It wasn't until I'd written it, rewritten it top-to-bottom, and addressed myriad editorial queries, that I knew how to write about Benedict Andrews for the Guardian. Unfortunately, the lightbulb switched on seven minutes into the afternoon school run on publication day, by which time another radical rewrite was out of the question. I know why he foxed me: we talked for 70 minutes, energetically and sometimes intensely, sitting on the set for his Young Vic Three Sisters – in both attempts at the piece, I noted that his is the first rehearsal room I've walked into where the actors work throughout on the actual set – which, I suspect, encouraged the conversation to sprawl across the room. Every attempt to squash it down to an 850-word print space felt doomed.
The thought I had on the school run was this: that I should have focused more on the vexed notion of “director's theatre”. One of the things I read about Andrews before interviewing him was a review of his eight-hour power through Shakespeare's Histories, The War of the Roses, by someone who clearly hates his work. At the Guardian's request, I quoted the following from it: “Benedict Andrews is my nightmare of what director’s theatre can come to.” (I haven't bothered linking to it because if you're going to read a review, it should be Alison Croggon's.) Another, more useful, quote came from Cate Blanchett, who was part of the Roses ensemble and collaborates with Andrews often: “His rehearsal rooms are muscular – brutal, even – but he loves being surprised.”
“I think what Cate was talking about, it's sort of a demand from the beginning,” says Andrews. “I'm wanting [the actors] to really go for it, and I don't have a blueprint – OK, I have a big blueprint, but I don't know what's going to happen. I'm wanting them to invent and me to invent, I'm dependent on them to feed me and me to feed them. That's a sort of tightrope act and a real dance; it's like a performance, very playful, very theatrical, but emotionally raw as well. I'm interested in something happening in the theatre, happen[ing] night after night. It's a construct and a game but something's got to take place.”
What I liked about this was its refutation of the criticism that the people responsible for “director's theatre” have a fixed idea about what their production will do and how it will play.
“I think that's bullshit,” Andrews shoots back. “I don't know any good director who works like that. If you love actors you want them to be liberated. It's really a dialogue at its best, and I'm reliant on people who are on their toes and inventive and playful. That's such a dangerous cliche, that this director's theatre is an imposition: people who are threatened by what they see read this in reverse. It's actually the opposite. I come into a rehearsal room with a series of givens: I guess that's part of the game, what you choose to put in. We make the rules that there are these things here, and if you come in here you have to tell the story with [them]. I don't ever put it on [the finished set] at the end, in the final week, because I don't believe that set design is decoration. Everything is absolutely fundamental and used and discovered in the room. The room has to earn its right to exist.”
This has been key to the development of his work, he says: the desire to “get rid of ornamentation and move towards something that's raw for the playing, but that has an argument about the world in it, [which] you watch being constructed. [It's saying,] this is a place for theatre, as opposed to saying: this is nice wallpaper and that's how the world is. That's a special thing that theatre allows us, which cinema or photography can't do: to watch a series of constructed instants and maybe think about how they're made.”
Now I've put all those quotes together, I realise a piece revolving around this material would have been doomed, too. The thoughts are too big, too vigorous. But without them, I couldn't talk effectively about his sense of the differences between British and German theatre. An obsessive reader of theatre magazines, he was aware of work happening in Germany long before he first visited the Schaubuhne in 2002. That association grew from two things: his first bash at staging Three Sisters, at the Sydney Opera House in 2001, and a production of Marius von Mayenburg's Fireface the same year. Mayenburg wasn't able to see his own play but did watch an early run-through of Three Sisters: he told Andrews that he'd never seen Chekhov like that before (more on this to come), and that the atmosphere in the company reminded him of the people he was working with in Germany.
Andrews directed his first production at the Schaubuhne, Sarah Kane's Cleansed, in 2004, and worked there regularly over the next six years. “It's a real baptism by fire, being at the Schaubuhne, because it was the greatest house for contemporary theatre in those times, maybe still now. I learned so much losing my language, when actors were speaking German and I didn't really understand it. And [Thomas] Ostermeier was inventing a lot in those years – still is, but I remember while I was there seeing the birth of several new ideas from him. So you have a very strong leader, and a very good ensemble attracted to that person, … [who] have an expectation that you will have ideas beyond the literal. [The actors are] very truthful, they can invent on basic naturalistic truth, but their job is also to invent metaphors simultaneously. I don't mean that as some sort of conceptual exercise: it's the visceral nature of theatre that they can invent and play on many levels at once.”
