Thursday 27 July 2017

Stage: 'I may have to leave the Gate but the Gate will never leave me'

Director Alan Stanford in rehearsals for Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Photo: Pat Redmond
Director Alan Stanford in rehearsals for Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Photo: Pat Redmond

Chris McCormack

With a furrowed brow, Alan Stanford puts hand to forehead and searches his memory for a name. "I'm getting old," he moans.

Stanford, who is currently directing Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Gate Theatre, Dublin repeats this line quite a bit in our conversation, often as self-deprecation. But when he ponders an earlier point in his career, directing Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People, he fusses for an explanation for why he was struggling. "I was young," he moans. Neither stage of life seems well equipped.

Alan, not as addled as he suggests, can vividly recall the Gate's founders: Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards. He first acted for the company in a 1979 production of Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's play about Mozart. "I never left," he laughs.

"Hilton was a true mentor for me. He said: 'Good thing you want to be a director; I can't ever see you acting on the Gate stage'. At that time, the stage was much lower - I think about 9ft 6in. I was 6ft 4in so I would have looked vast. But he got it wrong. I've acted on that stage for 40 years."

At that time, Stanford was director of Project Arts Centre and overseeing its move from Dublin's South King Street to its current home on Essex Street. "Micheál and Hilton would come and see what I've directed at the Project. Then we'd sit down with a bottle of wine at their home on Harcourt Terrace, where they would tear it to pieces and put it back together.

"Mac Liammóir was a star, fabulous in the true meaning of that word. Hilton was a superb actor and director but also a remarkable lighting designer - his lighting was extraordinary. This was the old push-pull lighting boards, none of the electronic stuff of today.

"He was very influential on Orson Welles. There's a scene in Citizen Kane when the guy scans documents inside a vast library and there's these great shafts of light. That's pure Hilton Edwards lighting."

Longford Productions, which shared the Gate Theatre for many years with Mac Liammóir and Edwards, folded after the death of its co-founder Edward Pakenham in 1961, long before Stanford arrived. But he did know the playwright Christine Longford, Edward's wife, who managed the Gate in the 1960s.

"She would always have a compliment, no matter what the show was like. There was one play we were doing and it was dreadful. We were waiting afterwards to see what she'd say. She paused, looked at the wall of the set and said: 'What a wonderful choice to use Venetian blinds'."

Stanford was a principal actor at the Gate by the time its current artistic director, Michael Colgan, was hired in 1983. What does he observe to be the impact of Colgan's tenure?

"When Michael took over, he did a clever thing. He gathered together people who he knew he could trust and pushed the idea of a theatre of excellence. We would take on the mantle of the old Gate in terms of writers like Wilde and Shaw."

Under this administration, Stanford played roles that stayed in repertory for 20 years, such as Pozzo in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Herod in Oscar Wilde's Salomé. Also in that time, the playwright Hugh Leonard, who he worked with to bring the works of Charles Dickens to the stage, encouraged him to write adaptations.

"He said, 'look, you can do this,' so I did. I adapted Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop. The Gate gave me the facility to discover my craft."

His latest staging is a revue of songs by Jacques Brel, the Belgian folk-singing 'chanson'. "I first saw it in New York in 1971. I was young once... It was two guys and girls onstage with microphones singing songs. I've loved it ever since. So two years ago in Pittsburgh, I mounted a production as an experiment. One of the stipulations I set myself was I didn't want singers; I wanted actors who can sing.

"I think every one of these songs is a one-act play. Each has a sting in the tail - scorpion songs."

The challenge for Stanford was placing Brel's music, which is still synonymous with the turbulence of the inter-war years. "What the arrangers Eric Blau and Mort Shuman did was take Brel's music and upped the ante on orchestration. But I wanted to get back to the poet. We staged it like it was in a café. It was hugely successful.

"When Michael asked me to do it here, I knew I wanted to do in a different environment so the set extends the Gate auditorium on to the stage and we've disintegrated it slightly. It works."

This will be his last staging during Colgan's tenure. Management will soon shift to a new artistic director, Selina Cartmell. "Selina will come in with fresh ideas just as Michael did 33 years ago," he says. "I hope the ideas are fresh and I hope that they keep a thread to what has come before."

Will those ideas involve him? "Who can tell? I may have to leave the Gate but the Gate will never leave me".

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris runs at the Gate Theatre until February 25

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