The Playgoer: Mike Leigh

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mike Leigh

My preview of Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years (now in previews at the New Group) is in this week's Time Out.

I did a lot of research for the piece, most of which, of course, couldn't fit into 750 words. So here's some rambling summing up of some things I found interesting but couldn't fit in.

I must say it was a rush to talk to the man (over the phone, alas), having been a devoted fan of his films since 1988's High Hopes--which it turns out was his first US release. Through the New Group's previous four stagings of his work (starting with 1995's Ecstasy, which I saw) we in New York have been able to discover some of his theatre oeuvre, as well. All the plays the New Group has done before this (Ecstasy, Goose Pimples, Smelling a Rat, and Abigail's Party) all date from his residence at London's Hampstead Theatre from the late 70s to late 80s. But he actually has been creating plays since 1965 and basically kept at it until the international success of his early feature films (especially Naked and Secrets and Lies) took over by the early 90s. Two Thousand Years, then, is his first new work for the theatre since then. It was commissioned by the National Theatre back in 2001. Nicholas Hytner, who had just taken over there, sought Leigh out and coaxed him out of theatrical retirement.

Of course, "commission" is a funny word to use in this case. Especially given the way Leigh works. Hytner knew full well he was never going to see a script in advance. And because of Leigh's film schedule (Vera Drake kind of got in the way) he did not even commit himself until 2005. But even when he did, he insisted on a total news blackout about his development process and even an off-site rehearsal location to work with his actors in total isolation from the National. My understanding is that not even Hytner had a clue what the play was going to be like before seeing a dress rehearsal, or even 1st preview.

Leigh is famously cagey with journalists about his process--which he told me, not without a chuckle, is a "trade secret." And he is as secretive with every project really, whether stage or film. But as good as it may be for publicity--the mystery of Two Thousand Years stirred up
the London press pretty good--it's also honestly a necessity given neither he nor his actors know what the script will end up being about for a very long time.

From my research and talking to him, I gather it's something like this: Leigh does begin with some sense of a theme, historical period, or specific event. (Obviously films like the Gilbert & Sullivan docudrama Topsy-Turvy and the WWII-era Vera Drake didn't just materialize out of nothing.) He casts actors not so much for specific roles, but for their temperamental openness to his methods, their facility with improvisation, and what they might personally bring to the project.

With Two Thousand Years, for instance, he told (finally) the London press he had set out to something about his Jewish background, but wanted to engage modern London Jews with each other arguing about the world. He then deliberately set out to only cast Jewish actors. ("I auditioned or at least considered every Jewish actor in London," he told me.) His bluntness about this struck me as unusual, by the way. Hard to imagine someone saying that here. (Yet he did instruct New Group director Scott Elliott to do the same.) For Leigh, the play had to come from a group effort of Jewish people reflecting upon themselves and their families.

Including his own--Leigh himself did a teenage pilgrimage to a kibbutz with the Habonim movement referenced in the play, and his parents had previously met under such circumstances a generation earlier. Talking of the play, he frequently discusses his own "Zionist Socialist" background, even though he seems to have been brought up--in what was a large Jewish community in Manchester--rather secularly. (Emphasis on the Socialist more than the Zionist, perhaps?) This secular, political experience of Judaism (or Jewishness) is exactly what the play is about, though--and the conflicts it comes into both against pious faith and political realities in contemporary Israel.

But back to his casting process...Leigh also mentioned that a separate "secret agenda" of the project was to reclaim Jewish roles for Jewish actors. At least in England, where he believes there is far too much "blacking up" of gentiles in major Jewish roles. He has even served on a committee of British Equity formed to represent the interests of black, asian, and Jewish actors
in not being passed over for roles matching their race or ethnicity.

Needless to say, such essentialist insistence on "authenticity" might be more controversial in the cultural climate here today. (Even David Henry Hwang questions it in his Yellow Face, which dissects the controversy that arguably, with his help, started the debate: the Miss Saigon affair.) I'll let others comment on that for now. But I was definitely struck by how adamantly Leigh insisted on this ideal for this play. In much the way August Wilson insisted on black directors for his work.

However, if we consider the "devised" element in Leigh's work, and the collaborative , ensemble-based creative effort, then his a different stance than merely "identity politics." After all, if you decided to gather Jewish actors in a room to tell their stories and then staged it as a "documentary" (or as the English say, "verbatim") play, then few would question the practice.

