Monday 27 August 2018

Michael Blakemore - In Conversation with Jonathan Baz

Michael Blakemore (r) pictured with playwright Michael Frayn during recent rehearsals for Copenhagen
At Chichester right now, director Michael Blakemore’s revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen has opened to rave reviews. Blakemore has a remarkable history with the piece, having directed it to award-winning success in both London and New York when it premiered 20 years ago, and in the interim, staging the play in France and Australia too.
Finding a window in his hectic schedule, I spoke with Blakemore whose understanding of the play and its commentary upon nuclear conflict is probably unsurpassed. Our conversation was to range from theatre to politics and even the director’s take upon the internet and how we communicate today.

JB: Michael, how have you seen Copenhagen's philosophies evolve into the 21st century? 

MB:    Well, I think the science is still as it was. Some of the history of the Heisenberg story after the war has had additional material added to it. And indeed, Michael Frayn has modified his play in order to accommodate these changes (of which there were very few).

But I think that the messages it discussed are the same as they were 20 years ago. What has changed however is the world in which the play is being presented. In other words, towards the end of the last century, when the Cold War was over, the possibility of any kind of nuclear confrontation seemed remote. But since then, many more countries have acquired a nuclear capacity and suddenly the possibility of a nuclear accident appears much closer than it was then.

JB:    You are returning to the show after 20 years, and making a rather wonderful habit of this. Last year with the musical The Life at Southwark Playhouse last year, and now with Copenhagen.

MB:    Well, I revived The Life because we almost got it to the West End when it launched on Broadway back in 1990. We’d had very good London reviews of the New York production and everybody said, this will go across to London. But we couldn't find a management brave enough to take it on, because they found the subject too disturbing. So, I was sort of trying to make something happen that I felt deserved to happen. There may yet be a transfer of that Southwark production that I hope will happen.

But of course, that's very different to Copenhagen. Michael (Frayn) very much wanted to get it revived, while I was unsure as to whether he would want to go with another director, but he wanted to go with me, and I'm pleased.

Of course, I didn't know how I would react going back to this material and in fact it's been a thrilling experience. I know so much more about the play now and with this exceptional cast there is so much more to learn and new possibilities to see. 

I'm doing it largely, in principle, the same way I did it before, but with a lot of the technological advances that weren't available to me when I first did it. And so, I think it's going to seem very, very different. Not just because of the personalities of this cast’s actors, but also, I have changed, theatre has changed and the audience has changed too. A lot's changed!  But Copenhagen is undoubtedly a great play which does not date.

JB:    When we spoke earlier, you mentioned your view that technology and the internet have changed the world, and not necessarily for the better. 

MB:    What I don't like about the new technology is that I think we've done a swap. We've invented this new two-dimensional world that takes place on a screen. And this new world we've invented allows us everything: It allows us instantaneous communication with all our friends; It allows us to travel; It allows us access to a glut of entertainment. You can spend six hours every night in front of Netflix and find something to entertain you.

It gives you everything. It gives you sex. It gives you everything you want, except that it's artificial. And we've virtually exchanged the real world, which is three-dimensional and smells and is covered, and we can run around in, for this substitute world, which is comparatively valueless.

I speak as a grumpy old man who doesn’t like it because I'm no good at it. I'm hopeless at technology. But I also don't like it. I have a computer and I receive emails, even if I don't like sending them. And as a research tool, the internet is invaluable.

But as a way of communication, I think it's hopeless, particularly in the theatre. The great thing about theatre is that it is entrenched in human relations. Theatre is live people getting up in front of a live audience, to whom they have to make an effort to pretend that they're playing other people!  It's a much more sophisticated and real experience than, say, seeing a film, because you've got to make all sorts of adjustments during a performance.

JB:    I would completely agree with you, but the staging of any theatrical piece, even if it's playing to a 1,000-seat auditorium, is only going to scratch the surface of a tiny proportion of a population, whereas a movie, and in particular a big, acclaimed and successful movie, can ultimately reach the world. 

MB:    There's no doubt about that. I agree with that. And initially, I was interested in movies! I wanted to be a movie director and didn't want to do theatre at all.

But equally, you can say that the theatre is so cheap that you can mount a show, even if it only plays to 500 people, you can mount it for a tiny bit of money, and you can have a greater freedom to explore subjects and say things that the movies would never allow you.

And any theatrical endeavour is tied to more of a village society. Your audience has got to be within walking (ok, travelling) distance of the theatre, so they're more of your neighbours than they are with a movie. 

And it may be, in the event of some horrific political catastrophe, that the theatre is the only kind of dramatic entertainment readily available to us.

JB:    And of course, theatre offers a great challenge to performers too. As Terrence Mann said, "Movies will make you famous. Television will make you rich. But theatre will make you good."

MB:    Oh yes. I think that's probably true.

Copenhagen plays at Chichester's Minerva Theatre until 22nd September

Photo credit: Conrad Blakemore 

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