Features Q&A and Interviews Published 26 February 2018

Lindsay Posner: “I either had the choice of casting stars or not doing the play”

Fergus Morgan interviews the enigmatic West End director about star casting, commercial theatre, and the post-Weinstein landscape.
Fergus Morgan
Lindsay Posner in rehearsals for Curtains. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Lindsay Posner in rehearsals for Curtains. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

For a director of his pedigree, it’s surprisingly tricky to find out much about Lindsay Posner. An associate directorship at the Royal Court for five years in the late eighties, followed by freelance stints at the RSC, the National and the Almeida, and a subsequent sideways shift into high-profile commercial theatre – he’s not quite a grand old duke of theatre, but he’s not far off. By Posner’s own admission, though, he doesn’t crave the limelight: “It’s true,” he tells me, his voice sharp and clear down the phone line, “I don’t go out of my way to seek publicity.”

It’s an attitude he replicates in the rehearsal room. As a director, he strives to avoid putting himself between the play and the audience. “I wouldn’t say I was the kind of auteur director who wants to impose their own personality on a text,” he admits, “and I wouldn’t ever bend the text to suit a vision. I’m always trying to figure out what the heart of a play is, and what the writer wanted to say. I always put the play first.”

It’s a traditional maxim, but Posner is far from dogmatic. He might be an advocate for in-vogue work of Ivo van Hove or Rob Icke, but that doesn’t mean he thinks it shouldn’t exist. “I think there’s a place for all types of theatre. It’s a broad spectrum and a broad church, as it should be. I haven’t seen Network or Hedda Gabler, but that sort of thing is personally not to my taste. When you impose a concept on a play and replace what’s already there in the dialogue with an expressionistic image, I tend to find that very heavy-handed. It means you’re doing work that the writer has already done.”

It’s this natural inclination away from flashy – European, David Hare might call it – experimentation that has allowed Posner to forge a successful career in the more conservative commercial theatre sector. Over the last decade, he’s directed revivals of Miller, Wilde, Shepard, Moliere and more in the West End, as well as staging shows in the US. Shifting away from subsidised theatre, though, comes with its own frustrations. Opportunities to direct new writing, for example, even with a West End flooded by James Graham plays, are few and far between.

“Unless you’re in residence in a new writing theatre, it’s quite hard to get hold of new plays,” Posner explains. “They’ll automatically be sent to the Royal Court or the National or the Bush, so if you’re a freelance director, you’re far less likely to get the chance to do one. It’s a very positive thing that the West End is becoming more receptive to new drama, but until a West End theatre is run by an artistic director, it’s going to be hard for most commercial producers to get hold of very good new plays, unless they can start providing commissions that are attractive to writers.”

There is a note of resignation, or perhaps frustration, in Posner’s voice. “Theatre in London is very healthy at the moment in all sorts of ways, and its nice to see plays on in the West End that aren’t just star driven,” he remarks. “But it’s still very difficult to cast a play and do it successfully in the commercial theatre without a star involved. Things can change, though.”

Star casting – or stunt casting, if you prefer, although the two terms have slightly different applications – has been hitting the headlines lately, after it was announced that YouTuber Tanya Burr would make her stage debut in a revival of Judy Upton’s Confidence at Southwark Playhouse in May. At least it’s not Freddie Flintoff being cast in another musical, one could be forgiven for thinking. At least Tanya Burr has been taking acting classes.

It’s still, however, a decision that’s provoked debate. On one side, Mark Shenton asked in The Stage: “If anyone with a big Instagram and Twitter following can be thrown into the lead of a play, what’s the point of real actors learning and honing their craft?” On the other, Matt Trueman, pointing out in his WhatsOnStage blog that “if every one of her YouTube subscribers bought a ticket to Confidence, she’d have the Southwark Playhouse’s studio space sold out for the next 87 years” and that star casting, at its best – as with Christian Slater in the recently closed Glengarry Glen Ross – can be both an audience draw and an artistic boon.

For Posner, such decisions – and he’s been involved in a few – are always a matter of compromise. He’s directed Aaron Eckhart, Minnie Driver, Hank Azaria, and Matthew Perry (twice). He was also the director involved in perhaps the most infamous piece of casting in recent years – Lindsay Lohan in David Mamet’s Speed The Plow in the West End in 2014. It was a decision that some critics damned as a cynical, money-making exercise, but for Posner as a director, it always boils down to a simple choice.

“When I cast Matthew Perry in the Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, I couldn’t persuade a subsidised theatre to do that play, and it was only a West End producer that was keen to do it, so I had the choice of either casting stars or not doing the play,” he explains. “So I went for star casting. It always depends on how much you want to do a particular project.”

“There’s still a pressure for star casting and there’s still a pressure to stage a title that is familiar, so that’s why there are so many revivals of star title plays. And if you find a piece that’s less well known, then there’s an even greater pressure to cast someone that is. It would be great if that pressure didn’t exist.”