English actors – and he said this on the basis of a just a few days working with the Young Vic cast – by contrast demonstrate “a pragmatic, utilitarian literalness about things, which is a really great skill if you can use it as a springboard and not be bound by it. There's a facility with text and language that can be both a safety net, because they know how to make it sound, and a skill that suits a lot of the writing. I'm encouraging them to break through that into something raw and sometimes messier.”
It's this messiness, he argues, that separates German and British theatre. “I guess there's an assumption [in Germany] that a director's job is not necessarily to make something nice and well-made, which it is here. I'm all for well-made, well-crafted, but the expectation [here] in a way is: please don't go beyond that, because it's wrong somehow. Rather than letting it be a train crash but it's alive.” He points to Three Kingdoms, and the way it brought a “terribly revealing binary” to the surface. “In German theatre culture there are so many contrasting arguments about what theatre is. German theatre is many, many things: it's a hothouse; yes, some of it is excessively conceptual. [In England,] it's a shorthand people use to deride things that are different.
“The interesting thing [about Three Kingdoms], and why the controversy happened maybe, [is that] Simon Stephens writes well-made English plays, so you're seeing in English something that seemingly should be the well-made English play, done in the German way: done in a way which says, right, let's rip it up and start again. Over there, it's part of a very rich, dense theatre culture. I enjoyed Three Kingdoms very much, particularly as an experiment; … maybe in the end I saw a train crash, but I would rather see this train crash than something well-mannered and polite.”
I didn't talk about any of that in the Guardian because I still feel confused about my weird role in the discussions around Three Kingdoms. Nor did I manage to squeeze in the canny politics of David Lan bringing Andrews into the Young Vic. In May, Lan published – on Matt Trueman's Carousel of Fantasies – a speech about the need for young British directors to see German work, because: “when you do experience this theatre, you become a little bit more free as an artist, and consequently a little bit more capable of communicating through art the complexity of your own special and individual experience of living in the world”. But it's one thing to see that work in Berlin, quite another to see it and feel it and witness its effect on an audience in a London house.
I say this because nothing prepared me for Andrews' Three Sisters. I've seen two other shows by him this year, and they didn't persuade me that I would love his Chekhov, despite the fact that one of them, Gross und Klein, is among the best things I've seen this year. The production felt really clean, distilled to a series of vivid, precisely detailed vignettes through which Cate Blanchett's thrumming Lotte stumbled in search of human connection. Caligula, at ENO, felt as overwhelmingly busy as Gross und Klein was focused and pure: stadium seats thrusting across the stage, violence erupting from the aisle between them, symbols of pop-capitalist culture littering the space. I left it to Matt Trueman to synthesise it all for me, which he did, brilliantly.
My problem wasn't with Andrews, it was with Three Sisters. I'd seen it once before, when I had to review Katie Mitchell's National Theatre production, an excruciating experience because I found it paralysingly dull and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, could only assume it was my own ignorance and philistinism that made it so. (Funnily enough, I didn't say any of that in the review.) Having seen Andrews' version, I suspect the problem was more with Mitchell's decision to emphasise the listlessness of the siblings' existence: the trouble with such unvarying, torpid inaction is that it inspires very little sympathy. Then again, Lyn Gardner has suggested to me that Three Sisters doesn't make an impact on you until you've felt real disappointment in life: maybe I've finally got the experience I lacked in 2003.
I enjoyed talking to Andrews about the Mitchell production, not because he'd seen it, but because he'd seen her Seagull in Copenhagen and described it as “a Hammershoi painting”, a collection of “period pictures” whose purpose he understands but which are not sufficiently removed from what he dismisses as museum theatre for his taste (at least, that's how I interpret what he said; apologies to him if I've overstepped the mark). He has hated museum theatre ever since he was a teenager, when he saw a radical Lithuanian production of Uncle Vanya directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius at the Adelaide festival. “That was my exposure to what theatre should be and what Chekhov should be. When I started going to the state theatre [in Australia], I thought: what are these people doing? I felt like Konstantin in The Seagull: that they should be destroyed and start again.”
What he was seeing was “lace and high necks” and productions that were “about manners. I think the plays are about class, class is important and a dying class is important, a dying bourgeois who live in a bubble. [In Three Sisters] they talk about a storm coming that will wipe us all out: we now know what that storm was, and what perhaps in 25 years would happen to these children of the bourgeois.” The focus on manners, as opposed to class and class conflict, he argues, “is a big piece of bullshit to hide in. It's this big fantasy everybody has that [Chekhov's plays are] about repressed people being nice.”
