Doesn’t sex and violence obsess every seventeen-year-old boy?” asks Phillip Breen when I question the choice of play that became his directing debut: Ariel Dorfman’s Death And The Maiden – a harrowing tale of a political prisoner raped by her captors to the sound of Schubert’s composition of the same name. “It was the first time I’d heard Schubert and the combination of sex, violence and the music made me feel like a proper artist.” Breen was at a comprehensive in Liverpool at the time and recognising the necessity of cheap set materials ordered five tonnes of sand for the stage floor and threw it over wooden boards. A previous production, when Breen was just fourteen, set Willie Russell’s Our Day Out amongst stacks of milk crates he had persuaded the organiser of his milk-round to lend him. A director’s imagination is second to none. I ask if Schubert has become a life-long love but there’s not even a moment’s hesitation.“Schubert’s playing on a loop in heaven” Breen replies, assured. “If he isn’t – I’m not going in.”
Schubert might still be around but the milk crates definitely aren’t. We are sitting in the offices of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London’s West End where Breen has been engrossed in meetings about his up-and-coming production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, set to mark his comedy debut at the prestigious Stratford-upon-Avon theatre this weekend.
You might be forgiven for thinking Breen a little older than he in fact is. In his early 30s, he seems incredibly young to have such an impressive body of work behind him: his most recent production of Stefan Golaszewski’s play, Sex With A Stranger, achieved critical acclaim in the West End and also in the making is a BBC sitcom with friend and comedian Jonny Sweet, due to screen next year. The only thing that gives Breen away is his incredible modesty – “I really don’t feel like I’ve done a lot – but it’s incredibly nice of you to say” – and his perfectly English politeness which only lapses into authority when we begin to discuss the fine detail of the stage.
“In a truer life I would’ve been an actor or a stand-up,” he says very matter-of-factly. “I used to love it.” His list of acting credits does in fact boast some of the most wonderfully comic characters ever written, including Lady Bracknell in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest he directed for the Cambridge Footlights whilst at university. But Breen speaks of his acting abilities with a smear of disappointment, realising from a young age that he wasn’t in fact as good as others around him.
“Directing became a way in which I could hang around with talented actors,” he says casually. It’s true that some of the world’s best directors have taken a similar route – Shakespeare, Pinter, Nicholas Hytner. “What comes first is a love of theatre, and then people end up writing or stage-managing or designing. Just to be in a play is very often a jumping off point,” Breen explains.
But when it came to applying for drama-school these talented actors Breen knew didn’t get in – he saw their rejection and imagined his own, deterring him from audition. “I spent a lot of time thinking that it wasn’t for me, being able to do what I really wanted. I think very often people end up doing the thing they love second best; very often they are scared of what they really want to do. I think I was. You don’t want to get hurt.” He goes quiet for a minute, seeming to reimagine this teenage crisis of confidence, but snaps out of it. “So I applied to Cambridge instead.” He laughs. “As if that’d be any easier.”
When Breen received an invitation from Trinity College Cambridge to interview, he turned two down, telling them his attendance was impossible because he was in a play; at the time caring for nothing but the lines of Emile de Becque in the musical South Pacific. When they wrote back a third time Breen got the first train out of Liverpool one morning, arriving in Cambridge still learning his lines. Unsurprisingly he recalls the whole memory as a bit of a blur. “I only had confidence out of total ignorance. I had no notion of the enormity of it. My politics teacher at the time told me my only chance of getting in was by making them laugh.”
Exactly what an eighteen-year-old Breen said to make two Cambridge politics professors laugh is unfortunately lost to history, and imagining how close he might have been to not getting in seems to panic him. But still, his modesty basks in the experience. “It was 1997: the height of New Labour. ‘Cool Britannia’. I was northern and working class and so I was a desirable commodity for Trinity. At that time in history, having a state school kid from a comprehensive school in Liverpool was quite fashionable.”
Breen’s entrance into Cambridge perfectly epitomises the years that were to follow. By 2001 he had found his way into the Cambridge Footlights and written a comedy with a group including Mark Watson and Tim Key (who wasn’t even at Cambridge, but told everyone he was doing a PhD). They went unassumingly up to the Edinburgh Comedy festival to perform. When Far Too Happy sold out the Pleasance theatre for its entire run, the group didn’t quite realise the enormity of their success – so enormous in fact that they were nominated for “Best Newcomer” at The Perrier Comedy Awards – a feat which the Footlights hadn’t managed since Fry and Laurie in 1981.
Far Too Happy went on to play a short run in the same West End theatre that housed Alan Bennett, Peter Cook .and Dudley Moore for Beyond The Fringe in 1961, one of the most famous university productions in history. It was a momentous occasion in Breen’s career which he still recalls with excitement. “I got my first agent from that and from the agent my first job at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow which was at the time under the dictatorship of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David McDonald. That felt like a massive achievement because, you know, everyone hates the Cambridge Footlights”. “Rightly so,” he adds with a laugh; “they thought we were a bunch of over-privileged hooray-Henrys”. But there’s a touch of exasperation when I ask if he resented this assumption, knowing that his own background was closer to the opposite. “If people made assumptions it was nothing to do with me. We all knew we weren’t. We were a mix – it was quite representative of Cambridge”.
It is these same Cambridge names that crop up throughout Breen’s career: Mark Watson, Jonny Sweet, Stefan Golaszewski, Tom Basden, Tim Key; the latter three appearing in the ludicrously funny Cowards which Breen directed when it was first produced for the stage in 2005. It is a situation he thinks ideal and is probably the reason why the thought of not ending up at Cambridge instils a degree of anxiety. “It’s a sort of informal company; that’s how Shakespeare worked, that’s how Mike Leigh works, that’s how Scorsese works. With Tom and Stefan I feel like I’m getting the first plays of Pinter and Stoppard. They’re that good. They’re relationships that really excite me.”
Although the confidence the group have in their own chemistry is undoubtedly persuasive, increasingly theatre work sees Breen collaborating with new faces. “When you don’t know anyone in a theatre situation, it becomes like a dinner party; you invite everyone and hope the food’s good and hope they’ll get on- but they might not – and then you’ve got a problem.” Rather like a bad Come Dine With Me? “Well yeah, actually. Sometimes you can take two or three weeks just learning how to talk to each other. Words have no intrinsic meanings, you have to get on another person’s wavelength- it’s the most difficult aspect of directing.”
I wonder how often rehearsals can be frustrating spaces where the director’s vision is not quite understood by the actors in their charge. But Breen is more compassionate than that. “Because I spent quite a lot of time wanting to be an actor and wasn’t very good, I think I understand the problems that actors might have. That’s part of what I do. Directing is more collaborative – I don’t have a ‘technique’ as such, just a series of instincts about how to communicate with other artists and co-ordinate their specialised talents.” Yet the awkwardness of the first stages of a rehearsal process is quite clear. Breen says the vulnerability of the cast is palpable. “Fear is something that stalks the rehearsal room. The thing I try to do is to take fear out of the equation.”
Family and friends used to suggest Breen was putting on plays because he was retreating into a fantasy world; unable to stand – or deal with – real life. But he increasingly thinks the opposite is true. “People construct their own subjective ‘reality’ when they can’t cope with the full force of their dreamscape and ambiguous, unruly emotions – I think being in rehearsals is the ‘realest’ thing I do; the ‘realest’ I am. It’s the time I feel most connected to the life source. Under the auspices of ‘play’ you can say and do all sorts of things that you can’t in the grown up world. I’m still nervous around grown-ups.”
