Stephen Daldry’s directing life, in films and theatre, is as unconventional as his personal life
What did the playwright David Hare mean? “You’re interviewing Stephen? Good luck,” he said to me, amused. “He’s the most complicated person …” And he trailed off in laughter.
The next night I found Hare and Stephen Daldry, conspiratorially à deux, in the downstairs bar of the Royal Court Theatre with just an hour to go before the press sloped in to the opening of Hare’s latest monologue, Wall, directed by Daldry. A bit late in the day to give notes, I thought, but Daldry said it was Hare, wanting to change his approach again.
Wall will be performed with a companion monologue by Hare, Berlin (written when both men were making The Reader, the film that won Kate Winslet as Oscar as as a Nazi guard). The two, you understand, are close friends as well as collaborators. Hare teases Daldry – “Stephen Daldry is directing, which means we’re all going to be here for the next few years” – while Daldry says: “We’ve been through so many battles and wars and fun together, we have an incredible shorthand. He knows my work processes and I know his. And I love him, and that helps.”
Daldry has emerged as one of our foremost film directors, in addition to continued dabblings in theatre. But why is he “complicated”? (Others use this term of Daldry too.) Well, let’s start with the children. He told me that he had two daughters, Annabel, aged 6 and Louise May, aged 4. I was puzzled; I’d read of only one. So whence came the sudden second child?
“She’s not our biological daughter,” Daldry says. “It’s a friend’s daughter, who lives with us. We bring them up as sisters. It’s a communal living situation anyway.”
Some of the Billy Elliot children, I hear, live in his house too. “Lots of people live in the house. People come and go all the time. I’m not there a lot. Jamie [Bell] doesn’t live there any more, he’s based in Los Angeles now …” at which point Bell arrives, in trilby hat and with girlfriend, to join the first-night claque of Stephen’s friends.
With Billy Elliot the Musical and The Reader Daldry is ubiquitous; his production of An Inspector Calls is now touring the land, 20 years on, with its astonishing set designed by his former partner Ian MacNeil. This is another complication. I have to ask, are you still gay? “I’m gay. I mean, I’m married and I have a wife and kids, but if anyone asks me, I say I’m gay. It’s easier to say it and people prefer it.”
But he wanted children, and married Lucy, an American and one of his oldest friends, in 2001. They have a flat in Manhattan’s fashionable meat-packing district, where the kids go to a good public-sector school. When in Britain, they live in a great rambling house (with rooms beyond count) near Hatfield in Hertfordshire. An urbanite, Daldry never imagined a happy life in the country.
“At the cast and crew screening of Billy Elliot, a friend, Merelina Kendall [who played the secretary of the Royal Ballet School in the film] told me she would have to sell her lovely house with a wonderful garden, where I’d been going for years, because her mother had died and they needed the money to divide up. We did the deal in the bar.” Money will always follow an idea, he believes. He “went away and made The Hours” and bought the house.
Hare’s two monologues Berlin and Wall – one wall taken down, the other a separation fence being constructed around the Palestinian Authority land, four times as long and in parts twice as high as the Berlin Wall – form a unit. They will be performed in tandem, next month in Snape Maltings, then New York. I can’t quite see how much actual directing Daldry needs to inflict on Hare (himself a noted director) in a reading of fewer than 5,000 words which takes 45 minutes. Hare stands alone, centre stage. He waves an arm, discarding pages of script on to the floor, pauses, glances right, inflects, jerks head back. The amused little grimaces of irony, the mannerisms of presentation, seem to me to be Hare’s own. Directing him, Daldry explains, is just “a conversation with David about how he wants to play it, and how the audience is reading him”.
It was Daldry who allowed Hare to take this bold mid-life trajectory into performing. In 1998 he was running the Royal Court and sent Hare off to the Middle East to write a play about the British mandate. Hare returned saying he didn’t want to write a play, but a monologue – Via Dolorosa. Daldry says: “I love the idea of a writer who speaks directly to the audience. I’d like to see more playwrights do it.” In the ten years since Via Dolorosa, Hare’s view of the Israelis and Palestinians has changed: Wall has a bleaker and angrier ending.