From what I can gather, there was nothing nice about his 2001 production of Three Sisters. It was a breakthrough show for him, and sealed his reputation as difficult and divisive. “It was the first Chekhov I'd done, and the first time you meet it it's raw discovery. And I was a much younger director. I was blindly doing it and the production was a mess actually, probably in a good way. It threw so many things at it: the stage was covered in Star Wars toys, Irina was crying holding a Yoda doll, there was disco music playing. None of this to my mind was for provocation: it was alive for us, as a group making it. Now I look back and I think, there was probably some clutter in front of the heart of the play, but I wanted it to be wild and not genteel.”
He was 29 then; now he's 40: “I hope you do get wiser as you get older,” he laughs. “To come back knowing it but not trying to do the same production is very interesting: the thing reappears even more incandescent, even more truthful; the transparency and lightness of the thing becomes even more incredible; this perfect crystalline structure carries these complicated people in such terrible pain. I'm much more interested in people; I think that's something that happens as you get older in theatre. I was much more interested with form: form's [still] a very big question for me, but now all I really want to do is watch very good actors playing and being truthful.”
Honestly? Very good actors playing and being truthful is exactly what you see in the Young Vic production. There are all sorts of fascinating things happening in the staging: the elevation of the Prozorov family on stiff grey tables, a structure of class and cultural values that is slowly dismantled until the sisters must squarely face the realisation that they are nothing more than dust and earth; the huge box ceiling looming over them, like time itself; the choreography of the sisters, so close, so far apart; the psychological exactitude of the costumes; the time-blur of the music, quietly alerting us to the fact that Andrews has in mind our iPod generation who, like Chekhov's characters, surely – surely? – know that something has to give, that capitalism and the self-obsession, inequality, climate change, violence against human existence it entails can't be sustainable, but don't know when change will come or how it will manifest itself or what it might actually mean. But I didn't think about any of these things watching it; some of them, I wasn't even able to articulate fully until talking the production through at the Young Vic with people who participate in the theatre's Two Boroughs project. I didn't think because I was too busy feeling electrified by the performances. I went twice, certain that it couldn't be that alive, that exciting, the second time around: if anything, I heard it more clearly and felt it more acutely, because the characters – oh, the paradox – were saying those words for the very first time.
The odd thing is, so much of what they say is so clunky. Olga's opening speeches are functional, not realistic, and yet you hear them the way you hear a boring big sister (I say this as a boring big sister) banging on about stuff you already know. Irina is so painfully earnest, Vershinin weirdly stiff. And yet the actors make every word ring true. And then there's everything they don't say: the second time I went, I kept catching Masha mouthing along mockingly to her husband's Latin aphorisms; the moment when she almost remonstrates with her sisters but then sees Vershinin and is silently magnetised by his presence is thrilling. And then there's everything that gesture communicates: whenever Kulygin kisses Olga's forehead you know, just know, he has married the wrong sister.
Something else I didn't properly appreciate until talking this through with the Two Boroughs participants, and beginning to read an essay on Three Sisters that Andrews gave me at the end of the interview: whereas the Katie Mitchell production expressed the sisters' experience of time as a suffocating heaviness, Andrews understands that it's possible to know that you are wasting your life away yet feel enjoyment in the moment of doing so. The first two acts are time seemingly suspended, present fleeting pleasure buoyed between a halcyon past and a glowing future: in the last two acts, time collapses, so that past and future are equally irrelevant, and the present, without those consolations, feels unbearably bleak. This is how time drifts for all of us. The best anyone can do is get back up, face the music and dance.
I talked to Andrews quite a bit about the politics of his adaptation, because even on the page it blazed. He didn't talk about the play being “relevant” but live, alive, present. “There's all sorts of loaded words: if you hear the word decadent, our decadent culture, that echoes back through the failure, the so-called failure, of that type of communism. There are plenty of people now starting to say there might be another use of the word communism, to try and salvage that political system. [Tuzenbach says], maybe we're approaching some kind of zero point: that's deliberately from Living in the End Times by Zizek, that argument that there is a kind of collapse of all these possible systems.
“[Tuzenbach and Vershinin] are not actually giving political lectures, that's the interesting thing; they're kind of just bullshitting, talking around these themes to get at something else. But it's a big theme in the play and I want to make it charged still. We can share if we want to a sense of end times, or a sense that everything might suddenly collapse.
“Something is in the air for the people in this play: they're a terminal bourgeois, [their] world was about to explode, and here's this young bourgeois woman saying we have to work. That means a completely different thing for us now, in a post-industrial age, from what it would mean for her as the daughter of a general, who hasn't lifted a finger, with a maid doing things. Or the baron says [of his own privileged youth], I'd sit in front of the telly while someone took my shoes off. Sometimes I can see [the actors] try to process that on a class level [as in, relating it to the English aristocracy]: for me, it could just as easily be an Icelandic banker or someone who owns a supermarket chain or a new rich in Russia or Mexico. It [happens] here: you're busy, you have a nanny in the house looking after the kids. But people don't want to believe it exists here, or that our culture is based on a service industry. We want to believe we're all part of this iPod world: people do not want to believe that there is actually a huge class gap in society still.”
