Interview: Max Stafford-Clark and Stella Feehily

Max Stafford-Clark and Stella Feehily Max Stafford-Clark and Stella Feehily - © Rob Greig
Posted: Wed Sep 21 2011

Max Stafford-Clark helped shape the careers of Caryl Churchill, David Hare and Danny Boyle. Now he and his latest collaborator, his wife Stella Feehilly.

What first strikes you on meeting director Max Stafford-Clark and writer Stella Feehily is how transparently and completely they are in love with each other. This is despite the fact that their union chucks the rule book for marriage, if there is such an object, right out of the window.

First irregularity is the age difference: Stafford-Clark, a great intellectual force in post-war theatre, has 28 years on Feehily, a calm and beautiful Irish writer whose tranquil demeanour conceals explosive talent. Then there is the mingling of love and work. Few marriage counsellors would advise you to direct your wife's new play, no matter how brilliant it is, yet Stafford-Clark is doing just that with 'Bang Bang Bang', on its way to London for an October slot at the Royal Court.

Lastly - and most profoundly - there is the triple stroke which Stafford-Clark suffered in the relatively early days of their relationship. It hospitalised him for six months. Disregarding medical advice, Feehily became his carer, supporting him through an extraordinary recovery where he had to relearn many of his basic motor skills. Five years later, not only has Stafford-Clark overcome a potentially disabling medical trauma, he now has three shows on in the West End: 'Bang Bang Bang', a five-star revival of 'Top Girls' at Trafalgar Studios and 'A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson' at the Arts Theatre, all with his company, Out of Joint.

Today, very carefully sipping tea at the Bolton Octagon on the set of 'Bang Bang Bang', Stafford-Clark's physical recovery is evident - though Feehily remains his left-hand woman, supplying subtle support whenever it is required and often before it is requested.

They were married last year, with a celebratory shindig at Wilton's Music Hall. 'We had a fantastic ceilidh band, but for the first two hours, it was only the Irish who were dancing,' teases Feehily. Stafford- Clark raises an eyebrow: after a few hours of enthusiastic drinking, they 'all went up to Richard Wilson and said “Oi don't belieeeve it.” Poor man.'

When I ask how on earth they manage to carve out the space that most writers and directors - or for that matter most husbands and wives - find essential, they laugh at me, in gentle unison. 'With us,' says Stafford-Clark, 'there's no space at all.'

Stafford-Clark has been the mover and shaper behind the work of many great writers and directors, via the top job at the Royal Court and his production company Joint Stock (founded in 1974 with David Hare; buried in 1991 after being dropped by the Arts Council).

He launched the career of Danny Boyle, and commissioned Caryl Churchill's era-defining 'Top Girls' and Mark Ravenhill's 'Shopping and Fucking'. He is legendary in theatre circles, not least for his raging workaholism: all-day rehearsals; theatre in the evening; script-reading until the early hours; playwrights roused by that 1am phone call politely suggesting improvements to the script. Did he, in the darkest and most difficult days in hospital, ever consider retirement? 'Never,' he retorts. 'Certainly my medical team did. They were suggesting the pipe and the slippers.' Surely he's slowed down? 'Not at all. I've done more work this year than ever. I'm living at that pace again.'

Feehily corrects him, gently: 'It's only really in the last year that you've been fit enough to crash around like that.' He strokes her face: 'I don't want to disagree with you in public, so I accept that!' Doing 'Bang Bang Bang' together has, they concur, been 'a labour of love'. But love has not rose tinted Stafford-Clark's eye for a good writer.

Feehily is far more than the 'glamorous appendage' she jokingly describes herself to be. Previous Royal Court/Out of Joint commissions 'Duck' (on which she and Stafford-Clark met) and 'O Go My Man' showcased a lively talent. 'Bang Bang Bang', about a feisty Irish humanitarian facing a baby crisis on the home front and a crisis of conscience on the work front, is her best yet. It enlarges on the semi-comical personal crises she portrays so well, but takes it all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a larger worldview whose breadth she credits to the influence of her new husband.

