Interview with Douglas Rintoul, director

Three is not a crowd

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 06.03.2008

d’Lëtzebuerger Land: I think having an English director work with Luxembourg actors on an English-language production must be a première. How did it all come about?

Douglas Rintoul: I was associate director on Deborah Warner’s pro-duction of Julius Caesar in 2005, which was a massive international co-production. It had a chorus of 100 people; I directed the chorus in London, then I went ahead and casted and directed the new chorus in Paris and then Madrid and then Luxembourg, so I was here quite a lot. I got to know the Grand Théâtre, they saw me rehearse, and then Tom Leick phoned me about six months later and said he was interested in doing an English-language production. He was thinking of Design for Living. At the time I was in Ipswich, where I was directing Private Lives, which was my first Coward.

As a young director I never imagined doing Coward. I had these preconceptions of what he was. Then I read Private Lives and directed it, and it sort of became a revelation. Actually, there’s so much more going on in his plays than I thought. And of all his plays Design for Living is probably the one that is still the most modern because the sexual politics is even difficult and controversial for an audience today.

Of course, Tom had the idea for the three of them (Tom Leick, Myriam Muller and Jules Werner). The great thing is that there’s a relationship between these three actors that’s already there; you get to play with that. And they’re really great actors, so I said “yes”. It was very important for me and also for them to bring over David Phelan, who I worked with in England three times. Having an actor whose mother tongue is English roots everyone.

Traditionally Coward is associated with high comedy, with clipped vowels, cigarette holders and silk dressing gowns… You’ve mentioned sexual politics just now, which other themes do you see in this play in particular??Well, the whole play is about how three people come to terms with the fact that they are all in love with each other and find a way they can actually exist in that relationship – that’s what the journey of the play is. Then there is the role of the artist, especially in relation to the difficulties of fame and success. It’s also about ambition and money. Leo, a playwright obsessed with fame, loses Gilda and he loses Otto. The relationships in his life are completely fractured; he learns that success can’t be a priority. He’s a fascinating character because it’s quite autobiographical. He reads the reviews of his plays; everyone is saying they are glib and a sheen, and you can tell it’s Coward’s own experience of fame.

Coward played Leo when Design for Living opened on Broadway in 1933 and directed the production himself… Isn’t there also a clear parallel with the celebrity culture we’re supposed to be living in now??The 1930s are an extraordinary period, that’s why the play feels modern to a degree. The language isn’t, but visually it is very modern if you choose the right aspects. In terms of art and design we have gone back to the Thir­ties again and again. It’s always been the reference point for modernity; it’s the beginning of modernism.

I think Otto has these lines about individual freedom, claiming that we aren’t hurting anyone by making our own choices. So why should people be upset? Why should we feel concerned about conventions or other people’s expectations?It’s a period of time when there is an enormous amount of freedom and fluidity. Also, the vote was only given to women nine years before Design for Living was written. There is this thing about life being untidy, which is absolutely new within the play for three young people in their late twenties and early thirties. Being someone in their early thirties today, I think that all our lives are incredibly untidy now because we don’t have the kind of structure we used to have.

Except that we tell ourselves stories about our own lives and then we somehow get a sense of structure… Well, that’s why I’m a theatre director. But there is a fluidity to life in our modern world. Ultimately, the play is about relationships between three people, but if you’re looking at the writer and the play, one of the big aspects is homosexuality: someone accepting their own homosexuality and the acceptance of homosexuality in society. That’s certainly what Coward is exploring. There’s an ambiguity between the two boys. If it wasn’t for censorship, if he was writing the play now, it would be very, very different. It would probably be much more like Patrick Marber’s Closer.

The extraordinary thing is the ambiguity and the subtlety. It doesn’t have to be explicit, it’s there anyway. Those are certainly choices of sexuality, whether it is about living in a threesome or whether it is about homosexuality or being an independent woman and living with two men. Historically the characters are at a point when they can make those choices, but there’s no model. The play is asking the audience to acknowledge that there are other ways of living. Coward’s not saying there is one way, or this is the right way, but this is a design for living, a choice which is as acceptable as all the others. The three characters struggle so hard to find that form that by the end of the play we sort of feel relieved for them and not shocked actually.

We’ve talked about the themes, which makes it all sound very serious, but seeing a Coward play is fun. And the amusement often comes from the pace, from the way it moves.That’s the biggest thing he did for theatre. He’s a composer, so the plays are pieces of music to a degree. Technically it’s very difficult for an actor because there can’t really be any space between lines. There are very few silences or pauses. But then we do think incredibly quickly as human beings; we don’t think and then speak, we actually think as we are speaking at the same time. He was one of the first British writers to really bring that to the stage, so there is a sort of hyper-naturalism to his text. He spent a lot of time in New York and saw there was this rhythm of delivery on Broadway. The plays refer to it all the time. It is about this new era – the speed of communication, the speed of industrialisation – which is having an effect everywhere, but hadn’t really come into theatre yet.

And then, of course, there’s the extraordinary wit and sophistication. There’s a scene in Act II where Otto returns and it’s around the dinner table, it’s completely Pinter, even though Coward famously said he never wrote subtext. Yet his characters do not say what they’re thinking, they’re deflecting all the time; it’s not as subtle as the subtext in Pinter, but there’s certainly a connection between the two. And the comedy is rooted in the history of the comedy of manners going from the Restoration through Wilde and passing forward as well. There is the absurdity of the humour, which is quintessentially a very English sense of humour.

Coward’s certainly very English to anyone on the Continent. It has to do with the humour but it also has to do with the persona he created for himself, the very gentleman-like persona, and then there are his war activities, there’s a certain mystery to him, too.I think that what we also associate with being so English is the repression of emotion. No one really does express themselves. Of course, there are moments in the play when they really do let rip, but it’s only after sitting on everything for such a long period of time. I mean Brief Encounter is the classic example, that’s what’s so beautiful about it as well. There is this unspoken thing that is burning away destroying the character within. Coward does that brilliantly in the plays, too.

Design for Living, Théâtre des Capucins, March 7, 8, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20 and April 10 and 11; tickets:

Janine Goedert
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