Director Neil Armfield talks to Terry Grimley about juggling work in working in film, theatre and opera in the UK and Australia...
What's the connection between the new Australian film Candy, costarring Geoffrey Rush and Holly-wood man-of-the-moment Heath Ledger, and Welsh National Opera's production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which has two perform-ances in Birmingham this week?
Simple, really. Both were directed by Neil Armfield, artistic director of Sydney's Company B theatre company and one of the leading lights in the Australian theatre world. And just to show what a small world the international arts scene is nowadays, Dallas-based Andrew Litton, in Birmingham just a few days ago to conduct Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, was the conductor for Armfield's production of Britten's Billy Budd, a joint WNO/English National Opera production.
When I first tried to catch up with Armfield last week he was negotiating some narrow back-roads in Victoria. Calling him back 20 minutes later I found he had just arrived at Geoffrey Rush's house where he was staying for he weekend.
"It's a fabulous kind of sylvan idyll that Geoffrey and his wife have built in a really beautiful part of Australia," he said, going on to describe the scene at dusk with "the moon rising above the gums [gum trees]". The sound of crickets was clearly audible.
Armfield was taking a break from the new play he is currently directing in Melbourne, by the leading Australian writer Stephen Sewell, author of the intriguingly-titled Myth, Propaganda & Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America and United States of Nothing, a satire on the US government's handling of Hurricane Katrina set in the New Orleans Superdome.
The new play, It Just Stopped, which opens on April 1, is described as "an existential nightmare for the 'War on Terror' generation".
"It's about a guy who works for the New York Review of Books and his wife who's a well paid TV executive, who live in this high-rise apartment block and suddenly all the services just stop," explains Armfield. "They don't know if it's a terrorist attack or what. They're trying to cope with it and halfway through the play we discover we're actually in Australia..."
Are there any obvious major differences between working in theatre in the UK and Australia?
"The only straight theatre I've done in Britain has been Cloud-street, which Compny B took to the National Theatre. I haven't really had experience of directing theatre there.
"The wonderful thing about WNO is that it's such a family of a company and, you know, there's such an intelligent focus on the the work. I've done Ariadne, Figaro and Billy Budd with the company having been given those jobs by [former chief executive] Anthony Freud and now he and I are talking about three jobs in Houston. He was such a marvellous intendant of the company - he has a real enthusiasm for experiment and always an interesting view of thea-tre, but never just for innovation's sake. He's very supportive and has a great ear."
The Marriage of Figaro has been described as the world's greatest opera. Would Armfield agree with that?
"I think it's probably my favourite, and I have a long association with the play. I did a version of it with Geoffrey Rush, and the production of the play fed into the opera.
"I think that you can feel Mozart responding to the incredible improvisatory life of the play, although he makes it better. He improves on it with what he does with the characters of the Count and Countess. I think it's a miraculous piece of work - it's quite perfect. Mind you, I think The Turn of the Screw is pretty good, too!
"The challenge, I think, is that it has to be funny and true. It lies in getting the detail absolutely alive. So often the style of the opera and the sense that everyone knows what it is can really damage the immediacy of its communication. That's the hardest thing. I've seen performances where it has lost all spontaneity and become unfunny. That's usually because the singers are insecure, but when everything is firing it always astounds me that great opera singers can also be great actors and be so intuitive."
Not everyone liked the style of Armfield's production with its brown-paper set: "There are some anachronisms," he concedes. "It presents itself as a theatrical improvsation with the brown paper and props that have been pulled out of a store room, from the world of Wallace and Gromit or something. There's an old-fashioned aesthetic, but 20th century, that has been drawn together but in making a very specific presentation of a period world."
Following Candy, which was selected for competition at the Berlin Film Festival and will close the Hong Kong festival, is Armfield likely to be spending more of his time behind the camera?
"It depends how it goes. I did enjoy doing it very much, and a number of projects have suggested themselves since then. But I have no wish to close off my work in opera or theatre. I have an excellent home base at Company B in Sydney and I would love to maintain my association with the opera world. All these things feed off each other.
"It's difficult because the timetabling is so weirdly different. Opera productions are programmed to 2012, theatre is 12 months ahead with a couple of long -term projects three years ahead. When you start working on a film you don't actually know whether you are going to get to make it until just before you go into pre-production. So juggling all these things is tricky.
"With Candy, that piece was there for a while and when I scheduled the work of the theatre company I just left a five month gap."
* The Marriage of Figaro is at the Birmingham Hippodrome tomorrow night and Saturday at 7pm (Box office: 0870 730 1234). ..SUPL: