Beckett’s cornflower blue eyes

Art & Lit Stage


PHOTO / Laura Simmons

He’s the man you never see; the names and faces peppering his website will be familiar to anyone interested in theatre, and yet if you look up “John Haynes’ portrait”, it’s the faces of others which come up. He’s been backstage with some of the nation’s biggest theatre names – Beckett, Laing, Max Stafford-Clark were all dropped into the conversation – and worked closely with the artistic directors of the Royal Court Theatre for over 20 years.

John Haynes started working in theatre in the 1960s after ending his national service: “I knew I would never go back to the wretched office I had worked in before”. He got a job backstage through “a chap who was into theatre” he had met in the RAF. “I didn’t know where I was going”, he said, “but I decided the Royal Court Theatre was where I wanted to be. It was where it was at.” It was whilst working backstage that someone showed him a book by Henri Cartier Bresson, a French street photographer famous for his candid portraits, and it this book that “kickstarted” his interest in photography. He showed me the book, preciously kept since the sixties, now without a cover but still full of well-thumbed A4 and A3 black and white images: people and moments captured in a split-second in front of a beautifully-composed background.

It was his father “who couldn’t afford it” who bought Haynes his first camera: a second-hand Leica which he stills remembers the price of. He would go around the streets trying to capture moments as Cartier Bresson had done. How did street turn in theatre? I asked him whether he had offered his services, but no, “I’ve never asked” he laughs, “it’s perhaps the big fault in my life”. His first theatre photographs were taken at a theatre class run by Keith Johnson, an assistant director at the time who was “completely off the wall” and a contact from the Court. In 1969 Haynes was asked to photograph Johnson’s first production, and continued to shoot various small productions for the theatre in the following years.

He then got a freelance job with the Sunday Times – apparently it was all down to luck and the recent change of the picture editor – by showing them some of his street and theatre photographs. He worked for the paper for two years, a job which gave him “world-class experience” as they “made you do anything from getting you to stand outside Downing Street to travelling to Ireland when the trouble was on”. “Then the director changed and I wasn’t in favour at all”, he says.

The Royal Court theatre was not only where Haynes began, it was also his artistic home for over twenty years. After his stint at the Sunday Times, “suddenly something clicked” with the Court, and he made his break into bigger productions through director Lindsay Anderson. Apparently Anderson hadn’t liked the rehearsal photographs of his show and had asked Haynes to do some instead. It was a “baptism by fire.”

Somehow after that Haynes became the photographer-in-residence of the theatre, despite there being no official contract. “I did almost every production until 1994”, most of them under the direction of Anthony Page, Lindsay Anderson or William Gaskill. The theatre was “an evocative place to work, all of them were very powerful directors. It was just a very warming place to be, I didn’t want to work anywhere else.”

Part of the attraction of the theatre was the way it presented his photography, as it had “the best front of house”, with two large blown-up photographs at the entrance. This has changed since, as the photos across London theatre have gradually been replaced with more cinema-style posters: “I don’t think I would have been a theatre photographer now,” Haynes admits.

Two productions have remained vivid in his mind – Gaskill’s production of Saved and Bond’s Lear, two productions which “hit you between the eyes”. One of the photographs from Lear is hanging on the wall in Haynes’ dining room, and he points to it as he mentions the play. He was “young and impressionable” at that time: “plays I saw when I was very young left more of an impression than others, and they are all still very much in my memory”.

When I ask about memorable faces, he replies immediately with two names it would be hard for anyone to forget. The first is Samuel Beckett, the second R D Laing. Haynes photographed Laing over many years, in different environments and poses (there’s one particularly striking shot of him standing on his head, another of him in a tree). To Haynes the Scottish artist had a certain charisma which made him unforgettable, and the two developed a relationship as they worked together.

The experience with Beckett was quite a different one. The two met in 1973 during a production of Not I. “I had very little time with Beckett”, Haynes explains, “We were introduced: ‘John Haynes, this is Samuel Becket’, then we were left alone”. At this point Haynes reveals just how star-struck he was then, as he utters a nervous “aaah” as he remembers that day. “He didn’t have the reputation he has now, I hadn’t even seen Waiting for Godot, but he was still a famous playwright.”

“He was sitting on this chair in the middle of the stage, with magazines on his lap and harsh white lighting on his face. He had dark glasses on. I didn’t really speak to him, I worked round him. I took pictures from the side, from underneath.” Though Beckett was famous for disliking having his picture taken, Haynes worked up the courage to ask him to remove his dark glasses – and it’s the first shot he took after Beckett did so which has made it onto the cover of the poet’s biography.

“That was it – the other times were mostly showing contacts”. Haynes thinks back to the times when it was the Director, not the Press Office, who decided on which rehearsal photos would make it into the programme. After photographing Not I, Haynes explained how he met up with Becket in the pub “I had taken one roll of film. To me, years later, I think ‘How could I have only taken so few photos?’ Now I would have taken hundreds of photos.” The photographer blames his lack of confidence, but the results were good. “Beckett looked at these pictures and said ‘These are beautiful pictures’” [Haynes emits another sigh]. “That’s when I really looked at his eyes – such beautiful cornflower-blue eyes.”

When asked if he ever wished he had been able to capture the blue of those eyes on colour film, Haynes says no. “It took me so long to come to colour… The exposure’s so critical on colour film, you can really mess it up. The photo would not have been so iconic in colour.” His other memories of Beckett are from rehearsals when he returned to London to do Happy Days: “it was a hush atmosphere when he directed”.

The theatre photographer gets to see plays as few others do, and when asked about the difference between watching a play through a lens or as part of an audience he replied that they are “two very different things”. In rehearsals you’re alone with the director, and the actor “is somehow at his peak”. Haynes confesses: “I used to make very rash opinions about the plays I saw in rehearsal – I come away and think ‘oh that’s awful’, or ‘that’s wonderful’”.

Despite his successes with Beckett and others, Haynes says “its never been a speciality of mine, portraits”, preferring the theatrical genre. He stuck with it too: “Once I had worked for the Sunday Times I never did anything else [except theatre photography]. The theatre has never been a well-paid industry for photographers or for anyone else, but I never stopped. It was only this century that I slowed down, and work didn’t come at the same rate… All freelancers experience periods of not getting much, but I seem to have survived really well.”

We end on the “love affair” Haynes admits to having with France. It originated from years of holidays there: “there’s always been the mystery of going across the water and seeing such a different land”. Paris was the first holiday he went on after he got married, and sitting by the Seine “was so evocative then”. Has he tried to follow in Cartier Bresson’s footsteps? “All of my photos are based on his photos” he says, “you can’t help it, you copy what you see.” Though the artificial lights of the stage may seem far from natural daylight and the everyday moments the French photographer captured, Haynes admits to enjoying a similar sort of challenge. “In the theatre you’re shooting in very low light… your photos become better, the more you battle against the odds.”