Jonathan Kent: ‘You have to frighten yourself if you aspire to be an artist’
The director Jonathan Kent exudes a relaxed, laid-back confidence, but it was not always thus.
When I ask him if there’s something he wished he’d known at the start of his career, he answers: “I was always so worried, and I wish I’d been less anxious. You have to believe it is going to be all right. None of us lead lives of complete tranquillity, of course, but in the main, mine has been a life of amazing privilege. I work with the greatest imaginations and minds of my culture, and I’ve been lucky enough to be employed very well and do the things I love doing. What is there to moan about? I should be grateful, and I am. It’s a great life.”
We are sitting in a backstage office at the National Theatre, where he is re-rehearsing the triple bill of early Chekhov plays that was staged at Chichester last summer under the umbrella title of Young Chekhov. It’s his sixth time working at the NT, and is the latest of a series of recent productions he first staged at Chichester Festival Theatre before moving to London, following the hit West End transfers of Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and Private Lives. His overwhelming gratitude for the position he now finds himself in, as well as previous ones, comes up regularly in our conversation.
Talking of his time at the helm of the Almeida Theatre, which he shared with actor Ian McDiarmid for a dozen years between 1990 and 2002, during which they transformed it from a receiving house to a year-round producing theatre, he says: “I loved running the Almeida, and it was completely the making of me, so I have nothing but huge affection and gratitude for anyone who worked there with us.”
Since leaving the north London theatre in 2002, he has become a freelance director. He is sufficiently in demand to be asked back regularly to work at such high-profile theatres as the National and Chichester – as well as Glyndebourne and Sante Fe for opera.
“There’s something nice about not waking up every morning with a stone in the pit of your stomach, thinking, ‘Oh fuck, what am I going to do about the money?’ It’s very nice to be selfish and just be directing plays. That doesn’t detract from my huge gratitude and the enormous fun and excitement of having turned the Almeida into a producing house and run it for 12 years. It was as exciting a time as one could ever hope for. But you’ve also got to keep changing.”
That philosophy extends to work that he is revisiting as much as originating. Two of the three Chekhov plays that comprise this triple bill are ones he first worked on at the Almeida, also in versions by playwright David Hare: Ivanov in 1997 and Platonov in 2001, now joined by The Seagull.
“Platonov and Ivanov have shifted hugely since I first did them. Platonov is completely different – it’s pretty much a different play from the one we did at the Almeida. With Ivanov, David has even rewritten some of it again since we were at Chichester last year.”
He speaks admiringly of Hare, not least in relation to Platonov: “David’s craft, never mind his empathy for Chekhov, in shaping an inchoate sprawl into this very moving, wonderful play is incredible. But what’s also interesting, after having just done a day on it, is how the rehearsal room is completely different for each play. They’re all about young people, but it only really emerged when we were rehearsing and putting them on in Chichester how they are about the aspirations of the young and the crushing of the young.”
He proceeds to describe the differences – with (be warned) plot spoilers: “Platonov is about a young man who is irresistible to women, who by the end dies by mistake – not even with the grace of a suicide. It concerns the mess of youth. Then in Ivanov, we have the loss of youthful radicalism and idealism, and the despair and actual suicide it brings. Finally, in The Seagull, there’s the crushing of youth – a young writer and a young actress – who are crushed and destroyed by another generation of these middle-aged mediocrities.”
Reviewing the production at Chichester for The Guardian last year, Michael Billington noted: “David Hare has long cherished the dream of charting Anton Chekhov’s progress by bringing together three of his earliest plays: Platonov (1880), Ivanov (1887) and The Seagull (1896). Seen in a single day, Jonathan Kent’s masterly productions bring out the parallels. All three plays are set among the rural middle class, end in a gunshot and invoke Hamlet. What one also sees is Chekhov’s move, through evolution rather than revolution, towards a wholly new kind of drama.”
He concluded with the reflection that the productions “demonstrate how Chekhov moved from farce and melodrama towards the creation of a new kind of symphonic realism”.
