theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Samuel West’s theatrical pedigree is impeccable. His grandfather was the actor Lockwood West, while his parents are Timothy West and Prunella Scales.
He obtained an Equity card through The Browning Version at Birmingham Rep, and has become a familiar face on stage and screen, appearing in films such as Howard’s End, Notting Hill and the recent Iris, and plays that include Simon Gray’s Hidden Laughter, Stoppard’s Arcadia, and Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in which he played the title role. There have also been notable television credits, the award-winning Longitude with Michael Gambon among them.
I have a special fondness for West’s documentary narration. This is an art in itself and not a talent given to all actors. West’s clear, warm voice draws you into any subject with ease, enabling the memory to retain rather more than it might otherwise do. It is no surprise that he has recorded countless audio books in addition to his work on radio.
Of late, it is directing that has been exercising his mind. When asked a few years ago by Jami’s Samuel West Page website what he might have done if he had not become an actor, he wrote: ‘I’d like to have been a DJ, but I’m most likely to end up directing, films or theatre, possibly both.’ Cut to March 2003, and his production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with Dervla Kirwan as La Marquise De Merteuil and Rupert Penry-Jones as Le Vicomte De Valmont, has just opened at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. West is busy with early rehearsals when we talk on the telephone.
His first production as director was Hamlet for the RSC Fringe. Last year, his staging of The Lady’s Not for Burning at Chichester Festival Theatre was extremely well-received. It also served to remind some that the playwright Christopher Fry is still very much alive. ‘He’s so not dead!’ West tells me. ‘I spoke to him two days ago. He’s extremely well. He’s just written a short poem for a friend of mine who was born on his 95th birthday. I commissioned him to write a poem welcoming her to the world. He’s just sent a lovely, lovely piece.’
For me, this story is indicative of West’s ability to bind a company together. In her review of The Lady’s Not For Burning in The Guardian last summer, Lyn Gardner says that the production ‘throws up sharp, unshowy performances where no one is a star and everyone works together with true generosity.’
‘I was so pleased with that review.’ says West. ‘That’s all one really hopes from a review, ever. I thought, “I couldn’t have written this better.” That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. It went really well and I was pleased and surprised to discover that people had a good time. That’s the most important thing really. We kind of raised a flag for Christopher and really hope we’ll be able to mount some more of them.’
Directing has long been something West wanted to do. ‘I wanted to for much longer than I have done it. But I realise that it’s like the Peter Brook thing. When asked how do you become a director, he said, “You call yourself one.” It happened eventually, or professionally at least, immediately after Hamlet which seemed like a sensible thing at the time because everybody told me that the part you played after Hamlet was quite important and rather difficult to choose — well, I mean if you were lucky enough to be able to choose. So I thought, avoid the problem and do something else.’
Actors often make excellent directors. They know the process an actor goes through to create a part and can communicate their directorial suggestions and guidance in a way that is, perhaps, better understood by a cast than when it comes from a director who has no experience of an actor’s journey. West does think that actors ‘need to be noticed in a different way’. He goes on to say: ‘It’s probably more to do with me as a person than an actor but I do feel that the best direction is invisible’.
There is a new double act at the Bristol Old Vic with David Farr and Simon Reade having taken over as joint artistic directors. West knows them both from the RSC. ‘I was lucky enough to work with Simon at the RSC when he was dramaturg on Richard II and I knew David because he wrote and directed an amazing play called Night of the Soul. Very interesting. And that closed the Pit. Rather sadly. But it did it very well. So I knew him from that. And they were looking for somebody to direct Les Liaisons Dangereuses which they thought was — and I agree with them — the perfect modern classic to open here, particularly with a mid-eighteenth century urban theatre, to open with a mid-eighteenth century urban play.’
