Ramin Gray: interview

Royal Court associate director Ramin Gray is used to new writing, so Max Frisch's 'The Arsonists' presents a fresh challenge: what to do when the playwright's not around to offer advice? And does an absent author force the director to take on more of an artistic role? Gray tells Time Out just what he'd ask Frisch if he could

  • Ramin Gray: interview

    Setting the theatre alight: director Ramin Gray with Katharina Wienecke (image © Pau Ros)

  • The Royal Court is a writers' theatre – possibly the most famous writers' theatre in the world – and embedded in the building's walls is the belief that it's the director's job to understand the writer's objectives and to try to fulfil them as best they can. Ramin Gray may have initially anticipated a career directing the classics, but in fact he's been committed to new writing since moving into the International Department at the Royal Court in 2000 and subsequently becoming an associate director. So it's hardly surprising that when he was interviewed for the Genesis Foundation website in 2001, he spoke as someone who is part of the tradition of the self-effacing director, 'I would not say that I am an artist. I would disagree with that concept of a director vehemently. For me, that is broadening the definition of an artist too much.'

    Gray's productions range from Simon Stephens' controversial 'Motortown' to Marius von Mayenburg's 'The Ugly One', a fascinating study in identity enhanced by Gray's artfully low-tech production. He has an affinity with European texts that work in a less psychologically realistic tradition than our own. So when artistic director Dominic Cooke decided to revive Max Frisch's 'The Arsonists', he asked Gray to direct it.

    For Gray, the experience is a novel one. Frisch wrote the play in 1953 and died in 1991 so can hardly sit in on rehearsals. The play describes how a bourgeois man called Biedermann invites a pair of shady characters into his house; taking up residence in his attic, they brazenly prepare to burn the house down. Biedermann is both too socially embarrassed to challenge the men and also hopeful that if he feeds them well they will spare him and destroy his neighbours' house instead. Frisch was criticising President Benes of Czechoslovakia, who invited the Communists to join his government. The play also refers to the days of appeasement before 1939. But its meaning can change according to when it's being staged, to refer to Islamic or Christian fundamentalism, the erosion of civil liberties, or the rise of global capitalism. Gray longs to ask the playwright questions. 'I'd like to say to Frisch: “You keep saying 'it's a morality play without a moral' but what does that mean, really?” Yes it's a parable for all time and yet there's a moment where someone has to make a speech which is supposed to be drowned out by sound effects. But what is that speech? What is the actor saying? It's weird being thrust into the position of having to interpret the play.'

    That's what directors of classics do all the time. The plays that survive are usually the ones that are open to reinterpretation. As a result, Gray is reassessing the director's role. 'I think the thing is to say that you are a secondary artist. Is that acceptable? Even if you say to yourself, I am just revealing the text – I become more and more aware that I am revealing my reading of the text.' In fact, as Frisch is Swiss and wrote in German, there is someone representing the playwright in the room – the translator. Gray invited the satirist Alistair Beaton to do a faithful translation of the play – not a version – when they were working together on the 'King of Hearts', a typical Beaton satire on the Labour government. But what happens if the director and the translator don't agree on the interpretation? Gray and Beaton appear to be continuing a debate that began with 'King of Hearts' in which Beaton is concerned with the government's attack on our civil liberties and Gray with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to our liberal way of life. They are, he says, having 'interesting arguments'.

    Gray's take on the play leads him into contentious waters. He finishes by describing an event that was held during the Court's fiftieth anniversary to celebrate the part the theatre played in abolishing censorship in 1968. 'After the interval, we tried to have a panel discussion about what it's like now. I left thinking the issues are really so much more difficult than they were in 1968 when it was all cut and dried. Now there's no authority figure like the Lord Chancellor. It's all in each of our heads and it's a minefield. I'm very nervous. But I suppose that's what we are supposed to be doing here – testing those waters. Not being provocative for the sake of being provocative, but trying to free ourselves to say what we think.'

    'The Arsonists' is playing at the Royal Court Theatre.

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