Every director has their own little Quirkes

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One Sunday morning, I was enjoying a warming sip of honeyed porridge at Prêt à Manger. More importantly, I was on the lookout for the director who brought to Oxford’s theatres Posh, Proof and, only last term, Rope. Out of this trio of monosyllables, she has already made a bed of laurels. I approached a woman with a book. “Excuse me; are you here for an interview with The Oxford Student?” No, she was not. Nor was the lady with the orange handbag, but she was flattered. I tried again: “Excuse me; are you…” My brie and tomato baguette slipped out of my arm and landed pathetically on the floor. She stooped to help and her sunglasses fell and added to the chaos. It was Susanna Quirke, the director of The Winterling.

Casual but earnest, she spoke fluently. “With my previous shows, I chose the show and recruited everyone myself. A lot of them would’ve been involved in past productions.” As for The Winterling, the case was a little different. “I was not planning to do any drama this term, because – you know – I do have other things to do, or I like to tell myself I do! I then got an email saying that The Winterling had lost its director, Jo Allen… I contacted Jo, talked to him about it, and I read the script. Usually I’d say no – it’s something another person has started and so on – but the script is incredible. I thought: this is something I have to do.”

The Winterling was written by Jez Butterworth, whose 2009 play Jerusalem dominated both the West End and Broadway. In a forlorn farmhouse on the Dartmoor hills, the protagonist West waits for a couple of old friends from London. “What becomes increasingly clear is that things are not quite as they seem, and the histories between these people are actually quite twisted and interesting. It’s just constantly subverting what you think is going on; it’s a kind of a thriller.” The play has often been called Pinteresque. Was she familiar with Pinter’s works? “I personally am not. I’ve seen Pinter. I’ve seen student Pinter. There’s a lot of buzz about this Pinter pause business. I don’t like the Pinter pause. I’ve actually read somewhere Pinter saying, “I wish I just hadn’t put any pauses in my scripts.” People can view these texts as absolutely seminal and they have to do all the pauses in the right places, which I think is detrimental for good drama. Good drama has to move; it has to have its own natural flow. One of the first things I’m doing is taking out most of the pauses!

“In some theatre, especially in Pinter – I can’t stand it – you get line A, line B, line C, line D. That’s not how people talk at all. I very much like cue-biting. All my actors will laugh if they hear me saying this. I say cue-biting a lot in rehearsals. People talk over each other all the time. You don’t wait for people to finish…” I made some comment over her. “Exactly, just like that.” Slightly embarrassed, I explained I could not help but voice my agreement.

Existentialism, naturally enough, is not her favourite word. “Oh God no, who wants that? I respect that kind of drama, but for me it’s all about taking people somewhere else and showing them a story. It’s not about forcing them to sit there and contemplate their own existence. People go to the theatre to be in another place. They don’t go there to necessarily think too hard about themselves. If you can get them to think about issues they’re interested in, they’ll naturally draw ideas from the text. There’s no need to slow it all down and try and be pretentious. These are just good stories, and you should treat them that way.”

I supposed she had a very practical way of directing. “That’s it. For example, I know a lot of student directors who do warm-ups, exercises and very interesting things with physicality and voice. My approach is to get the blocking down and everything will come from that. I will start the rehearsal by going through the script with the actors and we’ll work out exactly what’s going on. We’ll work out exactly what’s being meant and we’ll work on rhythm and how we want it to come across. After that, we’ll get up and block it very, very clearly, so everyone knows at every point exactly where on the stage they’re going to be. It feels very rigid sometimes, but by the end, the actors know precisely where they are, they can focus much more and just immerse themselves in the play. It means that everything works like clockwork on the night.” Her method reminded me of something the great conductor Herbert von Karajan once said, who compared training an orchestra to riding a horse over an obstacle. You do not lift the horse up into the air and over the fence; you set it in the right position and it lifts itself.

“I would like my audience,” she continued, “not to be thinking in terms of “When is the first act going to end?” I’d rather they were thinking, “When’s he going to do this and when’s he going to do that?” For films it’s much the same.” She confessed to being more of a film-girl. “I’m a big fan of Ford Coppola… Nicolas Winding Refn… he’s done some great films that all look beautiful, and they all have this energy to them. But I often don’t feel connected with the characters or the drama in them; while I admire him a lot, I don’t think you can get immersed in the drama if you’re always sitting there thinking, “Oh, it’s a beautiful picture they’ve composed”. That’s not getting involved in the story, that’s appreciating the art of cinema. All I’m interested in is the story-telling element, and taking people to new places, and making them forget. That’s what I think it is, escapism, and that’s what film is and what theatre is and in that way they’re completely interchangeable.”

Some Socratic urge, no doubt felt regularly by tutors, rushed to my head, and I asked her what a good story was. “Obviously, whether something’s a good story or not, it’s all in the telling,” she told me. I suggested if violence, or an element of shock, might be useful. “Posh shocked quite a lot of people. A lot of people came out of the theatre thinking, “I’ve never come across that world”. For Rope, also, you knew that there was this body in the chest throughout the play! There’s this bit near the end, where Rupert Cadell draws his swordstick on the boys and it’s really been working up to this moment all the way through but you don’t necessarily know it’s coming. On some of the nights, the deathly silence of the audience was incredible; once I was sitting backstage, and some girl in the audience literally cried out “Oh my G…”! It was great. So there you go, clearly shocking.” As for The Winterling, “it’s probably the most shocking of the things I’ve done so far. The setting is bleak and dark. Some of these characters literally have nothing, and West is practically a runaway… the shocking things in their past that become clear throughout the show are genuinely awful. Histories that have to do with gang culture, tragedy, trafficking, and things like that.”

Sadly, not all that was discussed in the interview is present here in the article. If you are curious, as I suggest you should be, to find out about her views on Roger Zelazny, Alexandre Dumas, Catholicism and the Bullingdon Club, please drop me an email. More upsetting news, however, is that The Winterling will probably be her last play. Her attention is now turning to the world of cinema. I have only the vaguest idea of how The Winterling will look on the opening night, but I am somehow convinced that its director will bow out of the Oxford stage leaving only accolades behind.

PHOTO/  Joseph Saxby