Interview: Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh Mike Leigh - © Laura Pannack
Posted: Mon Apr 11 2011

The legendary director on the agony and the 'Ecstasy' of returning to the theatre

The first time Mike Leigh staged his play 'Ecstasy' at Hampstead Theatre in 1979, there was no chance of a West End transfer. 'Michael Codron put money into it,' he recalls, settling in to the broken armchair in his spartan Soho office - a room with a kettle, an ensuite loo, and no pretentions whatever. 'He legitimately expected itwould be another “Abigail's Party”. On the first night he said, “I love this, but you just can't do it in the West End.”'

Leigh is about to prove legendary producer Codron wrong. In March, he re-directed 'Ecstasy' at Hampstead - the first time he has ever revisited old work. The new, unknown cast were busy being born when the likes of Julie Walters, Stephen Rea and Jim Broadbent made their names devising its vivid working-class characters, who get pissed together in a Kilburn bedsit. Why do it again? Because, he says in his dry way, he has 'more than a passing soft spot for it'. He considers it his best drama. And it has the undisputable advantage of actually having a script: 'Lots of my plays weren't put down in script form, therefore they don't exist anymore.' He won't be redoing any of the others. 'The only other one I could do is “Goosepimples”, which contains a Saudi and a Muslim getting drunk, and I don't want to expose the actors to any unnecessary hassles.'

Today, Leigh is quietly chuffed that 'Abigail's neglected offspring - which he describes affectionately as 'different' and 'special' and 'profounder than my other plays' - is finally finding a wider audience in the West End. 'Ecstasy' was one of four plays that Leigh produced at Hampstead in the late '70s and early '80s: years when he alternated between theatre and 'those “Play for Today” films at the BBC'. He puts his subsequent success down to having fallen in with actors: 'Unlike Soho writers, I can't think: Maybe I'll stay in bed today. I'm one of the greatest procrastinators in the world and, if I hadn't hit on that discipline of collaboration, I'd never have done anything at all.'

It was the'runaway success' of 'Abigail's Party', starring Leigh's then wife Alison Steadman, that was his passport to a popular audience - though not in the theatre. 'We couldn't go back into the West End with it because Alison Steadman was expecting. So we did it on telly, and the rest is history.'

'Ecstasy', a real-time portrait of despair, violence and camaraderie in Kilburn, and its two-hour second act, was in some ways a reaction against that zingy caricature of upwardly mobile Essex. 'Both plays are serious drink-fests,' Leigh points out. 'There was a production of “Abigail's Party” at Hornchurch where they decided, in the spirit of serious research, to do one run of the play with real alcohol and they couldn't get to the end of the second act - they were dead. It's heightened. But “Ecstasy” is in real-time. They used to drink real cans of beer in the original production, though that's only because we hadn't worked out how to imitate it then.' When I suggest it has changed from being about the way we live now to the way we lived then, he won't hear of it. 'At one point in the rehearsals I thought, maybe I should cut all this smoking, we all thought that was completely natural in 1979. But it's timeless in a way. It's about emotions, loneliness, community, togetherness and all that.'

For the last quarter century, Leigh has worked mainly in the less perishable medium of film. Coming back to the theatre it is, he says, 'impossible not to have a feeling that it's a tragedy that it will cease to be. You want to preserve it. But that's theatre.'

No matter how unglamorous the subject matter, his name is a big draw. 'Ecstasy' is the coup of Ed Hall's first season as artistic director at Hampstead (Hall's father Peter employed Leigh as his assistant director at the RSC in the early '70s). It has broken all Hampstead's box-office records - making it all the more astonishing that Hall's predecessor Tony Clark refused to revive it there. 'He read it,' says Leigh. 'And he said, “Well, I don't think anyone would come and see it.”'

Clark wasn't the only one who didn't fancy it: at first outing, some critics argued that it patronised its characters. 'It wasn't a flop, but there were people who were extremely rude about it,' Leigh notes. 'If you show a woman, a working-class woman, going to the lavatory and calling out for more toilet paper, you either get the spirit of it and understand it and enjoy it, or you think that it can only be a dishonest or wilfully warped view of inferior people behaving vulgarly in order to point up their inferiority. Either you get it or you don't.' Those who don't 'get it' often caricature Leigh as a miserablist.

He dislikes having his photo taken, and can look as mournful as a hound dog in pictures. But he's jocular in person: those downwardly mobile chops are lifted by his sardonic, Salford-inflected sense of humour, his energy and his curiosity. He obviously has a long memory for criticism - he still has a tape of an ancient Radio 3 programme in which a panel gave 'Ecstasy' a good drubbing - but his interest is more nerdish than rancorous: his primary concern seems to be the continued life of the characters which he has made, and which remain near to his heart. 'One of my preoccupations, as you will know, is the waste of human potential. Jean, the central character in “Ecstasy”, is sharp, bright, politically astute. Reads. Has got her own mind. But it's gone wrong for her.'