Make no mistake, though, Leigh's plays and films eventually are scripted, and scripted by Leigh himself. He says he does not "write" in a traditional lone-man-at-a-desk way. But rather he selects, shapes, and structures from what emerges in the rehearsal improvisations. There is never any improvisation on stage before an audience or in front of the camera. By that time everything has been "set."

Leigh spent four months "rehearsing" Two Thousand Years this way. Typically, the beginning of this--according to other accounts--consists of extended one-on-one discussions with each actor, exploring themselves and people they know, searching for interesting hooks for a character. The actor then goes out and researches on his or her own extensively before coming back into the room to work with the others. "Research" is a big deal to Leigh, whatever the project, and for Two Thousand Years he designated an assistant, a young Israeli filmmaker,
a resource for all things Israel. (One of the play's characters is Israeli.)

When actors begin improv-ing together, they may know their characters, but there's still no settled plot. Leigh may develop a storyline with some actors but not tell others. In Vera Drake for example, he was careful to keep all information about Vera's illegal abortionist work secret from those playing her family until they first improvised the scene when police come to arrest her: the points was to create the dramatic reaction of her family to the shock in as emotionally authentic a way as possible. (Again what you see on film is not the improv itself, but sort of a reenactment of it, presumably.)

So you can see why he insists on secrecy all around the project and to the press, if he's even keeping secrets on set. In London, this pissed off the press to no end on Two Thousand Years. The National was patient, and settled for advertising the play in their season brochure as merely "A New Play by Mike Leigh." The run sold out in advance anyway. The mere release of a poster--bearing the enigmatic image of a palm tree amidst sand--set off fevered speculation. "It could be about the Iraq war," someone in the Guardian wrote. "It could be about a desert island, or it could even be about coconuts."

When the play was finally unveiled, most were pleased with what they found. Having read the script, I don't want to "review" the play before seeing it at the New Group, but I will say I found it very engaging and very like a Mike Leigh film--except more contained, in its unit set and tight nuclear family. It's also relatively plotless and rather Shavian in its self-conscious staging of debate. But given the debate is about the issues facing Jews today (assimilation vs tradition, belief vs modernity, Israel right-or-wrong vs leftist solidarity with Palestinians) it's one automatically engaging. And since it's all really about how we all live as civilized people in a world where terrorism has ratcheted up the challenges to freedom and tolerance, then I imagine it should be of interest to non-jews, too.

One last thought about Mike Leigh as a theatre artist: I learned he's a major one in Britain, actually. Abigail's Party (I believe never done in the US until the New Group did it here in 2005) is a bona fide modern classic in the UK, constantly revived, imitated, and quoted. (Leigh also filmed it in a 70s TV version, which he now dismisses as a crude video of the stage production.) One senses his heart has been in film all along, though, at least that's what he says about his youthful ambitions. He began doing theatre, he says, as a way to develop this technique which he started applying to filmmaking as early as 1971 with his first feature. Then followed a series of highly regarded television films over the next two decades, which were never released here, but constituted an important oeuvre of largely working class drama on their own. (Some of these early films are now finally becoming available here on DVD.)

But it's interesting that the whole Mike Leigh Process really did originate in the theatre, and back in 1965. And it's, I hope, inspirational for young theatre artists today to consider what it must have been like for him, at 22--dropped out of a more traditional stage acting training at RADA in favor of art school and film school stints--to just gather together a group of actor friends and create together a play over a period of months. Little did they know, actors and director alike, that this was the beginning of a process that would catapult its leader into a career of now over four decades, doing exactly the same thing, except usually on bigger scales. With the spare simplicity of Two Thousand Years, though, he pretty much returns to his roots.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this profile, Garrett. I got my tickets for Two Thousand Years last week and look forward to it; the New Group's production of Abigail's Party a few seasons ago was a highlight.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Wow--extremely good work, Garrett. I'm both fascinated and maddened by Leigh, and had my own run-in with him as a journalist. I'm particularly fond, though, of "Life Is Sweet" and "Grown-Ups." And I should mention that "Abigail's Party" did have a reportedly great production in L.A. in 1994--though I didn't see it, one of my favorite actors anywhere, Denise Poirier, played Beverly. Variety's review is here.

Alison Croggon said...

It's probably worth comparing Leigh with Lindsay Anderson, another great British film maker who came from (and never left) the theatre.