“Every person I’ve ever cast has been in good faith,” he insists, after being asked whether he has any regrets about his more extravagantly starry, extravagantly panned productions. “I’ve always believed a particular actor could play the role when I cast them. So I don’t have any regrets about decisions like that.”

“People forget that for freelance directors, commercial theatre is as much an economic choice as an artistic choice,” he continues. “Directing in the subsidised theatre, unless you’re an artistic director, does not make you a living. You are simply not paid enough. So if you’re a director, such as myself, with a family to support, you have to do commercial theatre. You couldn’t survive doing plays at the National, the Royal Court and the Menier Chocolate Factory. You wouldn’t earn enough to live.”

So experienced is Posner in taking charge of star-studded revivals in the West End, it’s easy to forget he made his start directing new writing in the subsidised sector. From 1987 to 1992, he was associate director at the Royal Court, staging plays from Martin Crimp, John Byrne and Gregory Motton. His most famous production was the UK premiere of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, which won two Olivier Awards in 1991.

It was a notable highlight during a period when Royal Court managed to continue championing writers despite rising costs and falling budgets. In recent months, though, that era’s legacy has been cast under a shadow. For the entirety of Posner’s time there, the theatre was under the artistic direction of Max Stafford-Clark, who recently stood down from his own company Out of Joint after complaints surfaced regarding his behaviour towards female staff.

“It’s very difficult to talk about a period that had a very different political and social context,” says Posner, when asked about his experience working with Stafford-Clark. He chooses his words slowly and carefully: “In terms of the allegations that caused Max to resign, I wouldn’t excuse that behaviour for a second, but it’s also important to remember that, certainly during the years I was at the Court, he was developing some of the major female playwrights of our time. Timberlake Wertenbaker and Caryl Churchill and Sarah Daniels and Clare McIntyre, to name but a few. And he was the only person doing that. It’s worth remembering how much he has brought to British theatre in a positive way.”

Is Posner worried that the achievements of Stafford-Clark will be forgotten? “I hope they won’t be, but at the moment it seems possible, whether you’re Max Stafford-Clark or Kevin Spacey,” he admits. “The legacy of a great actor like Kevin Spacey will be forgotten and all one will remember are the allegations of sex offences. Hopefully, as time passes, without excusing that behaviour, one will also remember that he was a great actor, and that Max Stafford-Clark contributed an enormous amount to new writing in this country.”

It’s an attitude, and unfortunately not an uncommon one, that’s bound to provoke questions. After our conversation, I thought of recent articles, like Caroline Framke’s for Vox, which argue that instead of mourning the sullying of sexual harassers’ output, we should be mourning the absence of output from any victims of sexual harassment that were forced to stop making work because of their experiences at the hands of the offenders. The actors who gave up because of a movie producer’s incessant approaches. The accusers forever marked by their bravery in speaking out, rather than the quality of their corpus.

In common with the approaches of other senior theatre industry figures, for now, Posner’s attitude is formed by a sense of caution:

“The issue of sexual harassment allegations is a very, very complicated one, because one always has to think in terms of where you are historically when certain things have happened, and also of the degree to which offense is a wide spectrum, from rape and assault at one end to flirting at the other,” says Posner. “There’s a kind of hazy middle line, and I think people have been made sacrificial lambs recently in order to move the industry on positively, which is a good thing. I think there is a hysteria that will calm down soon, and we will have moved on in a positive way.”

And there is, Posner agrees, a systemic problem with gender and power structures in theatre. “I don’t think it’s just in theatre,” he adds, “it’s just that movies and theatre grab the headlines because there are names people have heard. But I think there are systemic problems in every professional institution in the country. I’ve heard stories about this happening in the medical profession, in the political profession, in the law profession, and in the City as well. It’s just that showbiz that gets the headlines.”

But, Posner adds, the unrelenting public gaze also means that theatre is one of the swiftest industries to take action. “I think positive change is happening quickly now, certainly in the theatre,” he says. “From rehearsals and the kind of conversations that are happening in rehearsal rooms around the country, I think people are much more aware and much more conscious of their behaviour.”

Posner is currently in rehearsals for a revival of Stephen Bill’s 1987 award-winning dark comedy Curtains at Kingston’s Rose Theatre, a production that will star the playwright’s own son, Leo Bill. “To be honest, it hasn’t been any different from directing any other play,” Posner says of this unusual situation. “Leo very rarely refers to his father as author.”

Recent events, Posner remarks, have had an effect on the atmosphere in the rehearsal room. “At the moment, everyone feels a bit twitchy about making comments that might be misconstrued,” he says. “In any rehearsal, because it’s an intense, intimate experience, if you’re showing an actor a script for example, you might touch them on the shoulder while you’re talking to them with no sexual content. Because of the atmosphere at the moment, people are more aware and more sensitive about doing things like that. In a sense, that’s unhealthy, but I think it will pass.”

Curtains is on at Rose Theatre Kingston until Saturday 17th March. Book tickets here

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Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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