In the first in what we hope will be a regular series of musicOMH Q&As with emerging directors and playwrights, we speak to Jack McNamara, director of a new production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blind at the Arcola about bringing this little known piece to the stage and working with Don DeLillo.
What drew you to want to direct the Maurice Maeterlinck play The Blind?
I have known about this play for a few years and was always very intrigued by how still and relentless it is. It is the kind of play that people talk about wanting to do but often back down from when it comes to it. I think this is because it is not a piece that works today through literal staging. In other words, it isn’t a play that takes care of itself. It needs reworking and rethinking. The mythological context and the religious symbolism are not as strong for us today as they were in the nineteenth century. Also, the treatment of blindness in the play poses several problems. This is not a play that addresses that subject with much accuracy. Instead the blindness has to symbolise something else, and that requires you to reconsider the entire play from another perspective. I decided that the paralysis of the characters was less to do with their being blind and more to do with their dependency on the system or institution they had come from.
Was it always your intention to use a cast of blind and visually impaired actors? Did this present any unexpected challenges when staging the production?
While I was intrigued by the play I was always uncomfortable with the idea of having a group of sighted actors playing blind parts. I then worked with an Iranian film director called Abbas Kiarostami who is completely adamant that to use actors to simulate real features (such as age, class or disability) was to cheat the audience. It is easier to apply this to film than to theatre but still I think I felt influenced by his views. I then set about doing research and meeting actors over the course of a year and a half. I met so many interesting and dynamic visually impaired performers that I soon realised that I would need a good reason not to use them in this play. They all had mixed feelings about the treatment of blindness in the piece but were open minded enough to take it on. We decided from very early that we were not interested in creating an advocacy piece. Maeterlinck’s message is dark and bleak, and we weren’t going to shy away from that.
In terms of working with visually impaired performers, it really was no more difficult than working with sighted actors. In the first day or so you establish everyones individual needs (braille, large print or line feeding) and then you get on with the work. The real challenge with this production has been the text itself, not the actors. The press have placed quite a lot of emphasis on the use of visually impaired actors, but those of us doing it haven’t found it a very big deal.
Though it predates him, Maeterlinck’s play has strong Beckettian qualities; is that something you chose to emphasis, or was it inherent in the text?
Well I suppose that everyone knows and loves Beckett and not many people have even heard of Maeterlinck, so they are bound to be compared. I think there is a connection in the boldness of the image and the reduction of external drama, but as writers they couldn’t be less similar. Beckett’s work is so literary whereas I think that Maeterlinck is is a bit more experential. The words are less sacred for Maeterlinck in my opinion. I personally am excited to direct a play that doesn’t try to appeal to our literary appetite. I didn’t want to emphasise the connection. Beckett’s images have become so familiar to us, and I wanted The Blind to have a distinct image of its own.
You also directed the London premiere of Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso. How did that come about? Did you have any direct dealings with DeLillo?
I applied for the rights to that play and was pretty much turned down until DeLillo himself stepped in and gave me the go ahead. I loved the play and had written him a very long proposal as to how I would do it. Because it was a premiere his agent was understandably a little unwilling. But DeLillo isn’t the kind of person who cares a great deal about stature or prestige. It was more important to him that I understood it and that my passion was genuine. I met with him in New York to go through it and we have kept up a correspondence since. He was very modest about his abilities as a playwright so I was very happy when all these reviews came out saying how wonderful the text was. In my view he writes the best sentences in the English language. Valparaiso is an unbelievable piece of writing.
Any future plans or projects you want to share with us?
Possibly a DeLillo project later in the year. I am working on two adaptations at the moment; ‘Exterminating Angel’ based on the film by Luis Bunuel and a Hungarian novel called ‘The Melancholy of Resistance.’ Neither of them have homes yet. I also work closely with an Iranian set designer Vali Mahlouji, and we are interested in creating work that combines elements of theatre, performance art and installation. I have learnt recently that good work takes a long time, so I plan to spend most of the year workshopping, researching and developing.
The Blind will be at the Arcola until 1 March 2008.