Monday 20 November 2017

The big fellah in Max

Julia Molony

Max Stafford-Clark has fought back to triumph over the strokes that ravaged his body. The feted director tells Julia Molony what drove him and how the crisis has forged a stronger bond with his wife Stella

'WOULD it be indiscreet to tell Julia," says Max Stafford- Clark to his beautiful wife, the playwright Stella Feehily, "where we are staying?"

The answer, he says, with the hint of a smile, is that in recent weeks, the pair have been house guests of Sting and Trudie Styler, hanging out at their Jacobean mansion in Wiltshire. He's directing Styler in his new play ("she's a bloody good actress") and outside the rehearsal room, Max and Stella are clearly quite thrilled by the prospect of nights in with one of the world's most famous couples.

"Stella was in a band too," says Max. "We were sitting round the fire with Sting last night ... "

"Can you imagine," Stella, a playwright and former Fair City actress, breaks in, picking up the thread, "Max said, 'Stella go on, sing Wichita Lineman to Sting.' I was like, 'I don't think so.' I chickened out." Admittedly, there was a bit of pressure. "Singing one of the most famous songs in front of one of the world's most famous singers."

To be fair, this little bit of gossip, imparted with glee by the man widely considered to be a towering force of British theatre is not just shameless name-dropping. The Sting conversation comes up as the pair count the blessings of their life together -- an exercise that has become all the more meaningful in the past four years. In 2006 Max suffered a series of massive strokes that stopped him in his tracks. Since then, their whole lives have changed. But the varied and interesting experiences open to them, Stella thinks, were a spur to Max's determined approach to recovery and part of the reason he successfully avoided succumbing to depression.

"It made me an old man in a day," Max says. "I was 47 when my daughter (from his first marriage to Anne Pennington) was born, so I was always the oldest father in the playground, and that never bothered me, because I never really thought of myself as old. But the moment I had this, which was when I was 65, in a day you need a stick, all the problems of age are there in a second."

As soon as he was released from hospital, he appointed Stella his carer, a decision which remarkably seems to have strengthened their relationship rather than straining it. "If I'd known back then how different it would be, I still would feel the same, but it is a lot to take on," Stella admits.

For Max, getting well meant getting well enough to work. Theatre, the pursuit that had defined him for decades, was the lodestar that guided his journey back to himself. "Dr Johnson, which is the play I'm doing at the moment, had a stroke," Max says. "When he recovered he wrote a prayer in Latin verse to prove to himself that he hadn't lost his mind. The prayer was: 'God, you may torment my body, but please leave my mind.'" Clearly, it's a view he relates to.

So though physically some damage has been permanent, the greatest reward, the most significant measure of his triumph over the frailties of his body, has been a return to form in his professional life. He returned to work as soon as he could. "I came out [of hospital] in December 2006 and I started work in January 2007. In retrospect, I didn't direct that play very well ... It knocked my confidence a bit -- more than the stroke itself. And I thought, 'maybe I'm not so good anymore'. And then I did some work with some students in April 2007... and that was terrific and I thought, 'no, no no, it's still all there'."

Life is not the same, certainly. "My biggest deficient is that my left peripheral vision is gone. I always say to the actors, 'look, if I leave you downstage for about 20 minutes and don't say anything, then shout'. So there are some things that just won't come back," but through work he has proved that, in essence, he has withstood the ravages of that emergency.

Some people, I suggest to him, might reassess their priorities after such a life-changing experience, decide to take it easy, invest in more leisure time. "My medical team ... were holding out that, slippers and a pipe by the fireside might be what I needed. I think the truth is I probably did go back to work too early, but I don't regret it at all." Does he feel his approach to recovery was motivated by having something to prove? "We always measure the theatre by success," he says. "It's easier to remember those plays that have got great reviews and done well. There are plays both before and since the stroke -- you put an awful lot of work into them, which you think is your best work and they are either critically dismissed or critically underrated or ignored. So the standards by which we judge success are not always synchronous with what the critical and public response is. But no, I'm thrilled to have got back fairly quickly to a level of work which I feel certainly is as good as it was before the stroke."

Max started his career in theatre in Players drama society while studying in Trinity College. "We were all very ambitious," he remembers of the atmosphere there. "You would have pushed your grandmother over a cliff to get a production in Players. When I got into the professional theatre at the Traverse," he says playfully, "I was surprised and gratified to find how pleasant people were."

