The Playgoer: Jonathan Miller

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jonathan Miller

"I wonder whether it is worth it any more?...I even have to pay my own hotel. It took three hours to get the papers I need to work here. And another seven hours flying here. And what do I get in return? The New York Times."

One of my all time favorite international directors and theatre personalities Jonathan Miller, now 72, and pissed the Times neglected a major opera production of his at the summer Glimmerglass festival.

In his quiet old fashioned way, Miller has played a crucial role in the reimagining of classics on stage, from Shakespeare to Verdi. He's proved you don't have to be obtusely Eurotrash to have a "concept."

Read this portrait in today's Sun of the director as brilliant curmudgeon.

Miller is perhaps the last of that rare breed, an artist-intellectual "renaissance man." A man who began his year as basically a sketch comic ("Beyond the Fringe") studied medicine, did numerous BBC/PBS documentaries on intellectual history, directed for the Royal National Theatre and now primarily opera. But there's no place for him left in the world of bloated conservative opera houses and directors prized for box office.

"If I had done ‘Mamma Mia' I would be a millionaire many times over," he complained. "If I were Nick Hytner [the British National Theatre head who directed "Miss Saigon," "Carousel," and now "The History Boys"], I would at least be comfortable enough to be able to educate my grandchildren and not have to worry. At Cambridge I was taught medicine by Nobel laureates. It makes me wonder whether I should not have resisted the lure of the stage all those years ago."
He also describes seeing Anthony Minghella's "Madame Butterfly" at the Met "like receiving a maple syrup enema."

ADDENDUM (10/7): Miller's "retirement" turns out to be quite the campaign. Here he is talking to the Times as well. Daniel Wakin aptly describes Miller's perhaps greatest talent: "The Interview as Performance Art." This article at least does give Miller a chance to expand on his approaches to directing opera, with informative examples.


parabasis said...

WHen I read stuff like this I can't help but want to claw my own eyes out. Oh, Jonathan Miller has it rough, does he? Gosh, it must suck having to regularly put up shows with the resources of Lincoln Center. If only he had decided to direct a major musical-- which, of course, with him directing it, would've definitely been a hit by his own calculation-- he'd be rolling in it!

Miller isn't a child. He's been in this business for decades. Surely he must've realized long ago it isn't particularly lucrative.

We are not the victim of our own choices in life. Miller wants to treat the career path that he himself chose as if someone forced him into it.

A set change from his most recent opera could fund a downtown show (if not a season at soho rep). he has little right to complain.

Anonymous said...

I agree.

Also, didn't he direct that piece of shit TITANIC the musical?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that was Richard Jones. But Parabais's point still stands.

Anonymous said...

He directed King Lear at Lincoln Center a couple of years back. It was like getting a sawdust enema.

Playgoer said...

Yeah, I suppose I shouldn't have expected much sympathy for Miller. Some biting replies here!

What can I say, the man has been an inspiration to me, but over the long career, notwithstanding the occasional duds. (Don't forget his "Long Day's Journey" with Jack Lemmon!)

But his Rigoletto and Cosi Fan Tutte were amazing evenings of music-theatre for me. Some (certainly not all) of the BBC Shakespeares he did are great ("Merchant"). And his book Subsequent Performances is a terrific history of Shakespeare & classics in performance and a compelling justification of his own work.

Yeah, I know, boo-hoo. I thought the quotes were funny more than anything else.

Scott Walters said...

I've always been ambivalent about Miller. I have found him witty and iconoclastic, but I've also found him to have very little respect for the text. If I'm not mistaken, he directed the BBC Shakespeare "Othello" with Anthony Hopkins, which was embarrassing. But he also did Olivier's "Merchant," which sounded amazing.

The boo-hooing is interesting. Peter Hall did the same thing at the end of his autobiography. An inflated sense of their importance?