Museum or “genteel” Chekhov, he repeats, obfuscates these politics. “I'm not saying you have to do contemporary versions: a period version can make you think about this. But for me, so much effort goes into that as a smokescreen, to get away from these being real people, people who are in questions of being alive now, [who are] as blind and as confused as us about what to do. We're playing the play instant by instant, … and this is what leads to big questions: why are these women in the situation that they're in? Why are they so stranded in their lives? I think they become an exemplar of what's become a key condition for us, which is a kind of homesickness in our own lives, a radical homesickness wherever you are in the world.” Like the army, shipping out of the provincial town, he says, people now move wherever their job sends them, or wherever they can get the biggest pay packet – never mind the personal cost.
Andrews isn't someone who indulges in a lot of private talk, but this reference to homesickness makes me curious. I ask him where feels like home to him at the moment and there's a long pause. “There's sort of nowhere yet. Iceland is becoming that: I have an application in for an Icelandic residency status and I would set up there as a base. In a way I feel at home there because I'm there a lot and that's where Magga [his partner, Margrét Bjarnadóttir] is, but often when I'm there I'm also in anticipation of going somewhere else. But then of course my friends and family are in Australia. I put myself in the state of the characters in this play: I live in a perpetual state of homesickness for somewhere else. But then it's also very beautiful to be a stranger, in a way.”
I can't help cheering when he talks about building his career around Magga, turning down opportunities to run theatres in Australia so that he could live in Europe with her. It's not just about love, it's about work: “I've needed this other perspective in the world, I need to work with actors from different places and to work in different theatre contexts. I also think I'm keeping alive the possibility for writing. If I had [stayed in Australia] the last 10 years, I wouldn't be a theatre director any more. I think I would have shrivelled up and died.”
Talk of writing elicits another confession: as a teenager he wrote plays, but in his twenties he had a crisis of confidence and switched to poetry. “When I was a learning director I was consciously or unconsciously trapped by all the great writers that I was working with: Sarah Kane, Beckett, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Marius von Mayenburg. Sometimes they can make it almost impossible for you to write.” (Quick aside: I find it brilliant that he puts Sarah Kane first in that list. Just brilliant.)
“All the plays have been accidents,” he adds. “I didn't think that I was going to write theatre: I thought I would continue to try and develop writing poems and maybe write fiction.” The first play grew from a conversation he overheard in an airport in summer 2010; since then he's written three more, in feverish succession. “It's like a door opens in the brain, there's something going on in there, you start eavesdropping on these people and follow them. It's a very unusual situation because suddenly I have this clutch of plays but they're not performed. My great hope [is] that they will come into the world separate from me as a director. I could do good productions of some of them [but] they're not written for me to direct. [But] in Australia it's very difficult: people are intimidated by me as a director. When I give them to people, maybe this is their polite way of getting out of doing them, but there is the question: if you don't do it, who should?”
Andrews has done a production of one of them, Every Breath, and the reviews I've read for that are vitriolic. He doesn't expect people to find his plays easy: “They're not written as a well-structured well-made play – I think they're well-structured in terms of a rhythm, but they do strange things, maybe too strange, I don't know yet. I hope the plays end up having an argument or saying something or make a consolation with things happening. There's a kind of noise in them that maybe people find a bit scary.”
He has an English agent who has been sending the plays out; responses to the most recent, Gloria, mostly compare it to the David Lynch film Inland Empire, which I've been warned against seeing on the grounds that Twin Peaks gave me recurring nightmares for five years and this is infinitely worse. Both Gloria and Every Breath are set in gated communities, a trope he often uses as a director, too. “I'm quite interested in the closed-off community under surveillance as a sort of modern paradigm,” he admits. “But then there might be a whole other level underneath it, to do with my job [being] to sit and watch people, to be a voyeur all day of very private things. So these plays then end up being about [an] obsession with watching, an obsession with eyes.”
Very private things: that, too, is what you see in his Young Vic Three Sisters. Whether it's the queasy transformation of Natasha from bumbling provincial to strutting lady of the manor or the wry glance shared between servants, whether it's Andrey assimilating his shattered hopes with Ferapont precisely because the old man can't hear him or Masha howling like a savaged animal when Vershinin leaves, Andrews exposes everything that these characters try to hide, or try to ignore. In doing so, he makes you face up to yourself – and leaves you maybe just a little more accepting of that self than before.
Final note: there's a lot of great music in this production, but this song is very much the best...