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Sam Yates: ‘I try to explicate what writers want and to bring a play’s soul to life’

Sam Yates. Photo: Marc Brenner

The award-winning director has brought David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross to the West End. He talks to  Matt Trueman about being an actor’s director and why his eclectic body of work prizes the writer’s vision

A decade after the sub-prime mortgage crisis that triggered a global financial collapse, America finds itself led by a real estate magnate – and, indeed, the former host of The Apprentice. If that doesn’t give Glengarry Glen Ross fresh resonance, nothing will. David Mamet’s cut-throat classic pits rival real-estate salesmen against one another. The winner takes a Cadillac; the loser gets sacked. It’s one catchphrase away from the Trump Tower boardroom: “You’re fired” is the new “Always be closing”.

Director Sam Yates, whose West End revival stars Christian Slater and Robert Glenister, is acutely aware of all this. He’s turned to American dramatists of late – no prizes for guessing why. In September, he staged Eugene O’Neill’s family tragedy Desire Under the Elms in Sheffield, and he has two more plays and a great American novel up his sleeve for next year.

“The American attitude – ‘every man and woman for themselves’ – is so alive in these plays,” he explains, chewing gum, after rehearsal. “Desire Under the Elms is all about ownership and property, weighing up the value of your life based on what you own. Glengarry’s the same. They all want the leads to make the money to stay alive. Your human worth equates to your cash value somehow.”

Donald Trump epitomises the American Dream even as he symbolises its sourness. That a political outsider can reach the Oval Office is proof any American can aspire to that post. That he was born into a hugely wealthy family simultaneously refutes it. “Trump flies the flag for the fact that anyone can make it,” Yates agrees, “but if you don’t, you can go fuck yourself.”

Christian Slater in Glengarry Glen Ross at London’s Playhouse Theatre. Photo: [1]
Christian Slater in Glengarry Glen Ross at London’s Playhouse Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

We’re in Mamet territory – blunt, coarse and pugnacious. The Chicagoan playwright writes brickbats like no one else and, for Yates, Glengarry’s language lands its own punch. “There are some great Trumpisms in there,” he points out. “Mamet’s language, especially in this play, is the great obfuscater. It’s language as subterfuge. There’s a great Mamet quote: ‘They don’t always say what they mean, but they mean what they mean’.” You could say the same about Trump.

It’s possible to overdo the politics, though. Glengarry’s just a really great play – “one of those plays you want to see the next generation of kickass actors take on”, says Yates. He adds: “It’s all about the athletics of acting. It’s purely theatrical; the jazz of language and what it can do. Mamet’s all about the aural experience.”

He pulls out a copy of the playwright’s notorious contract, so often dismissed as over-the-top control freakery: no music, no sound, no stage business either side of the show, no moving sets, no tricks, no post-show discussions.

Yates doesn’t mind. “I’m sure this play could work in a white cube, everyone wearing T-shirts or whatever, but you have to ask yourself, would that improve it? Mamet’s one of the great American writers. I don’t mind serving that brain.”

One thing Yates isn’t is an auteur. He doesn’t go in for director’s theatre and, unlike other directors, he doesn’t have an identifiable signature or style. He rarely even sticks to the same genre, and his CV swings wildly from Shakespeare to Priestley, Ireland to America via a West End revival of East Is East [2]. It makes him a hard director to pin down.

Nathan Clarke, Jane Horrocks, Michael Karim and Taj Atwal in East Is East at Trafalgar Studios in 2014. Photo: Marc Brenner [3]
Nathan Clarke, Jane Horrocks, Michael Karim and Taj Atwal in East Is East at Trafalgar Studios in 2014. Photo: Marc Brenner

“I was a huge admirer of the late Howard Davies,” he explains. That says a lot. “I’m always trying to explicate what the writer wants and to bring a play’s soul to life.”

The point is that, whether a director imposes a concept or not, “every piece of work will be personal because your version of great heartbreak or fear will be different to mine”, he says. “A play becomes modern just by virtue of doing it today. Human nature hasn’t changed. You just have to cultivate that.”

He adds: “For me, there’s nothing more thrilling than a phenomenal actor transforming themselves and a phenomenal play transporting you somewhere else. That’s the magic of theatre. That’s what’s unique about it.”

In a way, that makes some sense of Yates’ eclectic body of work. Two things tend to stick out in his shows – a vivid sense of place and a good grasp for performance. If there’s a connection, he reckons, it’s “a strong sense of language” – almost as if actors speak a setting into being.

Actors, really, are what get him going and he has a superb sense for casting. His preference is for “theatrical animals”, he says. “There are actors – you see them on telly – that are clean-living, gym-going, no flies on you. You see others and go, ‘Fuck me, I bet you’ve got some stories.’”

Yates likes the latter. He describes his work as teasing out something latent, some unexpected potential, from them. “Elia Kazan said he would never audition actors. He’d just go for a walk with them for two or three hours.”