And the play is one for which he has great admiration. ‘It wasn’t my idea to do it but I also think it’s part of a director’s job to make it their idea to do it. So that if you’re asked to do something, you say yes, and then you think “Right, why are we doing this and what will make people want to see it?” ‘
There are names to conjure with in West’s productions with Avril Elgar in Liaisons and Patrick Godfrey at Chichester last year.
‘Yes, Patrick Godfrey. How about that then? Weren’t we a bit lucky! He was a very nice cherry on the top of our cake, I must say. He did a brilliant audition, actually. First of all, he convinced me, quite rightly, that I was very lucky to have him reading. And then he sort of said, “Well, why do you think I’m the right person for this part? Why do you think I should do this?” I found myself offering it to him there and he said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And he went away for a week and kept me hanging on. And I thought, “That’s the most brilliant way to handle an audition — ‘you’d be so lucky if I did this’. And of course we would. But as soon as he said, “Why do you think I’d want to take such a small part,” I sort of thought, “Right, I’m going to make you want to do this part.” And I said, “Well, of course, you get the reviews. Always.” And between us we managed to convince each other that that was what we wanted.’
Budgetary constraints can sometimes give rise to a production, or an aspect of it, that breaks new ground or refreshes an old concept. Ingenuity is all. Tom Piper’s set for Liaisons is a very different kettle of paint to the original idea conceived in tandem with West. ‘Well, I’ve always thought that if you want a good design, you give a designer £10,000 and if you want a great design, you give them £1,000.’
‘We wanted a world in which things moved,’ he continues, ‘because we were in a big theatre and we had some music, so we could make a virtue out of the scene changes rather than having to apologize for them. And so we’ve got a very moveable set. And when the production manager came back and said, “All these mouldings—”.’ West interrupts himself. ‘We were trying to do a sort of French interior of an hotel, a kind of grande salon. ‘And he said, “All these mouldings are expensive.” So we went back to an idea that Tom had very early on of it being a sort of gilded room, and turned it into a gold box, and knocked the money that we were overspending off the budget. And it also turned out to be much more interesting. So yes, that was rather nice. And I reminded him of that, which was good.’
West is rushed off his feet. Moments before we start the conversation, during a lunch break following a rehearsal that has overrun, he has been checking the details for the programme, and will doubtless be talking to another publication before he returns to the rehearsal room. Grabbing a bite to eat looks exceedingly unlikely. So has he had any time to himself? I can guess the answer.
‘No, I’m not managing to find any time in rehearsal! In fact, I’m in the happy position of doing a small part in a very big film at the moment which has required me to go to Prague for one day. So on Friday, while the cast were doing fittings and fight calls, I was on top of a burning windmill in the arms of the Frankenstein monster in Prague. At three o’clock in the morning. At minus six degrees. So that’s how I’m relaxing. Thank goodness, that is now over and I’m going to be getting a production of Così Fan Tutte together which I’m directing for English National Opera.’
He stresses that he is still and always will be an actor but that directing is the immediate future. ‘I think while the directing still has opportunities of things that I really haven’t done at all, I think I’d like to keep pushing on with the directing. I’d very much like to get a short film together and see if that would get off the ground. But the opera’s very exciting. I wouldn’t want to stop acting. But it’s interesting. I think keeping them separate is quite hard. They are different, very different.’
Sam West, as actor or director, is an amiable and charming man, as well as a talented and dedicated pro. Our parting chat concerns the writer E Nesbit, author of The Railway Children, for whom we share a passion. ‘You know what I bought the other day?’ he says. ‘I bought a copy of The Magic World that she had owned. And her book-plate in the front of it.’ There is a moment of silent delight from us both at just the idea of such an artefact. Persuading him that I am its true and rightful owner is, of course, quite impossible: the treasure-seeker is disappointed.
But there seems little chance of Bristol audiences being disappointed. With West ‘at the helm’, there is sure to be treasure at the Old Vic in the shape of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Sarah Vernon © 12-03-03
Originally published on R&V 14-03-03
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