Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'All I Want to Do Is Cause Chaos'; What Happens to One of Shakespeare's Most Complex Plays When Complicite's Director Simon McBurney Gets His Hands on It?

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'All I Want to Do Is Cause Chaos'; What Happens to One of Shakespeare's Most Complex Plays When Complicite's Director Simon McBurney Gets His Hands on It?

Article excerpt


THE pause seems to last for ever. Simon McBurney, a slight, tousled figure perched on the edge of a sofa in an office at the National Theatre, stares at the floor, hunched, silent, pummelling the sockets of his eyes like a child fighting sleep.

He has come straight from a day's rehearsal for Measure for Measure, a collaboration with Complicite, which he is directing in the Olivier.

Restorative beer and crisps lie untouched.

My question, I thought, had been straightforward: how would he introduce a newcomer to this middle-period Shakespeare play, often considered one of the most difficult?

Eventually McBurney comes to, suddenly energised, face taut. His answer, long, analytical, f lows uninterrupted: "When you read a play like Measure for Measure, the first thing that happens is that you come away with a series of questions beginning with 'Why?' Why does the Duke leave his kingdom? Why does he come back in disguise?

"But this is an intellectual response, from reading the play. What is strange is that the moment the text enters the mouths of actors, those questions disappear and a whole new set emerges, each beginning with 'How?'

How can you make it believable that no one recognises the duke? How can you match up the action, which apparently takes place over a few days days but feels as if months have passed?"

And so on. This is a crude precis of an eloquent argument. McBurney's sense of timing is impeccable. He hears himself in danger of going on a bit and interrupts himself.

"The only way to approach Shakespeare is to come without any answers.

Without meaning to sound pretentious - and who the f*** cares about sounding pretentious? - it becomes a way of asking big practical questions about theatre as well as personal and moral issues."

Given the involvement of Complicite, the ever-evolving, highly physical ensemble which he co-founded 21 years ago and of which he is now artistic director, this Measure for Measure promises to be nothing if not singular.

Will it favour the play's comic mood, which Dr Johnson reckoned "natural and pleasing" but Coleridge called "disgusting", or the serious side, which they both found painful and uncomfortable?

"I absolutely do not know. It's perfectly possible that it will become funnier and funnier, especially all the anarchic knockabout. Equally, the reverse could happen. It might grow darker and darker. It's one reason why I chose it. But I also approve of the Travelex [pounds sterling]10 ticket scheme, which means, in effect, there's almost no money for the production.

So here we are, on the main stage at the National, doing this difficult play without a bean.

That's the kind of irresistible challenge that keeps me alive."

McBurney grew up in Cambridge, the youngest of three children in a close-knit, richly literary family. His father was a charismatic professor whose past students included Prince Charles, his mother an indomitable figure who, as a young woman, worked with Rebecca West and who, into her eighties, remained a familiar sight in the city on her bicycle.

"As an archaeologist, my father always used to talk about the origins of language, of communication, being around a fire. When you think of that in relation to a theatre you realise that the audience is exactly the same scale as a sustainable human community from prehistory onwards, whether of 100 people or of 10,000. We become part of a collective imagining, we laugh at the same things, we find we are not alone. It's why religion and theatre are so closely entwined. Priests know how to put on a good show. They understand that we all need rituals, patterns."

Does McBurney consider himself ritualistic? He lives alone in north London and works all hours, all over the world - the kind of timetable which makes routine and friendships difficult. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.