The South African director has built an international reputation for creating searing, uncompromising and often confrontational drama. She tells Sam Marlowe why theatre isn’t all ‘sound and fury’, her shock over bad reviews and how she discovered Arthur Miller in the bath.
At the age of 13, Yael Farber fell in love with Arthur Miller when she was in the bath. While her mother rapped impatiently on the bathroom door of their Johannesburg home, the young Farber was immersed in The Crucible.
“I was mesmerised,” she says over tea at the Donmar Warehouse’s West End rehearsal studios more than three decades on. It was, she says, a pivotal moment. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Miller calls a play ‘a love letter to the world’.” And for Farber, discovering his work was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with theatre.
Now 47, Farber has carved out a formidable international reputation, making searing, challenging and often unforgettable work. Steeped in ritual, her productions have the ferocious intensity of Greek tragedy.
She is currently in rehearsals for Knives in Hens, David Harrower’s lean, poetic 1995 three-hander about awakening consciousness, love and the power of language, set in a pre-industrial village. The creative journey, as usual, is a demanding one.
“Directing is basically asking a bunch of people to run full speed at a wall with you, and to believe that you’ll all pass through,” she says with a smile. “And sometimes you won’t. But you have to feel it’s still worth the injury.”
If that sounds bruising, it’s because Farber has chosen a particularly rugged, testing professional path ever since that initial dramatic revelation among the soapsuds.
She has never been interested in commercial success, in spectacle for its own sake or in escapism. Instead, she sees theatre as her vocation, and her approach to it is uncompromising.
Farber has created a strand of tough testimonial dramas. Nirbhaya in 2013 was drawn from real-life accounts of sexual violence and focused on the horrific story of Jyoti Singh, who died of her injuries after being gang-raped on a Delhi bus in 2012.
An early work, He Left Quietly, was a collaboration with the late human rights activist Duma Kumalo, one of the Sharpeville Six protesters in South Africa falsely accused of murder in 1984.
Her interpretations of established texts have been just as searing. Mies Julie, her acclaimed, devastating reworking of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie, features explosive interracial passion and a horrifically violent climax. The adaptation, relocated to South Africa’s Karoo region on Freedom Day 2012, is currently back in Edinburgh, where it first opened four years ago.
Molora, from 2008, places the savage tragedy of Aeschylus’ Oresteia within the framework of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which took place in 1995 after the end of apartheid.
And in 2014, she tackled Miller and the play that changed her life in that Johannesburg bathroom. Her brilliant production of The Crucible at the Old Vic was a staging full of blaze and shadow, terror and wonder. It is the kind of work that, as Farber puts it, “summons us for an encounter with ourselves – that’s the stuff that will always bring me back to what is a pretty exacting master. You can’t hide when you want to make theatre that does that”.
There’s no question that Farber – slender, alabaster-skinned and dark-haired, with a warm but penetrating gaze – is rigorously serious about her work. At one point, she describes herself as “obsessive”. Yet, however complex and esoteric our conversation becomes, there’s always a sense of humour, a generosity and an openness rippling beneath the precisely calibrated sentences.
She compares her almost forensic fascination with her work to that of a surgeon – perhaps it is no coincidence that both her parents were in the medical profession. Her father, whose family were Holocaust survivors from Lithuania, was a doctor. She has a vivid childhood memory of watching him scrub up before a day’s work in preparation for entering an altogether different type of theatre. Her mother was a nurse before looking after Yael and her sisters full-time.
“My parents came from very broken backgrounds and both grew up for periods of their lives in institutions,” Farber says. “But they managed to make a home in which we were wanting nothing. And, of course, I was a white South African, which means in comparison to 80% of the population you were privileged, there’s no question about it. But yes, my parents understood harshness before they understood anything else. And grief, and loss. And darkness.”
Farber studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, but says her real training came from her experiences at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, and often from Lara Foot, a close friend who now runs the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town.
Full of passion but uncertain of her direction, Farber assumed she would be an actor. But, she says, “I just didn’t have the music. I knew it when I saw it in other people’s performances, and I knew I didn’t have it. I couldn’t channel the intensity that I feel into my acting. It was like trying to fly – no matter how much I flapped my wings I couldn’t get off the ground.” It was Foot who encouraged her to direct, and Farber knew she had found her calling.
There were challenges. “Theatre is brutally practical,” she says. “You have to make magic out of what they’ll hand you. And because there was no funding in South Africa, I learned to make theatre out of sand and water.”
Now, she gets a chance to create epic visions on the biggest stages, but for her “it always comes back to essentials. If you can’t tell that story by candlelight with a couple of chairs, if it’s all about the sound and fury, then it isn’t theatre”.
Meanwhile, the testimonial works she was making: A Woman in Waiting, Amajuba and He Left Quietly – all dealing with the experiences of black South Africans under apartheid – saw her, as a white artist, subjected to political criticism.
“Of course I took heat for that,” she says. “There was appreciation for the work, but there was also an absolutely understandable scrutiny. But I felt a very strong drive to be part of ploughing something back into a country that I had received a great deal from.”
She was similarly alive to the possibility of objections when she created Nirbhaya, and when she took on the pioneering African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s remarkable, unfinished drama Les Blancs. The play is a thrillingly militant, formally audacious response to Jean Genet’s The Blacks and was staged at the National Theatre last year.
“But who decides that someone has the right to tell a story? You can’t say that story’s off limits,” Farber insists. “But you have to approach it with a tremendous amount of humility and respect.”
Over the best part of two decades, Farber has garnered an impressive array of awards, but she’s wary of any kind of star status – not least because her most recent work in London, Salome at the National, was a thumping critical flop.
