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The Big Interview: Matthew Dunster

Kevin Bourke gets inside the mind of a very self-confident theatre director

Published on March 23rd 2012.


The Big Interview: Matthew Dunster

OLDHAM-born Matthew Dunster could be dubbed a ‘triple threat’, working equally successfully as a writer, director and actor. 

"It’s a time when the hangover has set in after the ‘celebration’ of the Empire. It’s all about identity, both personal and national." 

He directed his own, semi-autobiographical piece You Can See The Hills From Here to award-winning success in the Royal Exchange Studio and has since returned to the main stage there with his coruscating take on Macbeth and his overwhelming, ambitious adaptation of Orwell's 1984, as well as last year's razor-sharp realisation of the Bruntwood Prize winning play Mogadishu. 

This year he's been working - a tad improbably some might say - with The Pet Shop Boys and choreographer Javier De Frutos at Sadler's Wells and also contributed a new play I Know Where The Dead Are Buried to the zero budget 24:7 festival. 

Currently he's back at the Royal Exchange, directing his own adaptation of Allan Sillitoe’s groundbreaking novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,  a brutally honest portrait of an age where work, booze and death were all that Britain's young men had to look forward to. 

So can the real Matthew Dunster please stand up? 

"It's all about me first, about what I want to write," he insists. "I don't have a great big list of plays that I want to direct and I don't have a great big list of plays that I want to write. So whenever this stuff comes out you've just got to run with it and, at the end of it, look at it and figure out where it might go. 

“I wrote a monologue a number of years ago which was performed here, called You Can See The Hills, and I thought I was writing a novel. It was only when I showed it to someone that they said 'I'd like to hear this, someone should say it out loud.' 

“You start with the idea and then the form will eventually find itself, especially if you're not scared of rejection. I wrote a treatment for a television comedy about the BNP in the North of England, which was rejected, bizarrely, as being way too political and violent. But I just put it to one side, waiting until the great 'state of the nation' play. Or, as it happened, I Know Where The Dead Are Buried at a festival I was interested in. I wrote the sequel to You Can See The Hills as that play was on but I haven't finished it, although I will when I'm ready to write that final scene. It feels quite important to me that it starts here when it does come time to do it, though."

Famously, Sillitoe's book was turned into a - for the times - hard-hitting film, starring Salford's own Albert Finney as rebellious young factory worker Arthur Seaton who works hard and plays dirty in fifties Nottingham. 

But if you think you know it from Karel Reisz's black and white film, then you're in for something of a shock, Dunster says. 

“The film is a fantastic piece of work but it's also a victim of its time in that it was much easier to be transgressive in a novel than it was on the screen back then. So it's very exciting to be able to reclaim those elements and share them with the audience. 

"I'd had a very good experience doing the adaptation of 1984 at the Exchange. It's quite a privileged position to be in to write the show and then direct it.  You can write in all the risks and all the big ideas because you know you're the person who's going to have to pull it off, whereas you might be a bit more conservative otherwise.  

"So I was very keen to repeat it but I didn't know what I wanted to work on. I was hoping the Exchange themselves might have an idea but they said I'd have to come up with a novel. That very night I was watching TV when Sillitoe died and I thought 'It's obvious where this is pointing me.' 

“When I then went back to the book I was very excited by how many other options it offered up beyond the film. 

"There was a contradiction at the heart of that whole school of black and white, new-wave, kitchen sink film-making. They're about working-class communities but they weren't made by working-class directors. So you got a particular group of artists looking at a community and making certain decisions about how the people in that community lived their lives. For example, you might get a jazz soundtrack that's got f-all to do with what the people in that community would be listening to. And of course the great big lie, but also the thing that makes those films so sexy, is the world being in black and white.

"The music and culture then were full of American influences. The films of the time were things like Jailhouse Rock, South Pacific and The Bridge On The River Kwai and the music was celebratory – pop music and party music. It was a time when people were trying to connect with each other and find comfort through human contact. 

“The play is also about the last days of the British Empire colliding with the working classes – a generation of youth who had done compulsory National Service, many of whom were angry about being an instrument of the British Empire, clashing with the first wave of immigrants coming to the UK and doing all the worst jobs. It’s a time when the hangover has set in after the ‘celebration’ of the Empire. It’s all about identity, both personal and national.” 

"I think it was always high-risk and it still is a challenging move forward when you watch it. But it sold out within hours anyway because quite a popular pop combo were involved. It helps.” 

It's hard to imagine what a contrast it must have been to work therefore with mega-pop stars The Pet Shops Boys and flamboyant choreographer Javier De Frutos on a full-length dance work, based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. 

The Most Incredible Thing, "a big shiny fairytale pop-ballet", had its world premiere at Sadler’s Wells in Spring last year and is currently in rehearsals to return there at the end of this month. 

"That was interesting as my experience of adaptation has been about reduction and distillation, getting a massive novel into two hour show. But this was about unlocking and unfolding something from a two and a half page story." 

And collaborating with one of the biggest pop groups in the world, let's not forget. 

"Well, I always knew what that was all about," he insists. "When The Pet Shop Boys and I first started working together, I would offer up three or four different versions of each beat of the story and then see which one of those versions would give them the most active stimulation to compose music. 

Then The Pet Shop Boys went off and wrote ninety minutes of music, so we needed the right choreographer to bring that to life. For my second draft I would write what I imagined Javier was seeing, so that the designers could then start realising that. It was a really healthy mix of the theatre process and the dance process. 

"I think it was always high-risk and it still is a challenging move forward when you watch it. But it sold out within hours anyway because quite a popular pop combo were involved. It helps.” 

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning is at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 7 April. The Most Incredible Thing returns to Sadlers Wells in London from March 25-April 7.

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Deborah WroeMarch 28th 2012.

Can't wait to see the sequel to You Can See The Hills - it was an amazing play and beatifully performed by William Ash

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