She belongs to a kind of social realism that is often described as 'tough', but 'Ecstasy', with its pitch-perfect evocation of four friends washing away their troubles in a tidal wave of booze, song and solidarity, is more notable for its tenderness. Does Leigh feel fond of the despairing, damaged people who inhabit Leighland? 'Absolutely. I love them. I love them. I hope that's what breathes through every pore.'

One of the most moving moments in 'Ecstasy' happens when Jean (the superb Sian Brooke), her Brummie mate Dawn (Sinead Matthews, a pocket battleship in shoplifted finery from C&A), Dawn's Irish husband Mick (Allen Leech) and their gentle, shy pal Len (Craig Parkingson) all, as expats inevitably will, get around to having a sing-song. 'It has to be a showstopper when Jean sings “Danny Boy”,' Leigh explains. 'She's a woman who sits there introspecting, in pain, being gently sardonic. Then this stuff just comes out of her. You get to her heart.'

Leigh is a Gilbert and Sullivan fan ('Topsy Turvy' was, he thinks, one of his finest achievements on film). Does he have a special feeling for music? 'It is central to what I get up to. The crossover into the principles of musical theatre is something I've experimented with very naturally. It's a debate whether I'd want to make a musical. I certainly haven't ever made anything that becomes a musical in itself.'

In contrast to his usual method of devising everything - plot, dialogue, theme - from scratch with the actors, re-directing has been 'delightful and unusually angst-free'. 'Usually I'm carrying this burden of, “What the fuck am I doing? We've only got a few weeks left and there's nothing to show from it.” '

Devising a Mike Leigh piece can be a profound experience for actors, who get to be co-authors. So how did his originals feel when they saw their own roles occupied by younger models? 'They loved it. They all get one-sixth of 50 per cent of the royalties. But that's not why they loved it. Julie Walters will survive without that particular bonus.'

Creating 'Ecstasy' was, Leigh admits, 'quite traumatic for everyone, but in the best sense: important, emotional, an adventure. There was a notion they should all come together, but that would have been too much for the new cast. They never know when their doppelganger is in the house.'

After the accessibility of TV and film, Leigh does fret about the narrowness of theatre audiences. Hampstead used to be a byword for that exclusivity: in the original production of 'Ecstasy', Jim Broadbent was taken ill one night. When the actresses asked if there was a doctor in the house, 14 men stood up. 'I've clocked the audience and it's definitely a wider spectrum,' says Leigh. 'But you worry about how few people will see it even in the West End.' He's sceptical about the West End, in any case. 'The prices are ridiculous. The theatres are all lavatories, basically. Even in the smaller, better ones, the sightlines are dreadful.'

Like any director with experience of Fringeonomics, he's in it for the audience. 'When I think back to a time when I put on my improvised plays in various fringe venues, playing to half-full houses, trying to get an audience, it makes me cry to see people queueing up. I once did a show in Theatre Upstairs which got a good advance, kicked off, then Time Out reviewed it so badly that it closed. So it's just very nice that they want to see it.'

At least the Duchess is one of the smaller venues, well suited to intimate dramas. And the National's Cottesloe stage, where Leigh will unveil an untitled new play starring long-time collaborator Lesley Manville in autumn 2011, is smaller still. Leigh first met Manville during a doomed RSC project called 'Ice Cream', which was to have been staged after 'Abigail's Party'.

'I scrapped it because everyone was in other things. I had to go to Trevor Nunn and say, “This isn't going to happen”.' For a while, that 'put people off' commissioning him to do plays. And the time-consuming demands of making a Mike Leigh piece are a barrier to working in the theatre. But Nick Hytner's National Theatre has been accommodating, providing Leigh with three six-week rehearsal periods, triple the usual allocation. He won't - can't - talk about the subject of this or about his next film project, on Turner. When I suggest that's partly a fear of 'talking it out', he agrees - though he stresses that he genuinely doesn't have a clue what's going to happen. 'I've got a feeling floating around that changes. Between May 22 and the first night I will make discoveries that I can't dream of. All artists do. That's what it's all about.'

Even when you've been making something from nothing for as long as Leigh has, it's a nervous business. 'It gives me a sphinctal twitch even to think about it now,' he confesses. 'With the films we rehearse for six months, film for three and you're still making it up in the cutting room. With the new play, you've got to deliver the whole thing so that it's finished in time for opening night. But look, if I can't make a play up in 18 weeks, then I ought to pack up and go home really.'