Education dramaturg Ted Sod interviewed Long Day's Journey Into Night director Jonathan Kent about his career and his work on this production so far.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide to direct for the stage?
Jonathan Kent: I was brought up in South Africa, in Cape Town, and had originally thought of becoming a painter. I had never met anyone in theatre and I just felt people in theatre were different from me for some reason. I was very naïve. I got to London and to my surprise got into a drama school and became an actor. I only started directing in 1990 when I took over the Almeida, which, at that time, was a receiving house and not a producing house at all. There was no money, so we went out and raised it. At that point, I was intending really to produce and be an occasional actor.
But, through a set of circumstances I ended up directing the second production - Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken -- and I remember very clearly directing Claire Bloom on the second day of rehearsal and suddenly thinking, “I don’t care what anybody else thinks, this is what I should be doing.” It brought together so many elements of my life. I’m the son of an architect, the brother of an architect, I was interested in becoming a painter, and I was an actor. And so all these pursuits suddenly came together and made sense of directing, for me. I’ve directed for 26 years now. It’s alarming how quickly time goes by.
TS: Did you have any teachers when you were studying acting who were influential?
JK: I was always interested -- sometimes to my detriment as an actor -- in the direction of the play. I was interested in the whole, rather than just my own performance. I didn’t have a teacher per se, but when I left drama school, I went to a repertory company in Scotland called the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. There was a very remarkable stage designer and director there named Philip Prowse. I remember him saying to me, “Why don’t you direct?” It would have saved a lot of time if I had listened to him. On the other hand, I’m glad of my years as an actor. Because, as I’ve said, it feeds into my life as a director.
JK: It’s unanswerably one of the great plays of the 20th century and certainly one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- American play. The opportunity to direct a play of such emotional complexity, depth, and power would be impossible to turn down. It’s the template for a whole genre of American theatre, the dysfunctional family play. You see so much of this seminal play in other works, and it is fascinating to get back to the source.
TS: What kind of preparation will you have to do to direct this?
JK: I’ve read biographies of O’Neill, and I know quite a bit of his work. I produced The Iceman Cometh when I was at the Almeida with Kevin Spacey in the lead. But in the end, it is working with the five actors in a room. It is the exploration of those dysfunctional relationships -- lost in a miasma of addiction and the fog of the drink -- that will be most important. The work lies within, and among, the actors in the rehearsal room.
JK: Yes, it all helps. Laurence Olivier did a production here in London which was very admired. There was the production with Jack Lemmon which I saw on stage and on film with Peter Gallagher and Kevin Spacey playing Edmund and Jamie, respectively. But again, it’s really getting these particular personalities into rehearsal and discovering the specific dynamic among them.
TS: Is there any challenge in directing a play that is obviously autobiographical and based on real people?
JK: It is the most overtly autobiographical of all his plays, but in the end it’s fractured through the prism of his genius. He elevates the specific into something much more universal and theatrically potent than just a series of snapshots of a family in New London, Connecticut. It ceases simply to be biography -- it is transmuted into art.
TS: What about the Irishness of the play? Is that important to your work in rehearsal?
JK: The Irishness is important, the knowledge of it. It is a constant undertone, but these are first and second generation Americans who have made good in the New World, while still haunted by the myth of Ireland.
TS: Why do you think this is such a compelling play for audiences?
JK: It’s a claustrophobic, compulsive portrait of four people in a kind of hell, clinging to the edge of the world over the course of a single day. It has the inexorable drive of great tragedy. There is the additional element of Edmund, who, while part of the family, in the end is going to go on and write about them. That is going to be his exorcism and, ironically, what will also preserve them forever.
TS: How will the play manifest itself visually? How are you collaborating with your design team?
JK: This play exists in heightened naturalism. And I think it’s important that one gets the sense of never letting the four of them off the hook. What I think would be a mistake is end-stopping scenes. The whole play is dictated by the relentless movement of the sun over the course of a day. They’re four people clinging to a raft of a house in New London. And the next day it will all begin again, in some way or another. I want to visually allow that. Though it will be specific one also has to allow the universal.
TS: Are you planning to use original music?
JK: No, I’m going to use natural sound -- of the sea, perhaps, and the wind. And maybe music or voices borne on the wind.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
JK: I direct three Chekhov plays on stage later this season at the National. So I’ll do Eugene O’Neill followed by three Chekhovs -- how can you not be inspired? To be able to direct a Puccini opera and Gypsy, and then Eugene O’Neill and Chekhov all in the last 18 months is an exhilarating privilege.
TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who might want to direct?
JK: I think everybody takes an individual path towards it. It’s a very inexact science, directing. I don’t believe particularly in a formula for directing, in the same way that there isn’t a formula for acting. You do, however, have to submerge your own ego. You start a rehearsal process with power and authority, but during the course of rehearsals, you hand the power across to the actors. So by the end of rehearsal, the actors hold the power of the play. I think that’s an important thing to realize. It’s about allowing the actors to discover it themselves and be even better than they thought they could be.
Long Day's Journey Into Night begins performances April 3 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Upstage