Kent makes the same point: “The complete days are thrilling events. To see all three plays is a marathon, but it is almost symphonic, seeing how themes reoccur and how we can hear leitmotifs in all three plays. Unlike, say, The War of the Roses, which tells a narrative, this is more subtle and elliptical.”
He has not yet tackled the famous later plays The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya. “I’ve been spoilt by these, and the way we are doing them is so exciting,” Kent says. “What’s interesting about these plays, unlike the great later ones, is that they have such an ebullience of spirit, optimism and fun, though it is sometimes tragically crushed. There’s such energy and joie de vivre. Even in The Seagull, it is there in the way absurdity and tragedy co-exist; and Chekhov was the first to notice that.”
Q&A: Jonathan Kent
What was your first non-theatre job? On the beaches in St Tropez, working in bars and putting out mattresses.
What was your first professional theatre job? My first acting job after drama school was playing Yakov in The Seagull for Cambridge Theatre Company, so I’m going full circle to be directing that play – but, I hope, not completing the circle.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To be less anxious. You have to believe it is going to be all right.
Who or what was your biggest influence? It sounds cheesy, but I’ve been educated by my profession – I didn’t go to university, but I’ve worked with the best minds, from Ted Hughes to David Hare.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I was an actor before I was a director, but I’d have probably been a very bad painter.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I try to quell them if they arise
The director is drawn to work in which light and shade are juxtaposed: it’s also the signature feature of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as well as Jule Styne and Sondheim’s Gypsy, both of which he has revived to startling effect, at Chichester then in the West End.
Both starred Imelda Staunton, whom Kent characterises as being “as much a colleague as an actress I admire, and a collaborator as well”. Between the two, he directed Staunton in the play Good People at Hampstead Theatre, which also transferred to the West End. He calls this “a very happy accident” as it filled a gap in both their schedules when Gypsy’s transfer was delayed.
Was he intimated by the immense legacies of the two musicals? “Because I’ve done a lot of opera, I wasn’t as intimidated by Sweeney Todd as much as perhaps I should have been. But I was also determined to do the operatic version of it, not a pared-down one. With Gypsy, it was a show I completely loved and identified with, and I was doing it with and for Imelda.”
He reveals that plans are still afoot to take Gypsy to Broadway with Staunton reprising her multiple award-winning performance. They are in talks with Roundabout Theatre Company to make it happen: “It’s not for a bit, but in a year or 18 months’ time. They want us to and Imelda wants to. It would be great.”
The way he talks about Staunton as collaborator as well as colleague suggests he’s very much an actors’ director.
“That’s because I was an actor myself. I worked for quite a long time as one for 15 years.” That changed when he and McDiarmid took over the Almeida in 1990. “I thought I’d produce and occasionally act, but when it came to the second play we were going to put on, Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, I was going on about it so much that Ian suggested I directed it myself. I have so much to thank him for: I needed someone to tell me to do it. By the second day of rehearsals, I thought, ‘I don’t care what anyone else thinks, this is what I should be doing.’ So much of my life fell into focus. I’m the son, brother and cousin of architects, and I’d set out to be a painter. But it all made sense when I started directing. I have a strong visual sense, and that is how I begin to direct.”
He recalls an early event in his life as a director when he did a workshop with Peter Brook, and Simon McBurney was in it: “I said to Brook that when I start directing a play, I build the house that the play lives in in my head. Simon, who is the son of an archaeologist, said he thinks he’s brushing away at the earth and the play is revealed in it. Maybe we all become our fathers by other means, we said. But Brook very much contested it: he said he hoped that’s not the case, as his father had been a manufacturer of Brooklax – a purgative!”
When young directors solicit advice on the craft from him nowadays, his first piece of advice is: “Whatever you do, don’t start with When We Dead Awaken. I’m sure one day I’ll do it again, but it’s not the easiest play to cut your teeth on.”