So how do you know when a scene is right, when a production works? “I think like a conductor might think: does it sound right? Are the rhythms good? Good dramatic writing is like music when you discover it. The rhythm and tune are immutable”. So a production is finished when it sounds right? “No process is ever finished; no work of art is ever finished, it’s only ever abandoned.”
“To be really good at Shakespeare you’ve got to have your feet in the mud and your eyes on the stars”. Luckily though, Breen considers this his natural game. He started Cambridge a little embarrassed about his working class background and recognised that he wasn’t quite speaking the same language as everybody else, so spent, without realising it, a long time learning this new language and not being himself. “In order to get close to being good at art you need to be yourself. I’m trying to get there; to work out who I am and what I like, opposed to what I’m supposed to like. But a lot of this comes with age and is something you learn how to do.”
Is Edinburgh a good place to start? “What I like about Edinburgh is that it’s an open market” Breen says, “if something is good it’ll get discovered”. “We’re at a place in history where it’s very easy to find good stuff, which is exciting but means the bar is very high. In a competitive business for quality drama you’ve got to be as good as Mad Men or The Wire or The Sopranos to make a splash. And then within that you’ve got to be a good enough actor to make that splash; to be given those roles, to have that edge.”
I consider whether casting a big name helps turn people on to productions which they might not otherwise be interested in but Breen immediately disagrees. This is clearly something he’s thought of before. “I don’t think of myself as a missionary. I don’t think of myself as having to sell culture to people. I hate conversations that…” He stops to re-evaluate the strength of his opinion. “…I baulk at phrases like ‘for people who wouldn’t necessarily come to the theatre’- it’s a curiously arrogant thing that only people in the classical arts seem to say. No one says ‘I must go to the pub more.’ You’re either interested in it or you’re not. It’s our job to make theatre attractive and appealing to people and if it isn’t they won’t come and that’s our fault. I don’t think you need any special knowledge to enjoy Shakespeare or any truly great art; you’ve just got to have a soul.”
It is the multi-layered aspect of live theatre that makes a production the most exciting in Breen’s opinion: presenting a play that looks like one thing but is actually giving the audience something else. “It’s what Pinter might call ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’. Merry Wives looks and sounds like a light comedy, but it’s also a play about parents and children, stale marriages and old age. It aches. It makes you feel less alone in the world”.
But what about the criticsm – as with any art, its objective nature makes criticism wide and varied. With honesty Breen admits that he primarily used to make his plays for his clever friends at Cambridge, but is now more concerned about fifteen-year-olds coming to the theatre for the first time, and with his own opinion. “Everyone will have a view on what I’ve done – for all sorts of reasons. People will be dragged along by their girlfriends or boyfriends and be pleasantly surprised or have all of their prejudices confirmed. The only person you can ultimately please is yourself.” A mantra which sounds a little self-counselling perhaps, but one that should be commended for letting-go of that sycophantic, teenage desire to impress.
Breen considers his reviews fairly lucky on the whole, but amongst four-star ratings on his website is a one-star review from Quentin Letts at the Daily Mail who suggests ‘Phillip Breen directs without noticeable mishap’. I wonder whether it is honesty, pride or just an indefatigable sense of humour that causes him to flaunt this horrible assessment of his work, but he says the review made him feel like Damien Hirst. “I’d have a t-shirt made with it on if I could. You’re more worried if the Daily Mail says you’re the next big thing.”
He does admit he’s become a lot more sanguine about the critics in recent years, those youthful tearing-rages a thing of the past. With age, he says, you realise that not everything you do is going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Some people think of reviews as like getting their exam results back – but nothing’s ever been a hit – or even been loved – because of the critics.”
Is this the wisdom he’d make sure his younger self knew then; is there nothing he’d do differently? The question throws him. “Christ – I’d probably have tried to be braver and a lot more like me and see where that took me. It took me a while to really admit to myself this is what I wanted to do, but as far as I’m concerned, directing a play for the RSC is as good as playing for Liverpool.”
The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Phillip Breen is now showing at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.