And boys will be men

Veteran and varied UK theatre director Andy Smith talks to Teodor Reljic about his career and co-directing Masquerade’s upcoming production of Alan Bennet’s critically acclaimed The History Boys with Anthony Bezzina at the Manoel Theatre

Your CV includes plays from some of Britain’s greatest playwrights – from Shakespeare to Cartwright and beyond. Given this backlog of impressive and varied material, what is your most important priority when selecting projects these days? Anything in particular that you look for?

The freedom, for any director, to actually select a play for production is a very rare luxury. During my many years as a resident theatre director, when you are based in just one theatre, your choice of plays is largely dictated by economics, the community in which the theatre is based and current trends and fashions. I usually managed to include one play which was a personal favourite although this didn’t necessarily ensure box office success. I always firmly believe that it is a theatre director’s moral responsibility to introduce new work to core audiences, if you just give people ‘what they like’ and what ‘sells’ then theatre becomes stagnant and predictable. When I do have the freedom to chose a play it has to be something with which I can personally identify – there is so much that I can identify with in The History Boys – and the writing has to be brilliant. Since theatre is not just an auditory experience, the visual element also needs to be seen to. When Anthony Bezzina chose to produce The History Boys there was no hesitation, on my part, in becoming involved, the play contains everything that I, as a director, find fascinating!

How did your collaboration with Masquerade start?
My association with Masquerade began ten years ago when, quite by chance, I saw an advertisement in The Stage and Television Today for someone to give a series of practical Acting Workshops as part of Masquerade’s now firmly established and hugely successful Summer Experience. I was immediately taken with Anthony’s tremendous passion, energy and vision. From this early beginning we quickly established a dialogue which has just grown from strength to strength.

You will be co-directing the History Boys with Anthony Bezzina. How exactly will this dynamic work?
A project such as this has to work on several levels, both artistically and practically. Knowing each other as we do it is very easy to communicate in a brutally honest and open way. Anthony knew of my love for with play, so I wasn’t just collaborating on ‘any’ play. It was essential that we both shared the same vision for the production. I’m very passionate about really looking at text, examining every word, and I know that Anthony works in this way too. In terms of the actual logistics, I could only rehearse the play in September, because of commitments elsewhere, so we embarked on an intensive fourteen day (seven hours per day) rehearsal process, which was just exhilarating! Both Anthony and I also believe that good casting is the essence of any successful production. We actually held auditions for the play at the end of April and were astonished by the number of auditionees and the talent shown. I think it is fair to say that neither of us expected to assemble such a brilliant cast... the dynamic has been excellent and it has been several years since I’ve enjoyed the process of ‘creating’ a play quite so much!
The foibles of nurturing young talent is one of the predominant themes of Bennett's play. You've also made an effort to help up and coming writers. How do you identify burgeoning talent and, more importantly, what do you think are some of the problems young playwrights have to deal with these days?

Identifying young talent is very easy. What is more difficult is dealing with the vast numbers of young people who simply want to be ‘famous’, whether as a writer, actor, musician or singer, for the sake of being ‘famous’! When young people say to me “I just want to be famous,” I immediately reply with “famous for what?” and many of them haven’t got an answer. The obsession with ‘celebrity culture’ is entirely to blame! In terms of new writers it is important to offer a ‘new voice’ yet still understand the craft of the writer and work constantly to refine this craft. We actually have Malcolm Galea in the cast who has had success as a writer in the UK, his plays are both original and substantial in terms of their structure and depth. Today there are very few commercial managements prepared to produce work by unknown writers. I have always promoted a policy of featuring new work as ‘studio productions’ with minimal set and expenditure. During my time as Associate Director of The Norwich Playhouse, we gave a platform to six brand new plays, by unknown writers, each season. Several of the writers previewed in those early days went on to enjoy commercial success.
Being the first westener to direct George Orwell’s Animal Farm in Hungary after the fall of communism, one can assume that you're no stranger to fraught cultural-political scenarios. What do you make of the recent censorship furore in Malta, and how do you think it will affect the future of local theatre production?
Having worked all over the world I am accutely aware that specific cultural identities effect the outcome and reception of any production. When I worked in Hungary – 20 years ago – I didn’t quite realise the impact our production would have on the changing nature of the country. It was ‘moving’ in a much bigger sense than just the play itself. With the issue of censorship I believe that barriers are there to be challenged, they will always be challenged,people will react and goal posts will be moved... nothing is static... I don’t think the censorship issue will have a negative effect on innovative theatre, art is at the very core of every culture, it is implicit in life and hisory; as the character of Rudge says in The History Boys: “'s just one thing after another...”

The play will run on October 15, 16, 17 from 19:30.

The cast includes Malcolm Galea, Jon Rosser, Nanette Brimmer, Colin Willis, Andre Agius, Francesco Catania, David Chircop, Paul Cuschieri, Luke Farrugia, Alexander Gatesy Lewis, James Muscat and Joseph Zammit.

Bookings can be made by calling 21246389 or by emailing [email protected], online