The Almeida provided a rich learning curve for him in many ways. It took him regularly to Broadway as the director of shows such as Medea (with Zoe Wanamaker) and Hamlet (with Ralph Fiennes in the title role) that transferred there. The Almeida stretched its wings beyond Islington: that production of Hamlet originated at Hackney Empire. The theatre also staged a West End residency at the Albery (now the Noel Coward) and created new temporary spaces at the Gainsborough Studios and at King’s Cross. “We didn’t want to be confined by bricks and mortar. For us, the Almeida was as much an ethos as an address.” That long prefigured similar initiatives such as Michael Grandage’s for the Donmar Warehouse.
After presiding over a refurbishment programme that had necessitated the move to King’s Cross, McDiarmid and Kent decided not to return for the theatre’s reopening: “It seemed like a good punctuation point. We thought that whoever the new person was [it turned out to be Michael Attenborough] should take ownership – it seemed to be a proper gear shift.”
Why did they feel compelled to give up the reins? “Twelve years is a long time and you shouldn’t stay anywhere too long, for your own sanity. When you see the same rabbit coming around the same track, there’s a danger that, even unwittingly, you’ll start to repeat the formula for success. You have to frighten yourself.” Then, ever wary of how his own comments might be misconstrued, he warns me: “Stand by for a bit of pretension, but it’s necessary if you aspire to be any kind of artist.”
Right now he’s planning on frightening himself with a venture in film. “I’ve resisted it for a long time, and I don’t quite know why. When you do stuff in America, you find that Americans can scarcely believe that you are doing theatre because you want to do theatre. They think you must be waiting for a film, so they offer you one. That’s happened to me, but I’m rather pampered by the work I do.”
Jonathan Kent’s top tips for directors
• Don’t start by directing Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken!
• Learn about acting. It’s important to retain an understanding and respect for what they do – being an actor is such a valiant pursuit.
• Be open to seeing other people’s work – I was greatly influenced by great productions by Peter Stein and Giorgio Strehler.
But he also reveals something else: “The world is divided into people who start things and others who sustain them. I’m a self-starter, and it was thrilling to get the Almeida going. My bent and talent lies in starting things, but I’m not a sustainer.”
Kent protests too much. He has brilliantly sustained a career as a director at the very top of his profession. He’s just returned last month from a Tony-nominated turn as director of a Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night that starred Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne.
“Not only is it a great American play – in fact I think it’s the greatest – but it was also an entirely American company, and I was a bit diffident, wondering how it would go,” Kent explains. “But they were remarkably charitable and generous and a wonderful company of terrific actors. That is what really made it. I’m a huge admirer of Jessica’s – not only because she’s a wonderful, serious and dedicated actress, but also she’s a pretty good human being, and she and Gabriel really led that company. They were so stalwart and staunch and hard-working and were prepared to do anything you asked of them. I’m so lucky – I’m always being educated by my casts.”
At the National, he is about to return to rehearse with another company of fine actors that he’s learning from. “They’re a repertory company, and quite apart from my admiration for Chekhov, I’m also watching with such admiration the art of acting and it is very moving and cross-generational.”
The National Theatre’s Young Chekhov season runs until October 8
CV: Jonathan Kent
Born: 1947, London (grew up in South Africa)
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions: Medea, Almeida (1992), then Broadway (1994), The Life of Galileo, Almeida (1994), Naked, Almeida, then West End (1998), Richard II/Coriolanus, Gainsborough Studios, then New York and Tokyo (2000), Katya Kabanova, Santa Fe Opera (2003), Tosca, Royal Opera (2006), The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne (2007), Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre (2011), Sweeney Todd, Chichester Festival Theatre, then West End (2012), Private Lives, Chichester, then West End (2012), Gypsy, Chichester, then West End (2014), Young Chekhov (Platonov, Ivanov, The Seagull), Chichester (2015), NT (2016), Long Day’s Journey Into Night, American Airlines Theater, New York (2015)
Awards: CBE for services to the performing arts (2016)
Agent: United Agents