From there, he worked his way up to the Royal Court in London where he became artistic director throughout the Eighties. He became known for setting the agenda of a golden age for British theatre, producing work that was dynamic and politically engaged and that attracted disapproval from the old guard who worried that the Royal Court was being "subverted by Marxists". In fact, he says now, he's always been a "wishy-washy liberal" but then, as now, he headed a select group of creative power-brokers, collaborating with the playwrights Carole Churchill, David Hare and more recently Sebastian Barry.

There's always been a strong Irish link to the work of his company, Out of Joint Theatre. Out of the last 12 plays they've done, six have been Irish. This is influenced partly perhaps by the romantic leaning towards Dublin he observed in his father when growing up in Britain and America. Or perhaps because of something the actor Donal McCann said to him once, during a low ebb in rehearsals in a grim room in the Samuel Beckett centre. "F**k off," Clark says, mimicking McCann's brusque delivery in response to some complaining remark he'd made. "This country gave you your education, it's time you gave something back."

Giving, or indeed bringing something back hasn't always been without complications, however, and so it was with The Big Fellah, Max's recent hit written by Richard Bean. Staged in London last year to a rapturous critical response, he initially struggled to get it to Dublin but happily it is due to open at the Gaiety in Dublin. Still, both in Britain, and he avers, in Ireland, we are once again experiencing a golden age for theatre. The social, political and economic sea change we've observed in recent years, he agrees, is comparable to his days in the Royal Court.

"I think audiences are hungry," he says. "The real thing that brings people into the theatre are the actors playing the part, and the fusion of a particular actor with a particular part. But my sense is that audiences are hungry for work that sheds a light on contemporary issues and I think that's the same in Ireland."

For him, theatre is uniquely effective in interrogating the issues of the day. "The image," he says of what has guided his priorities as a director, "is of shining a torch into murky areas of society that haven't been illuminated," he says.

Though his disciplined and tireless approach to work may have guided his recovery, it would perhaps not have been possible without Stella. The pair met nine years ago, after she sent him a short play she had written. They married last year. It is Max's third marriage, and there is an almost 30-year age gap between them. They had been together for four years when the stroke happened and both of them admit the relationship has taken on new hues since.

"Max was an incredibly independent person," Stella says. "And now a lot of the time, I'm afraid he has to do what I say. I say, you're really tired ... In a way I am custodian of his health."

"See how else it's changed?" Max breaks in with a typically wry comment on their relationship, "You've got many more jewels now."

"I've lots of nice pieces," Stella agrees, laughing.

"I suppose it's that I'm now facilitating Max's life. There is an inequality in it but actually, because Max is so brilliant at his job, and looks after the both of us financially, it sort of balances itself out. So I don't feel, 'oh I'm doing all of this'."

"I'll remind you of that," Max chimes in.

"I do feel incredibly supported by Max," Stella goes on. "And I hope he is with me. The thing is that Max does not have the independence that he had. He can't just disappear off and run to a play."

A greater level of dependence has brought new closeness between them.

"Max will read my plays endlessly. Endlessly and endlessly. He listens to all my ideas. In that sense, Max gives me a lot more time than he did before because of being a workaholic, which he was before and I think he'd still be now, but obviously we're spending so much more time together we get to chat and bounce ideas off each other a lot more. So in a way there's a lot to be thankful about.

"I'm not one of these people who think, 'oh there's something great to be had from some terrible illness'. But in fact we're much better friends now and we spend a lot more time together and thank God, because of the amount of time you have to spend together -- you are forced into it -- your relationship is exposed. And so if you were once lovers and all that worked, well you've also got to be good pals as well.

"All of this, is part of how, with you, Max, you've got an awful lot of things to look forward to. You've got work, you've got me, you've got travel, we have a great time, we go to many places, we meet interesting people."

As well as that, there's a busy schedule ahead. This year he'll be directing Stella's new play. He's always directed her work, and speaks enthusiastically about the project, set in London, Congo and Ireland.

Asked about working together, both Max and Stella agree on a point that seems to rather sum up their united approach to facing down adversity. "It was difficult the first time," Stella says, "but it's got much better."

The Big Fellah by Richard Bean is at the Gaiety from April 19 to May 7, 2011. Opening night is April 21. Gaiety: 01 677 1717; Ticketmaster: 0818 719 388. The play is then at Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork, from May 10 to 14. www.every; 021 450 1673

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