Oscar contender Stephen Daldry talks to Daniel Rosenthal.
Today Stephen Daldry, the Oscar-nominated director of powerful screen dramas The Hours and now The Reader, finds himself in a unique position among theatre directors.
The show that made his name with public and critics was JB Priestley’s classic thriller An Inspector Calls at the National Theatre in 1992.
But while the breakthrough stage productions of other directors live on only in memory, Daldry’s Inspector is heading towards its 17th birthday and its latest UK tour has brought it to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre this week.
When it opened at the National’s Lyttelton auditorium, this spectacularly designed staging earned some ecstatic reviews, went on to win three Olivier Awards and later triumphed on Broadway. Royalties from the New York run and the US regional tour that followed made Daldry a wealthy man, and his fortune swelled as the Inspector returned to London’s West End, taking up residence for more than five years at the Garrick Theatre, from 1995–2001.
It has now played more than 4,750 performances worldwide – making it by a clear margin the most successful revival of a play in British history.
When I bring this record to Daldry’s attention, he gasps down the phone-line from New York: “That’s amazing! I didn’t know that and I can’t quite believe it. It’s funny to be seeing a play that I first did at York when I was 29, and now I’m nearly 49. So you’re looking at work you did as a young man.”
Back in 1992, in tandem with designer Ian MacNeil, lighting designer Rick Fisher and composer Stephen Warbeck (later an Oscar-winner for Shakespeare in Love), Daldry transformed critics’ and audiences’ attitudes towards Priestley’s 1945 play, which had invariably been given “safe”, realistic treatment.
It is the story of the mysterious Inspector Goole, who calls on the Birling family in a Midlands town one evening in 1912 to investigate the death of Eva Smith, a young factory worker–turned–dress shop assistant, and gradually exposes how middle-aged Mr Birling, a self-satisfied industrialist, his wife, son, daughter and daughter’s fiancé were all, to varying degrees, responsible for the young woman’s sacking, pregnancy and suicide.
Outside the house it appears to be 1945, not 1912 and the speaking characters are sometimes surrounded by extras representing the needy population of post-war Britain.
Add in music and lighting that would not be out of place in a 1940s Hollywood detective thriller – and some very operatic performances – and you understand why this show garnered such praise.
The touring cast has been rehearsed by Julian Webber, Daldry’s longtime, trusted associate director.
Daldry himself has spent most of the past few months in New York, where last autumn he was simultaneously completing The Reader for its release in American cinemas on December 10, and preparing for the Broadway opening on November 13 of Billy Elliot the Musical, the stage version of Lee Hall’s screenplay about the miner’s son who discovers ballet which, as Billy Elliot (2000) was Daldry’s award-winning debut as a feature film director.
These tight deadlines obliged him to perform a “wonderful juggling act”.
His days started early. “I was getting up between five and six each morning and worked in the Reader edit room, which I had moved very close to the Imperial Theatre, where Billy was rehearsing, usually from 6.30am till lunchtime.”
“Then I’d rehearse in the theatre in the afternoon, nip back to the edit room while the cast and crew were on their tea break, then back to the theatre for evening rehearsals and into the preview performances.
“You’ve got around 200 people in the theatre, and just up the road about 80 working on finishing the film. It was rather wonderful having two very different families, if you like, all working incredibly hard.
“The only real casualty of the whole period was not being able to take my kids to school.” (He and his wife have daughters aged five and four).
The Reader, based on the international bestseller by Bernard Schlink, has brought Bafta and Oscar nominations for Daldry, screenwriter David Hare and star Kate Winslet, who plays a tram ticket inspector in 50s Germany who has an affair with a teenage boy and harbours two devastating secrets.
Winslet has already won a Golden Globe for this role and her success has delighted Daldry as much as Nicole Kidman’s Best Actress Oscar for his previous film, The Hours (2002).
“I think that for a director the most thrilling aspect of anything to do with awards is when the actors win,” he says.
Billy, which features music by Elton John, is playing to packed houses in New York and is likely to feature strongly when nominations for Broadway’s Oscars, the Tony Awards, are announced in May.
On Broadway, Billy Elliot’s tale of an underdog triumphing against a background of economic turmoil (the 1984 miners’ strike) appears perfectly timed to give American theatregoers uplifting respite from financial gloom.
And on this side of the Atlantic, too, Daldry reckons that An Inspector Calls, though a less obviously “feel-good” evening, might chime with credit crunch Britain.
“There is this profound recession hitting, and a piece of work in which a group of actors, in Billy, or in the Inspector’s case one actor [as Goole], comes out and calls for [people to have] a sense of community and common purpose, and against the idea of selfishness and greed, is something that I think audiences on Broadway and here understand hugely.”
In his final speech, the inspector addresses the audience and declares that the Birlings’ involvement in Eva Smith’s fate demonstrates that: “We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men will not learn that lesson then they will be taught it in fire in blood in anguish.”
And Daldry concludes: “As we move into this extraordinary time, as the economy tanks and communities become more under threat, that call to arms of Priestley’s is one which will be relevant. I’m dying to see how the Inspector resonates in this economic climate.”
* An Inspector Calls is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from tonight until February 14 (Box Office: 0121 236 4455).