Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, interviewed director Sam Gold about his thoughts on Look Back in Anger.
Ted Sod: Why did you choose to direct Look Back in Anger?
Sam Gold: The play has always been very high on my list of plays to work on; it was influential to me as I was becoming involved in the theatre. I used the play as I started to think about myself as an artist. I really responded to Jimmy Porter as a character. I connected with Osborne and what he had to say about young people, class and culture. When Todd Haimes offered me the position of associate artist at the Roundabout and asked me what I wanted to do, it just felt like an important first revival to do with him.
TS: Man and Boy was produced this season, a play written by Terence Rattigan. And, as you know very well, Osborne’s play usurped Rattigan’s popularity in 1956. Do you think this play is specific to that time period?
SG: Yes. Osborne was having a conversation about his culture in a very specific way and there’s something about any great play that speaks about its time. This is a play that’s so engaged in the politics, class and social issues of an exact community and time, and I find it an exciting challenge to think about how a play that spoke so loudly and bravely about an exact time and place is going to resonate and engage us now.
TS: I just spoke with Matthew Rhys, and we were talking about the resonance of Occupy Wall Street because we both felt that if Jimmy Porter were in NYC today, he would be part of the protest.
SG: We’re not a very class-conscious culture in the U.S. It’s a much more class- conscious culture in Britain. It is sort of crazy that we’re having a national dialogue about class disparity in this country right now and that it timed out to be when we’re doing this play. It wasn’t by design, but I think it is a prescient time to do this play. I did The Threepenny Opera during the financial collapse and that play ends with Mack the Knife screaming that it should be the bankers not the bank robbers that are put in jail. I’ve been very interested in these rebellious plays about class and economy. Working on Threepenny got me really interested in Look Back in Anger again, but I never thought we’d be taking this kind of turn socially in this country by the time I did it.
TS: I’m very curious about your decision to excise the character of the Colonel, Alison’s father. How did you go about making that decision and how difficult was that to do?
SG: The Colonel was a character that felt very symbolic of something, very particular to the politics of postwar Britain. The big question for me was how much of this is going to be a period piece, and how much of this is going to be about how it resonates with a contemporary American audience? What I wanted to engage in was the core of the play: the instincts that Osborne had, the life he was leading, the young people he was dramatizing, their fiery young energy and their lust for life, and their relationships with each other. I felt if I could pare down some of the period specific aspects of the play – the stuff where he was really having a conversation with 1950s Britain – a contemporary audience wouldn’t feel so alienated and would connect with what the play has to say to us now.
TS: Did you have to negotiate with the Osborne estate? Was that a complicated process or fairly easy?
SG: The Osborne estate was really interested in how I was approaching the play and they seemed game.
TS: Do you see the play as a love story?
SG: Yes. I think of the play as a love rectangle. The way that young people mess up in love is really what the play is about. It’s about young people from different walks of life thrown in a disgusting room together and the way in which they ruin or save each other’s lives.
TS: Can you talk a bit about Alison and Jimmy’s connection?
SG: I think there’s self-hatred explored in this play. I think there’s first love and young love and young people not knowing who they are and in turn just lashing out. They lash out at people and they grab on to people, and they’re not self-actualized. By the end of the play, Alison and Jimmy start to self-actualize; they start to stop hating themselves and begin to let themselves love each other.
TS: This contemporary movie term “bromance”— is that what’s going on between Cliff and Jimmy?
SG: When we think of young people with no money and what they have to hold on to, these are two guys who have held on to each other and made life possible by leaning on each other. It’s a lot about allegiances and honor and trust, they have a very pure relationship in the play.
TS: What kind of research did you have to do to direct this play? How do you enter a world like this?
SG: To a certain degree, I’m not particularly worried about the research, because I’m not interested in giving the audience a museum piece. I’m not interested in taking them to the 1950s London, because that won’t ring any bells with them. What will ring bells with the audience is if I bring the play to them. So I’m interested in the research in as much as it illuminates the story. What I need to know about is the context that this play and these characters were written in. I need to research context in order to make the characters and the action in the play come to life. What I’m also trying to do is see the play from the audience’s point of view and not distance the audience from the play by presenting something that feels dated.
TS: Did you watch the film version? Did you have any interest in that?
SG: I’ve seen the film version and it has absolutely nothing to do with what I do on stage. It’s a period piece; I don’t have any interest in going to the theatre to see something that was made 50 years ago. I want to go see something that’s made one minute ago.
TS: Can you talk about what you were looking for in casting the show?
SG: Casting this play was incredibly challenging. It has very challenging language. It’s written poetically and people need to be able to deal with lower class characters who speak very well. I needed actors who were really great with language, who can connect with the poetry and ground the reality of the characters. I was really interested in doing the play with Brits, because I wasn’t bringing that to the show and it was really important to me to have their voices in the rehearsal room. When it comes down to it, I was casting the love story. I was thinking about people who would have chemistry.
TS: Will you talk about collaborating with your design team? How will the play manifest itself visually?
SG: I’m hoping to make something that’s aggressively simple. I think when this play was first produced it was aggressive to sit down in the theatre and have the lights come up on a woman and an ironing board. That idea visually, that design choice was rebellious. I think a lot about when the lights come up, the world of the play should feel different than what the Roundabout audience expects. One way that I plan on doing that is by there being less.
TS: What do you make of John Osborne? What is his stature in dramatic literature from your point of view?
SG: I think that the shadow of this play is so large in British theatre. To have obliterated the middle class drama of the 20th century is a huge thing. He inspired a generation of writers who have changed the face of theatre.
TS: What’s curious to me is that a renaissance has happened for Rattigan but I’m not sure it’s happened yet for Osborne. Do you think it has?
SG: No I don’t think America has seen a compelling case for Osborne, so I hope I can do a great production that will turn people on to his work in this country.
TS: I wanted to ask you about your year, Sam—it’s extraordinarily busy. Could you talk about how you manage all these projects in one year? How do you keep yourself sane?
SG: I have to say, on one hand it makes me more sane to have multiple things on my plate because I don’t get neurotic and obsessive-compulsive about what I’m doing, because I have something else to think about. So I don’t sit and stew anymore, I’m very in the present when I’m working. That’s been the really nice thing about having work. I spent so many years sitting in my little apartment dreaming about doing a John Osborne play and feeling very angst-ridden, it’s a lot more relaxing doing the plays and not just sitting around and thinking about them. I feel very healthy getting to work a lot. I like working and I like working a lot. I just have to be careful to make sure I don’t work so much that I don’t have time to be as detail-oriented as I want to be. I’m a very detail oriented director, that’s something I pride myself on in my work and I want to make sure I don’t burn out.
Look Back in Anger plays at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre January 13, 2012 through April 8, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Look Back in Anger, Upstage