'What struck me during Stella's research,' says Stafford-Clark, 'was that in the nineteenth century people believed in religion and in the twentieth century they believed in socialism and in the twenty-first century there's nothing to believe in except good causes, doing what you can to make the world a less terrible place.'

'Bang Bang Bang' started life as a verbatim piece (constructed from the words spoken by people interviewed about a particular subject) called 'Think Global, Fuck Local' - a phrase which still sums up some of the quandaries of life as an international reporter or humanitarian rather brilliantly.

'Max was desperate for me to keep that title,' says Feehily, 'but I said: “No, after 40 I can't have 'fuck' in the title, sorry.” ' This being a Royal Court co-commission, Feehily had two of the most influential men in British theatre - Stafford-Clark and current Court boss Dominic Cook - peering critically over her shoulder as she turned her fact-based piece into fiction.

She doesn't seem to have had much trouble standing up to them. 'These two great men of the theatre both played bad cop,' she reflects, drily. 'There was no good cop.' Stafford-Clark admits it took him 'two more drafts' to come round to it. 'Stella was a broody hen sitting on the same egg for three years.' When I ask how they settle their disagreements, he smiles: 'When I was a young director I thought you had to win every argument with a writer. As you get older, you learn how to lose them.'

Feehily's new ability to combine the personal and the political is a sign of real maturity as a playwright. But what moved her in particular was how humanitarian work was dominated by women: 'In any of these organisations,' she says, 'the majority of the human rights defenders were female.'

Feehily's heroine, Sadhbh, is trying to save the world and trying for a baby at the same time. Many women and men can empathise with her work/life balance issues. Yet she is also someone who, Feehily says, 'is motivated by a far greater capacity for empathy than most people'. Her dilemma captures irreconcilable desires that the 25 international journos and aid workers Feehily interviewed for the play described - that you might be desperately trying to start a family, yet at the same time, 'your life out there, with the wind in your hair and the incredible landscapes at your back, diminishes your life at home because it makes it seem less vital'.

It is hard to imagine Feehily and her husband's life together lacking vitality. Stafford-Clark remains a caustic defender of experimental writing and public subsidy. Recently, Out of Joint have produced plays including Richard Bean's critically acclaimed (but gritty) Irish republicanism drama, 'The Big Fellah' - but its Arts Council funding will be cut by £100,000 in 2012.

'They've cut us because we're expensive,' says Stafford-Clark, who knows better than most the financial realities of taking 'challenging' work outside London. 'With a play like “The Big Fellah”, the more publicity there is, the less people want to see it,' he says. ' After this cut we'll be able to take less work to the regions. The Arts Council had the impertinence to produce a brochure in 2010 trumpeting “excellence for all”. They should do a new pamphlet entitled “Excellence for London and a few rich bastards in the provinces”.'

Stafford-Clark remains furiously engaged with new work. 'Ian Dury said to me once, as he was about to go on stage, “If they ask me to sing 'Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick' one more fucking time, I'll scream.” ' He, too, is reluctant to revisit 'the back catalogue', and it's the future that really animates him - Feehily's new NHS play for the National; a new piece by Richard Bean about Pitcairn; a play with NT Wales about Gareth Thomas - 'There is a lot of development to be done. But you won't be seeing three plays by Out of Joint in London again in the near future.'

When we say goodbye, Stafford-Clark demonstrates a Congolese handshake - right hands gripping each other, left hand grasping the left forearm so that neither person can stab the other in the belly. Stella lifts his unresponsive left hand and places it where he wants it. Then off they go, wending their inseparable way. Despite his frailty, and reduced peripheral vision that has Stafford-Clark warning actors to 'shout and wave' if he maroons them down stage for more than 20 minutes, you have to say he's a lucky man.