Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Auteurs – the Authors of Performance

“The best films”, suggested the film critic James Agee, “are personal ones, made by forceful directors.” You might say that the best novels are often those where the writer’s style is distinct and often recognisable. So why is there such suspicion in British theatre when directors have a signature style of directing? I am thinking of directors as widely different as Katie Mitchell and Emma Rice whose hands are always identifiable in their productions.    

Distinctiveness is surely part of the appeal of their work just as it is of the work of Robert Lepage or Peter Stein. But some would beg to differ, wary of what they see as the rise of the director as auteur in British theatre – fearing it will be at the expense of the writer, who has held a central place in British theatre culture, often to the point of adulation.   

Back in 2006, after Katie Mitchell’s production of The Seagull – in an updated version by Martin Crimp – premiered at the National Theatre, Martin Kettle railed in The Guardian about a “pernicious trend” in which classic writers such as Chekhov “become artistic hostages in the hands of overindulged meddlers.” It was time, he thundered, that they “were rescued from such deluded captors.”   

Kettle doesn’t use the term, but what he is talking about is the theatre director as auteur. The term auteur derives from French film criticism of the 1950s which perceived the director as the author of the movie. Its application to theatre practice, certainly within the UK, has tended to be a more recent phenomenon, although as far back as the 1950s theatre critic Kenneth Tynan observed that “the very phrase in English has a pejorative ring.”

I’ve previously suggested here, that reimagining and reviving the canon is a way of keeping classic plays alive, and which requires the vision of contemporary directors capable of making classic plays seem fresh and relevant.   

But suspicion of the increasing dominance of the director stretches back a long way. As Dan Rebellato observed in Contemporary European Theatre Directors (Routledge, 2010):

While the actor may be 5000 years old, the playwright 2500, even the designer 400, the director emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a decisive evolution of the stage manager and is only about 150. That said, the director established themselves as perhaps the creative force in twentieth-century theatre; the director was a visionary, an outside eye, a force in actor training, an inspirer of design, an interpreter of text, an auteur.

Inevitably, the rise of European directors such as Lev Dodin, Silvio Purcarete, Frank Castorf and Thomas Ostermeier – with their distinctive productions of both classic and contemporary texts – may make us question the way the different components of theatre are weighted, and make us rethink long-held notions around authorship of the works. But it doesn’t negate the essential contribution made by the writer, or co-authors in the case of devised work. In any case, one of the things which so often defines the work of so-called auteurs is the way they are natural collaborators, whether it is Mitchell and Lepage’s use of technology or Rice’s productions in which music and design are as much essential components as text.    

Katie Mitchell’s stagings of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull or Sarah Kane’s Cleansed show the director’s hand, but the end result doesn’t downgrade the writer – it simply allows them to be collaborators across the centuries, and keep the plays alive long after the authors’ deaths.   

The auteur does not necessarily impose but rather makes us see what might otherwise remain hidden. Emma Rice released Brief Encounter from its stiff-lipped stoicism to reveal something bawdier beneath, which contrasted the movie’s emphasis on class and duty with something earthier. Robert Icke’s production of The Wild Duck at the Almeida, which examined the play through the prism of Ibsen’s own life and behaviour, is one of a string of productions from Aeschylus to Chekhov in which Icke has, as Natasha Tripney in The Stage suggests, demonstrated a knack of “pinking the cheeks of canonical plays and making them breathe, as much a defibrillator as a director.”    

This gets to the heart of the role of the director as auteur and the way they often take something old and perhaps over-familiar and make us see it through fresh eyes. Yet British theatre critics, and even some older playwrights such as David Hare, seem to think that the interests of playwrights need to be protected against marauding directors who assume total authorship of theatre. (These same critics are also often the ones who, rather than welcoming the astonishing strides made by British theatre design in recent years, will complain not just about the rise of directors’ theatre but mutter that we have entered an era when theatre is not directed but designed.)  

Such comments often appear to be intended to defend the writer. But does the writer need defending? When Simon Stephens’ play The Trial of Ubu premiered at Hampstead in a production by Katie Mitchell, some critics commented on how much the staged version deviated from the printed text. Similarly, the published version of Stephens’ Three Kingdoms is different from the staged version seen at the Lyric in 2012 and which was directed by Sebastian Nübling.     

As Stephens said in an interview at the University of Kent:

[The] play that you buy will be very different from the play that you watch, so there’s a kind of authorial version and then the collaborative version that is the production version that me and Nübling made together.

In the same interview Stephens speaks of how, when Nübling stated his intention in rehearsal to dispense with Stephens’ stage directions, some of the British actors looked nervously to the writer who was in the room, as if he might protest. He didn’t.

But what is interesting about this production, one which some British critics would view disapprovingly as an example of the director as auteur, is that it is held up by the writer himself as an example of collaboration between himself and the director, one in which they are both authors of the piece. Dan Rebellato was spot on when he wrote of the production: “Nübling is following [Stephens’] intentions in getting inside the play, turning it inside out, shaping and unshaping it in rich, complex ways.”  

The uneasiness of British critics with the idea of the auteur perhaps stems from the fact that many critics are more at home with a script than they are with the visual and aural texture of a piece. Hence the kind of critical response that accompanied Katie Mitchell’s astonishing 2007 Pina Bausch-inspired production of Euripides’ Women of Troy, in which Michael Billington in The Guardian was amongst those who argued that the “production would double its impact if it were rooted in Euripidean text.”   

But text is only one part of theatre. One of the beauties of British theatre of the last 20 or so years is the way that practitioners have looked outwards not inwards, with a generation of directors looking past our borders and our theatre traditions to Europe and beyond, and in the process have often liberated theatre from an over-reliance on text. The irony is that while some of these directors will be dismissively described as auteurs trying to claim authorship of the work, the reality is that in many cases the way they work and realise a production is infinitely more collaborative than that in which the director and everyone else involved is simply seen in service of the writer.