I spend most of my working time directing plays, musicals and operas, often abroad. The cultural circumstances are markedly different but the aim is the same: to create live events. These may run for years in the case of musicals, or a handful of performances in the case of opera; but fundamentally, the experience is ephemeral.
So the offer to direct Martyn Hesford’s screenplay Mrs Lowry and Son offered new challenges. I loved the material, so I signed up. But was it a wholly different journey? Hamlet tells the actors, newly arrived in Elsinore: “We’ll hear a play tomorrow.” Not see, but hear. So if I’m directing a play by Shakespeare, this simple but profound verbal shift must sit at the heart of my work as a director. I must find a way of serving the language, of enabling the spoken word to lead the audience into the heart of the drama.
Its different with, say, Ibsen, where the quality and intensity of the transactions between actors are paramount, and the principle contributor to the audience experience.
It has always struck me that the scientific discoveries of Darwin, Marx and Stanislavski in the 19th century lead directly to the invention and development of cinema. Cinema tells stories through pictures but has the uncanny ability to peer into a character’s mind.
I was conscious of this when I embarked on Mrs Lowry and Son. I knew the success of the film would rest largely on the genius of the actors playing the two principal roles: the painter and his oppressive, abusive mother.
With Vanessa Redgrave and Tim Spall, I was blessed with performers of brilliance who not only inhabited Martyn Hesford’s characters but breathed life into them and gave them totally independent existences.
My job was to respect what they were doing and capture it. When I was prepping my first feature film, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dickie Attenborough gave me some simple, potent advice: “Shoot the players, darling.” So that’s what I did.
As with an Ibsen play, I wanted to create an intense relationship between characters and the camera. I assembled a crew and creative group who were sympathetic and supported the endeavour. I wanted to create an atmosphere on set that had the intensity and concentration of a theatre rehearsal room.
We rehearsed little, just until the interaction was at ‘cooking level’. I then chose lenses that would tell the story, frame the action and invite the audience into the minds of the characters. I stayed by the camera close to the action throughout, on every shot.
I was constantly in awe of the talents of these two actors. Indeed, it’s been one of the great privileges of my professional life to work with great actors and singers in every medium.
And then there’s the strange experience of post-production, when the meaning of a scene can shift. The experience is built up, layer by layer, sound, grade, music. Each process is rewarding and complex, adding to the ‘live’ experience of the finished film.
Adrian Noble is a director. He was also was also the artistic director and chief executive of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 2003. Mrs Lowry and Son is in cinemas now