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Interview with Andrew Keates, theatre director

2 September 2012 Charlie Kenber

London Calling’s Charlie Kenber talks to director Andrew Keates ahead of his production of Passing By at the Finborough...

Andrew Keates first burst into the limelight as a young director of note with his acclaimed 2010 production of Martin Sherman’s Bent. This experience as the youngest ever director to professionally produce “one of the most radical plays ever written” (according to Simon Callow) proved life-changing for Andrew. He tells us “It certainly catapulted my career – I think it was one of the longest running fringe productions ever. It ran for three months in total over two theatres.”

His journey leading up to that production is quite a story in itself. As a young thirteen-year old coming to terms with his own sexuality, Bent had a huge influence on Andrew’s life, and not just for its pivotal role in the gay rights movement. The experience of growing up with it and even hiding a copy under his bed proved defining for Andrew, “[the play] is influential not just on a professional level. Even at thirteen the name Martin Sherman was a huge influence on the kinds of play that I was drawn to.” A decade later, it seemed a production he had to pursue. “I was a very young, enthusiastic, and a bit naïve 24-year old director. In all my arrogance I thought I was the only person in the world who could serve Bent. I wrote to Martin...then one evening my phone went and it was him! We chatted for a very long time.”

Passing By, his latest production (and second of Martin Sherman’s work), opens at the Finborough Theatre this month.  The project came about after a chance meeting with the Finborough’s Artistic Director Neil McPherson at an award ceremony (Andrew was collecting for his The Hired Man). “He came up to me and asked me when I was going to do something at the Finborough. It is one of my favourite theatres in London. We arranged a meeting, chatted all evening about the plays we loved – obviously I’d wanted to do Passing By for about three years now. So I mentioned it!”

The subject matter of this production differs greatly to Bent, and calls for an adaptive directorial approach. Whilst Bent deals with the experience of a homosexual couple under the Nazis, Passing By is a somewhat superficially simpler romantic comedy. Andrew explains, “they have huge similarities, in that they’re both essentially a love story. Martin writes for actors, he doesn’t write for directors (he was an actor himself for a short period). It’s about understanding language and how people talk to each other. Bent is certainly more stylised, but structurally just as complex. You can’t play the subject matter in a play, but only play the characters and the situation they’re in. Just because Bent’s a play about the Holocaust doesn’t mean they talk about it. They talk about love, the adversity they face, their dreams, goals and problems. Passing By does exactly the same thing, but the difference is that they’re up against an illness, not the confines of a concentration camp.”

But why now? When Passing By first premiered in 1975 the gay rights movement was only just beginning in the UK. Its presentation of a homosexual relationship with the same treatment as a heterosexual love story caused a great stir, and revolutionised theatrical preconceptions of homosexuality. “Simon Callow talked quite effusively about this. When it was first performed the audience had an incredible sense of relief and fascination – especially the gay audience – because an honest gay relationship is presented on stage...it was just a simple love story for an audience who’d never seen that before.” So why now? Clearly the gay rights movement has progressed dramatically in the last 40 years; is the play still relevant? “It still seems extremely relevant”, Andrew counters. “It’s translatable, with ideals, dreams, fears. When Martin wrote it in 1972 he hoped that it could be performed one day when it could be seen as just a play between two men who happened to be in a relationship. Not as a gay play, just as a play with two men. It translates beautifully with the current climate – you have hetero couples even connecting with it.” It certainly demands hard work from all involved in the production though, “Martin’s work is so well written and constructed: you literally need to go through every single line, you have to pay attention to every detail.”

Clearly then Martin’s work has been deeply influential for Andrew, but they have also developed a very special personal relationship. “How do I sum up Martin? I think I owe pretty much everything to him. He has encouraged me and given me so much – not just as a director but as a person as well. I quite often phone him up when I have personal as well as professional trouble. He’s an astonishing human being, a mentor and a friend.”

So how does the future look for Andrew Keates? Excitingly he has founded a new theatre company this year – Arion Productions – formed on the basis that there should be no distinction between the treatment of musical theatre, plays and opera. “We have a bold mission statement, to produce work entirely based on its artistic merit, and nothing else.” One of the most notable things about this new company is its commitment to encouraging young practitioners, through on-the-job training, and many of the Passing By team are recent graduates. “We have to invest in this kind of new generation for there to be a new generation. I wish there were more opportunities for directors to be associate directors and work with great directors. Too many drama schools are pumping out people with great dreams, but the opportunities don’t allow for mistakes or learning on the job.”  Funding can be difficult to obtain, but commitment is key, “anyone with passion, determination and skill can create their own theatre company, find a space and put on a play. [But] it would be wonderful to receive investment and support – to continue to be more challenging.”

Not content with just one project at a time, Andrew is also developing a musical A Winter’s Tale. “It’s a brand new musical. It’s what Arion is all about, we don’t just do revivals or new writing. It’s about storytelling.” Although it is certainly entirely different to Passing By, A Winter’s Tale promises to be equally unmissable. “It is going to be wonderful, it’s my favourite Shakespeare play. Howard Goodall is one of the most undervalued British composers we have. I adore the music, I adore the story. It’s totally different to Passing By but I still treat it with the same quality and integrity you’d expect.”

Passing By is on at the Finborough theatre on Sundays and Mondays, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25 September 2012
A Winter’s Tale is on at the Landor Theatre between 7th November - 1st December 2012

Arion Productions is entirely funded by independent investment. If you are interested in supporting its work, please visit www.arion-productions.com , or donate on the company’s WeFund page

Image credit: Scott Rylander

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