After a 12-year absence from theatre, Stephen Poliakoff returns with the Tracey Ullman-starring 'My City'.
Stephen Poliakoff is a born storyteller. Wordflow doesn't begin to describe it. Rampantly curly hair obstructs many of his facial features. But it conspicuously fails to dam any of the notions, anecdotes and delightfully high-pitched hoots
of witchy laughter that sluice out on
a high tide of geniality. 'I've always loved writing about cities,' he enthuses, in a break from rehearsals at the Almeida where he's directing Tracy Ullman in 'My City', a meditation on the power of education and a palimpsest of London stories which is his first new play for 12 years. 'London has run through my work. It still thrills me, like a small child. I go on rambles at night in my imagination. My first film, 'Hidden City' was about subterranean London. But this time
I wanted to evoke the city now.'
Poliakoff was a 'theatre animal' for most of his career, but he's best known as a big beast of TV (or 'television' as he calls it, giving it four full juicy syllables). As a 15-year-old schoolboy at Westminster, Christopher Hampton, then resident at the Royal Court, spotted him and got him signed by legendary agent Peggy Ramsay, 'an extraordinary character: ferocious, bombastic and very theatrical'. Ramsay left an indelible stamp on her authors, who included Joe Orton.
'She took me on early and subjected me to savage criticism. “I don't know whether it's you who's boring, darling, or your play,” she said to me once when I was about 17.' In the '70s, theatre was 'a fierce and hierarchical place.' The Royal Court had a 'virtual monopoly' on new drama and 'lots of powerful directors believed in savage mockery.' Poliakoff and his peers, who included David Hare, earned respect by refusing to take it.
'The past was a tough place' says Poliakoff. 'That's why I'm not nostalgic about it.'
The past does keep coming back in Poliakoff's dramas, though. His early writing was usually urban and violent - contemporary life in the neon glare. In the past decade or so he's explored the Jewish history of his Russian immigrant father and grandfather, taking a thrilling look at English appeasement in his 2009 film 'Glorious 39'.
'My work follows that curve, which is to do with getting older and my parents being dead. I was a boy in the '60s and you reacted against the older generation. My father was a Russian Jew but behaved like an aristocratic prince - he was obsessed with good manners and Rolls-Royces, as immigrants often are obsessed with the trappings of a society they're not really a member of. People often leave it too late to ask why things happened in their parents' lives. There are many things I wish I'd asked him.'
European history is not the focus of 'My City', which describes an ambivalent reunion between a boy-turned-man and his primary school teacher, a compulsive and charismatic storyteller. But the ebb and flow of displaced children haunts the tales which the characters tell: one teacher recounts the way in which his own school teacher discreetly adopted him in a railway station to save him from being transported with his parents.
The characters' method of teaching through stories is inspired by Hanover Primary School, 'just the other side of the Green in Islington', which Poliakoff's two children attended. At the time, it was run by a head teacher, now dead, who made the school 'into a vivid and extraordinary kingdom of her own'.
There's a dark side to the play too, though, which comes more from Poliakoff's own experience of education. Not at Westminster - 'very liberal, very druggy in the late '60s when I was there. Some of us went off the rails but no one ever told you you couldn't write a play because you had to work on your A-levels' - but at prep school in Kent.
'I was very unhappy at boarding school where I was sent at eight. But there was an English master who was very combative - who treated us as equals he didn't like very much - which was an interesting relationship. One day he said, “I'm full of admiration for you boys because you have to do things I could never cope with.”' That simple admission was, says Poliakoff, a 'revolutionary' thought. 'Children spend a lot of time being afraid. If my teachers had stood up and told me that they had felt afraid too, I would have felt better.'
Boarding at eight was evidently tough, lonely and formative - when I ask Poliakoff where he got the nerve to stand up to the brilliant, bullying old school directors who ran the show in the '70s his instant riposte is, 'a public school education!'. It is the rigorous respect for invention which his later educators and his parents shared which has been most fruitful though, in a career where he's carved out the space to succeed and fail at doing his own thing, he is, he says, never required to make an elevator pitch, despite the increasing homogeneity of TV drama.
'Now, being like something else is almost a prerequisite for getting something made. But in my formative years, originality was greatly prized. It was the same attitude my parents had. Not making money was okay. But being banal was a crime.'
Poliakoff's work can be intense and strange and it can also be sprawling and elusive. But he remains undeterred, overflowing with sheer relish. 'I try to create worlds that people haven't seen before,' he says with a shrug and a grin. 'That has remained my guiding star.'