I found the play in the London Library and was surprised there was a Rattigan play I hadn't ever heard of. Moreover, I discovered that Rattigan thought Man and Boy was his masterpiece and would bring him back into critical favor. A new wave of young dramatists like John Osborne seemed to have relegated him to the shelf. When I read the play I was both thrilled and disappointed. Thrilled both by it's darkness and by the fact that I found the fulcrum of the plot truly shocking - a rare sensation with period plays - and disappointed with its structure. Then the biographer of Rattigan, Michael Darlow, contacted me to ask whether I was aware there were 10 drafts of the play in the British Museum - and the Rattigan estate gave me permission to tinker. I wrote not a word, but I did re-arrange, because each successive draft that Rattigan had written seemed less potent in certain areas. I think commercial pressures had been brought to bear. Also Rattigan said bitterly that the leading role was played by Charles Boyer "like a head waiter" - when what is required is an Iago-like villain of true evil, buttressed by charm. Frank Langella is a rare American actor who embraces villainy (have you noticed the Brits play them mostly on film?), and he is a real reason to do the play here in New York.
Terence Rattigan seems to be having a renaissance lately -- mostly because of popular revivals of his plays -- why do you think modern audiences are interested in his work?
It's Rattigan's centenary this year, and a concerted effort by his Estate has brought many of his neglected plays to the notice of directors and management. It's rather wonderful that just as in his heyday, there are several of his plays on at once in Britain. The critical response has been terrific. I think modern audiences respond because of his naturalism and understatement. He might seem old-fashioned for a moment, but only a moment, and then the play sucks you in. He is the most poignant of playwrights without bravura; his technique is almost invisible but the more potent for what might be called its ambush-effect. He's a consummate story-teller. I'm very proud that Man and Boy is the only centenary offering in the USA.
How did you research the world of the play? What kind of research did you have to do in order to direct it?
I had to read about the Depression in the US, and biographical material about Ivar Kreuger the "Swedish Match King" , who was the close inspiration for the leading character. All the American and Romanian characters needed background research - I had no idea, for example, that Romania between the wars was "the Paris of Eastern Europe". I needed to provide detailed background for the character who was at Oxford in the late twenties - a world completely foreign to young American actors. I'm a sort of fiscal moron so I needed help understanding the financial scam... well, it's kind of endless once you get started. I make a table in the rehearsal room of reference materials, including the sort of novels the characters might be reading, pictures of where they might have lived etc. The actors take what they want from it.
How will the play manifest itself visually? How are you collaborating with your design team?
I invite the very best to help me, that's always a good start. We talk at length, they do what they do and then I interfere a bit in the latter stages. They are too tactful to tell me if this is a bad or a good method. I've worked with everyone on this team before which is an absolute joy.
What inspires you as a director? Do you see other directors’ work? Read? Go to movies? Museums? Travel? Can you tell us a bit about how you refuel yourself as an artist?
I read voraciously anyway, and there always comes a moment during the preparation for a play that everything seems to have some connection with it. I go to the theatre pretty regularly, watch movies of course, and do specific pictorial research. But for me, the main thing is the words, and with a playwright like Rattigan they are the well-spring. The rhythms, the collisions of consonants, they're like a message in a bottle. So the most inspiring thing of all is reading the play aloud with my assistant. We play different roles each time, break off to discuss things, especially when we realize there's a hole in our research, or that the psychology may not be what it first appears.
Man and Boy is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 27, 2011. For more information about the show or how to purchase tickets, click here.
2011-2012 Season, A Conversation with, Man and Boy