That he’s an actor’s director explains why directors like Michael Grandage and Jamie Lloyd are fans. But given how often he’s been tipped for the top, the surprise is that it has taken Yates this long to get round to directing a show of this scale.

While peers such as Michael Longhurst and Robert Icke came through the ranks at big subsidised theatres, the 34-year-old’s career has been more haphazard.


Q&A: Sam Yates

What was your first non-theatre job? Paper round.

What was your first professional theatre job? Understudying on The History Boys.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To trust my instincts.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Davies.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Always read the play.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? A chef.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’ll visit every actor’s dressing room before each preview.

Success on the fringe, often self-producing as with The El Train [4], three Eugene O’Neill shorts starring Ruth Wilson, led to a smattering of shows around the country: Outside Mullingar [5] at the Ustinov, Cymbeline [6] at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre and a new musical, Murder Ballad [7], at the Arts Theatre.

Yates finds freelancing freeing – “you’re always doing the most interesting thing in that moment” – but admits its frustrations. “You always have to get the approval of someone with the car keys.”

Alongside that precariousness, pay makes things hard. Rates are roughly £5,000 a show, meaning a director needs five a year to make the median income. “The week after East Is East opened in the West End, I was back in my office job.” He gave it up two years ago, but still temps today. “Taking yourself out of an artistic situation can be very healthy. It cleanses the palette.”

Yates grew up, like Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott, in Stockport – “a place where people talk strong and feel things strongly”. At 15, working his summers at BBC Radio Drama, he signed up to Spotlight, got an agent and nearly wound up in Emmerdale. “It was that or uni.”

Cambridge won out – to read English – though he felt at odds there, marked by his accent. “People would say, ‘First question, where are you from?’ It makes you feel you’re not normal.”

He’s handsome, a little James Dean-ish with wavy brown hair, but if you expect total confidence, Yates is actually eager to please. A lot of his answers start with a compliment.

Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo in Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton [8]
Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo in Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

After university, an unexpected call took him into The History Boys, understudying Dakin – played by Dominic Cooper – and the young teacher Irwin, played by Stephen Campbell Moore. “I’d never even been to the National, and there I was, first job, watching Nicholas Hytner direct. It was amazing.”

By that stage, he’d been toying with directing for a while, and manoeuvred across to a string of high-profile assisting jobs with Phyllida Lloyd, Michael Grandage and Trevor Nunn in his 20s.

It was something of a conversion. Yates was a cinephile as a child, “obsessed by film directors and actors”, and, I suspect, his heart’s still set on screen work.

His productions come with slick online trailers, adverts for the director as much as the play, and his first short film, The Hope Rooms, won him another tip: one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow. He already has two feature-length scripts in development.

The Hope Rooms is a tight 20 minutes; a terse encounter between an estranged father and his son. Andrew Scott and Ciaran Hinds play the pair, who come face to face for the first time in years over a greasy spoon cuppa.

It’s a film that makes a virtue of its brevity. It’s heavy with history. Beneath their small talk, the strained civility, a lot goes unsaid. What the script leaves out, the direction lingers on. It’s a damning indictment of male detachment and old-school, hands-off fatherhood.

It won Yates the filmmaker of the future award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival – one of Hollywood’s key scouting grounds. “A lot of people in the film industry told me that it was really bold. I consider it a subtle piece, bold in its sparseness, but it’s considered visually bold for its darkness, its composition and its colouring.”

It’s true. The film’s focus on its actors in tight shots and long silences generates an electric emotional charge. It seems to leap off the screen.

“Paul Thomas Anderson says, ‘I can’t do anything to help Julianne Moore cry. I just write that she cries and leave her to figure it out,’ ” Yates says. “My job on The Hope Rooms was to storyboard the shit out of it and create an environment on set where Andrew and Ciaran can go to those places. It’s a matter of giving them what they need – the right script, the right shot, the right costume – and letting them get on with it.”

That’s Yates all over: his distinctiveness comes from his willingness to disappear from view; his boldness from the bravery of just letting be.

It’s the exact opposite of the Trump-style American Dream, where everyone is in it for themselves; the Glengarry Glen Ross sales ethos where everything is “fuck or walk”.

As a director, “you’re bringing out the best in people,” Yates says. “You have to care more than anyone else.”

CV: Sam Yates

Born: 1983, Stockport
Landmark productions: Cornelius, Finborough and 59E59 (2012), The El Train, Hoxton Hall (2013), East Is East, Trafalgar Studios (2014), Desire Under the Elms, Sheffield Crucible (2017)
Awards: Rhode Island future filmmaker award, The Hope Rooms (2016)
Agents: Michael McCoy and Jack Thomas, Independent Talent; George Lane and Jay Baker, CAA

Glengarry Glen Ross runs at Playhouse Theatre, London [9] until February 3, 2018