Max Stafford Clark – A Titan of his Times and still going Strong

`Our Country’s Good, a play that proclaimed the power and enduring worth of theatre and that celebrated its centrality to our lives, was of importance in the third term of a government which deemed `subsidy’ a dirty word.

So wrote Max Stafford Clark of the play he directed at the Royal Court in 1988. A titan of the British Theatre for over four decades and artistic director of the Royal Court for fourteen of them (1979-93), ask Stafford Clark if he feels the words are as relevant now as then and his answer is unequivocal. `Absolutely, yes. I think Cameron and Osborne collectively are more of a threat than Mrs Thatcher. Certainly they’ve done more damage.’

Stafford Clark is reviving Our Country’s Good before bringing it to London’s new St James Theatre at the beginning of next year. Yet despite being delighted to be reacquainted with a work he calls a `modern classic, a Rolls Royce of a play’ – there’s also no disguising a certain bitterness.

In March last year, Arts Council England reduced Out of Joint’s annual grant by over half despite their own assessors confirming the excellence of their work.

`We were told we were too expensive, that there were other more economical “providers of new work who could furnish new work less expensively,” says Stafford Clark stressing the word `providers’ as if it was some particularly nasty kind of obscenity.

Stafford Clark is not a man to be trifled with. In 1989, as the Royal Court suffered a similar fate, he closed down the Court’s studio space for 40 weeks. To make a point. `The agony of survival freezes the soul’, he wrote then. `So determined do we become simply to endure that we forget what it is we really wish to say.’

Stafford Clark has never not had something to say about our world. From his time as a young director at the Traverse Theatre to his heyday at the Royal Court and the extraordinarily risky enterprise setting up Out of Joint 19 years ago, Stafford Clark’s work has been stamped by an insistence on contemporaneity. Other hallmarks stand out: his commitment to new writing and the importance of ensemble.

Influenced early on by avant garde groups such as the Polish experimentalist Jerzy Grotowski, New York’s La Mama (with whom he spent a formative time in 1968) and the Brechtian influenced British director, Bill Gaskill, over the years he has forged a distinctive, spare performance style produced through a now legendary rehearsal combination of workshopping and improvisation.

Cue back to Our Country’s Good, a play about the redemptive power of theatre that quite apart from Stafford Clark’s own part in its creation perhaps now carries its own personal resonance for him. In 2006 he suffered a serious stroke that put him out of action for six months. In a very real sense, it was theatre that brought him back to life. `I longed to be back in the rehearsal room with a company of actors’, he now says. `Indeed you could say that the jigsaw of connecting a play together actually re-establishes the circuits in the brain. It’s making you fit by actually doing it.’

Based on Thomas Keneally’s story of the first performance in Australia of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer by convicts transported from Britain, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s humane and inspiring 18th century based drama started slowly but quickly became a red hot hit, performed all over the world, and part of the school curriculum.

Anyone reading it for the first time or re-reading it again can’t help but be struck not only by its resonances with today’s debates surrounding criminality and the justice system but the grace of its writing.

In a stuffy office turned rehearsal room on a small industrial estate in north London, Capt Arthur Phillip, RN, recently appointed governor of New South Wales is attempting to counter the `hang ‘em high’ cry from fellow officer, Major Robbie Ross. Around him sit the rest of the cast presided over like a mischievous beak by Stafford Clark, still bearing the physical marks of the stroke but brain as sharp as a whippet. A few feet away sit six or seven members of the public.

This is the first open rehearsal in England and an extraordinary break with tradition in an industry used to guarding its rehearsal privacy with almost sacred intensity.

It’s a decision not taken lightly but enforced by the financial cuts. Gone any hopes of new work for this year although if the Fates, co-producers, venues and most of all, budgetary constraints get themselves into alignment, some of several new plays in the pipeline may see the light of production next year.

But to his bewilderment – and scarcely concealed outrage – ACE are also pressurising the company to deliver `value for money’ by increasing the size of their audience. ’We should be a 200 people a night outfit’, insists Stafford Clark. Staging revivals – no matter how justifiable in their quality – and raising extra funds through open rehearsals are all part of the survival plan, constructed `through gritted teeth’, according to their genial Producer, Graham Cowley.

Yet, as the play itself proclaims, adversity can sometimes prove a surprising midwife.

Stafford Clark hedges his bets about his feelings on having the public in attendance. `It hasn’t helped but it’s certainly not hindered’, he offers dryily. The accumulating stack of admiring tweets however bears witness to the appreciative interest stirred up by their initiative.

But then, being let in on a process usually so jealously hidden from public gaze does feel like being let in on Aladdin’s cave – and twice as privileged, naked as the cast are to our prying eyes. Indeed, at one point, the actor playing Capt Phillip `stages’ a storming out of the room, cursing us for watching and the whole `monitoring’ exercise.

A stunned silence follows only for us to discover this is yet another `improv’, set up a few days earlier between director and actor using one of Stafford Clark’s favourite rehearsal ploys, a set of playing cards. The actor drawing the joker was instructed to thereafter `stage’ an eruption when he found an appropriate moment!

The ruse earned him a resounding round of applause from us, the `paying public’ and, more importantly, you could sense, drew the cast even closer together.

I couldn’t help wondering, if in a perfect world, Stafford Clark, with his lifelong commitment to the ensemble ethic wouldn’t have preferred to have been born in Russia or Germany where the notion of theatre ensemble is treated with the kind of respect – and resources – it’s never been accorded here.

Back came the answer, `No, I wouldn’t. In a perfectly organised world I’d like to have been born to a better funded Out of Joint.’ Point taken.

First published in The Arts Desk Aug, 2012.