War has proved fruitful ground for their work together. For me, The Reader is a remarkable film. Though it got a deserved Oscar for Winslet, it also came in for some off-beam criticism about Holocaust denial. Daldry, Hare and their producers made a statement to the effect that The Reader is not about the Holocaust, but about German guilt. “It’s a good old controversy,” Daldry says equably. “It’s all rock’n’roll.”
For Hare, adapting a novel exacerbates the old screenwriter’s problem (loss of control of one’s words) because everyone knows the book – as happened on The Reader: the cast and crew kept asking why this or that wonderful passage or scene in the book was absent. “Look,” Hare had to say, “the original book is full of words and thoughts that would take 38 hours to read out loud.” And it’s true, Daldry says, that the reactions to a film tend to be focused on the writer. “The writer’s task, in putting himself out there, getting more severe criticism, is the hardest,” he says. “People’s first instinct is to attack. Of all the disciplines in the theatre, writing is the most exposing; the buck stops there. I take my hat off to writers. The anger is what keeps any artist coming back after being shot down. It’s not really anger, but spirit.”
Daldry, who still looks like a bespectacled schoolboy, started directing at Huish Grammar School in Taunton, Somerset. As a boy, Daldry went on school trips to Bristol Old Vic, never to films. When he was reading English at Sheffield he was taught by Philip Roberts, who wrote a book about the Royal Court, and could bring Howard Brenton, Edward Bond and Sarah Daniels north to work with students on early versions of their plays.
Also in Sheffield he built an enduring and fruitful friendship with Lee Hall, the enormously talented screenwriter of Billy Elliot. They met at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, where Daldry built his career as a director, and now they mount Billy Elliots across the world: London, Melbourne, Broadway, Chicago and San Francisco next year, and even South Korea. It is expensive; theatres have to be excavated, houses built, they get through a high turnover of dancing, singing Billys whose voices break, and innumerable Billy’s friends. And how does a Wyoming or Cuban boy, or a Korean, learn to speak Geordie? “They learn it like a language. Like a song.”
After the Crucible he became artistic director of the Royal Court and remains an associate director of the theatre. Daldry is obviously truly at home at the Court, keenly aware of its history as the theatre of Granville Barker, funded by J.M. Barrie after Peter Pan, recreated by George Devine.
Daldry learnt about film by making movies, he says. “When I made Billy Elliot I didn’t really know how a film was cut, and the process of cutting it was an education. The Reader, because of the enforced breaks in the production schedule, became more than one film.”
Nicole Kidman started to shoot Kate Winslet’s role, but got pregnant and dropped out. Then they had to wait until the boy playing the 15-year-old Michael Berg, David Kross, was 18. Why? “Because of the love-making scenes. Although you can shoot it under German law, you can’t release it under American law. Essentially you’re peddling child pornography and the law is there to protect the minor.”
What will he do next? Daldry is accustomed to a peripatetic life, criss-crossing the Atlantic for the past 20 years, working on the flights. Between our first and second meetings he had been to Somerset to see his ailing mother, Cherry, who is now 79 and was formerly what he describes as “Somerset’s version of Eartha Kitt”.
He says he would gladly go back to a regional theatre. “There’s something about getting a relationship going between a city and a theatre that is unique, which you can’t get in the metropolis where so many diverse theatres are servicing different voices and communities.”
Next year Daldry will be 50, the age at which his father died (Daldry was only 15), and he is properly conscious of his own mortality, especially as an inveterate smoker (though, as he says, on an eight or 24-hour flight it’s amazing how easy it is not to smoke). He feels increasingly like his father: he likes gardening and solitude and planting trees.
“As you push 50 you do become more aware of time, of how many years you have left to work, how many projects you’ve got left to do. Life is a narrative structure, and where are you in the narrative? You can break your life down into a three-act film structure. I prefer a five-act structure.”
And where is he? “I would put myself in Act III.”
Wall is at the Royal Court, London SW1 (020-7565 5000) until Saturday. Berlin/Wall is at the High Tide festival, Snape Maltings, Suffolk (020-7566 9767) on May 20