The production had met with approval in New York, although it had undergone some alterations in the interim; and Farber admits that the vehemence of the bad reviews was a shock.
“I know what the work’s shortfalls were, and I know what the deeper possibilities were, and I’m not precious or sentimental at all about what did and didn’t finally fly as an experience,” she says of the play that ran until mid-July. “But I did receive a lot of correspondence from people who said it profoundly affected them. And then equally, other people profoundly detested it. That’s never easy, of course – but I’m not in this for ‘easy’.”
She continues: “The more you are appreciated, the harder the fall. What I tried to understand from the negative responses was, what was the promise that was not fulfilled? What did people come expecting, that they felt so let down, that the response had to be so harsh? Because I see a lot of bad and mediocre theatre that is hard to watch, and it gets fairly favourable responses.
“But I also understand why, if you have a larger vision, you should be put to the higher test. And if I ever reduce my capacity for taking risks through an experience like that, then I must stop doing what I do. Of course it’s painful. But that is part of the deal.”
And so to the next trial by fire, Knives in Hens, which opens this week at the Donmar Warehouse.
Farber is revelling in Harrower’s haunting text, which follows a ploughman, his wife and the local miller – who is despised by the villagers – caught up in a highly charged and ultimately violent triangular relationship.
“It’s about husbands and wives, and children, and the damage we do to each other, and the heroism that’s possible in all of us. But there’s also the sensuality. There’s a very deep erotic pull inside the work, and a very dark undertow. The language feels like some kind of a song, a siren song. When I was reading it for the first time, I knew I was holding a very special play in my hands.”
It also, Farber contends, chimes with our current political turbulence. “The world has moved more and more into that polarising space where we just don’t know who we are unless we can point to what we’re not,” she says. “So that idea of the miller being the outsider, or the hated one, the one we’re suspicious of, with his hands in the grain, who steals from us – I think it speaks to the harsh political climate we find ourselves in. We’re living in a time of tremendous fear.”
In the rehearsal room, her methodology, she says, is different for each production. Though the extreme stress and pressure of making new or collaborative work – usually within the same time frame as she would be permitted for an established text – tends to cost her more of her stomach lining.
“When I did The Crucible, it had been 12 years since I’d directed anything other than work I’d written or collaboratively created. And the joy of that! But it was still hellishly demanding,” Farber says.
“As I sit here I don’t know if I will succeed with this piece. That’s not to say that I masochistically want to avoid that,” she laughs.
Specifically, she tries to encourage whole-body engagement from her actors, rather than the attitude that everything from the neck down is “just a life support” for the head and face.“That takes a while, particularly with actors that have been trained in another way.”
She’s also contemptuous of conventional approaches to staging decisions, notably “this extraordinary term ‘to block a play’. I mean that’s exactly what you end up doing, you block it. My process doesn’t leave a lot of time for that.”
It can make life tough for her cast, she admits, chuckling, adding that some actors “have a terrible time with me”. But her work is probably toughest on herself, not least because it so often requires separation from her 10-year-old daughter, Ella, with whom she lives in Montreal. She is separated from Ella’s father, Welby Altidor, formerly a senior creative at Cirque du Soleil, who also lives in the Canadian city.
What was your first non-theatre job? Waitressing at a Greek trattoria.
What was your first professional theatre job? Actress in a comedy.
What is your next job? Directing for the Gate Theatre in Dublin.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Nothing. The apprenticeship is not theoretical. It has to be lived.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Johannesburg, the Market Theatre, Lara Foot, Peter Brook, Primo Levi.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be true.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? War correspondent.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Protective ancestral spitting over my left shoulder, wearing a hamsa symbol, having Ganesha in each rehearsal room.
Happily, for Knives in Hens Farber and her daughter were both in London together – “one of the rare times she’s been with me as I create,” the director beams. “I usually have to leave her for two months at a time. So it comes at a high cost for me.” She winces visibly. “Missing two months of your child’s life is physical pain.”
Next up is an as-yet undisclosed project at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, as well as Oedipus to Antigone, a reworking of Sophocles for Marianne Elliott’s new company Elliott Harper.
Farber will no doubt tackle both with intelligence and exigence but, she says, “I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve been welcomed here, but I’m an outsider. I’ll always be an outsider, I’ll never be British. I’ll never be anything except South African, and even when I go back to South Africa I find I’ve shifted. You know, they say nostalgia is the longing for a home that never really existed. And home now is wherever Ella is.”
She is content, besides, to be more or less adrift. “I’m open to wherever the next couple of years take me. I don’t ever want to be part of an artistic community. Because you get sucked into it, and it becomes about your associates – and I never want that. I always want to be passing through.”
And she’ll keep making the kind of theatre that she believes matters, however daunting the standards she sets herself. Sometimes, she confesses, the fear is almost paralysing. But back in the bathtub, all those years ago, this is what she signed up for. As she puts it, directing takes grace and grit.
CV: Yael Farber
Born: 1971, Johannesburg, South Africa
Training: University of the Witwatersrand School of Dramatic Art, Johannesburg
Landmark productions: Molora, the Pit, Barbican, London (2008), Mies Julie, Edinburgh Fringe (2013) and Riverside Studios, London (2013), Nirbhaya, Edinburgh Fringe (2013), The Crucible, Old Vic, London (2014), Les Blancs, National Theatre (2016)
Awards: BroadwayWorld UK/ West End Best Director award for The Crucible (2014), Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award for Nirbhaya (2013), The Scotsman Fringe First for Mies Julie (2012), Naledi Best Director Award for Molora (2008), The Scotsman Fringe First for Woman in Waiting (2000)
Agent: Patrick Herold, ICM Partners
Knives in Hens is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until October 7