want to learn it and do it. are not my favourite sort of people.‘
When he isn‘t being an actor or a director he is writing and it is here that many of his ambition still lie. ‘Please don‘t take this amiss but I regard all the writing I have done so far as journalism and therefore not inferior. but not requiring the same amount ofcogitation. reflection. isolation.‘
It is his dream. and his hope to write a novel. ()r novels. ‘l’d feel I‘d been a serious writer if I‘d written a novel. if I‘d made something which had an existence separate from me.‘ Not because he seeks posterity — ‘I
couldn‘t give a toss about posterity. I‘m only interested in something which is alive. which has life.‘
Somehow this leads us directly back to acting. ‘It‘s the only thing I miss. It’s tremendously good exercise. physically and emotionally. It's the only thing I do which is genuinely releasing. ‘
Die Fledermaus goes on Tue 18 0c! in Glasgow. See Classical M usic for details.
12 The List 14 — 27 October 1988