Kathy Burke is one of our most popular actresses. Winner of the Best Actress Award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for Gary Oldman’s lacerating Nil by Mouth, regular nominee and award winner in the TV comedy stakes, she could by now be pulling in the mega-bucks.
Instead, here she is on a grey January evening, sitting in the bare dressing room of London’s famous Old Vic Theatre, solemn-faced, chain-smoking – a far cry from her larger-than-life comic creations – love-lorn Linda of Gimme Gimme Gimme, or Harry Enfield’s Perry and Waynetta Slob – talking about Brendan Behan’s 1950’s prison classic, The Quare Fellow.
Kathy Burke turned director a few years ago now. `I just realised I wasn’t really loving acting as much as I used to’, she states matter-of-factly. Burke, you sense, isn’t the kind of person to dwell on what’s gone. Instead, her mind is fully concentrated on giving audiences what she hopes, at the worst, they won’t think has been a waste of their money and, at its best, giving them something to think about.
Actually, Burke’s flirtation with directing goes back to her earliest days as a young actress working at the north London fringe theatre, the Old Red Lion after having been discovered by the Swedish actress/director, Mai Zetterling.
`Mai was a massive influence on me’, Burke admits. `She made it seem great fun but she also taught me, “don’t just be involved as an actor in this business. Try and branch out and understand the other side of things”.’
At the Old Red Lion, Burke wrote and directed her first play, Mr Thomas (later screened by Channel 4 and starring Ray Winstone). But she never forgot Mai’s advice and when friend and playwright Jonathan (Gimme, Gimme, Gimme) Harvey asked her three years ago to direct his latest play, Out in the Open (she had already worked with him a few years previously on his Eurovision comedy, Boom Bang-a-Bang), the die was cast.
Since then, she has hardly stopped, going on to direct up-and-coming young writers Nick Grosso (Kosher Harry), Karen McLachlan (Betty) and Debbie Tucker (Born Bad).
`I like working with writers’, Burke explains. Which makes her involvement with a fifty year old classic all the more surprising.
When she first read the play, Burke confesses, she thought, `this is just too difficult. Nothing happens’. Nor is she particularly enamoured of the `classic’ as a genre. She can’t bear the reverential attitudes that go with it.
Behan however is different. A formative influence in her teenage years (along with that other well-known scourge of the English establishment, Joe Orton), her own Irish roots (her father came from Galway) perhaps helped her decide to take up Dominic Dromgoole’s invitation to direct a 50th anniversary production for his Oxford Stage Company which visits Liverpool,Oldham, Glasgow, Bury St Edmunds, Oxford, York and London over the next four months. At any event, her affinity with the gifted, roistering, sometime IRA recruit and Borstal Boy whose heavy drinking led to his early death at 41, is palpable. She is after all, she tells me, a word and text freak. That’s why she works in the still lowly paid theatre.
She is also an instinctive director. `I’m a live-in-the-here-and-now kind of person anyway’, she confesses. The key to her approach to the play is to treat it, she says, `as a new play, set around 1949/50′. Bracingly democratic – `I like an open rehearsal room. I don’t go in with any sort of plan. I like to hear what the actors have to say’ – she’s made several if tiny changes to the original script used by Joan Littlewood in her legendary Theatre Workshop production in 1956.
Time and public knowledge, argues Burke, have moved on. Set in a Dublin prison, The Quare Fellow centres around the hours before and leading up to a hanging, showing its effects on inmates and warders alike. `We’ve seen a lot of plays and films about prison. We don’t need to have everything explained to us.’ Certain parts of the script Burke now considers `a bit soft’ for today’s more knowing public.
As is the odd syncronicity of these things, remarkably the play has also taken on a strange topicality. Dromgoole and OSC can hardly have known when they decided on a revival of The Quare Fellow how events might mirror its contents. Two days into rehearsal, and Burke and her 17 strong all-male cast hear on the news that Harold Shipman has, as one inmate is referred to in the play, `put up the sheet’: topped himself.
I wonder how Burke feels about the play’s eloquent anti-capital punishment argument for a public whose views on the subject seem to be hardening again. Burke thinks The Quare Fellow is a great humanist play but will not be drawn. It’s not that she doesn’t have an opinion; it’s just, refreshingly, unlike most directors these days, she thinks her personal views are irrelevant.
For Burke, her energies are focussed on doing everything she can to bring out what she thinks were Behan’s intentions and crucially, `the human side of the characters’.
`That to me is what’s important – getting to the core of his characters. When I go to the theatre, I want to be able to believe in every character on that stage.’
The Quare Fellow is certainly crammed with character – the tramp, Dunlavin, other unnamed inmates, the warder Regan, his colleagues, the hangman – as it is also gently withering about the hypocrisy of the Church and prison officialdom.
As Burke points out, Behan, who was imprisoned twice, knew this scene intimately. `He knew it from the inside. He knew how the system worked. To me the play is about how these human beings interact with each other in this extreme situation of being in prison and the extreme situation of being in prison when someone is about to be killed and knowing that death is about to happen. It’s about letting people know what it’s like to be hung, what is involved in hanging. It’s like a documentation.’
Three more weeks to go. Burke is clearly revelling in her role – `somehow I’ve managed to get a cast of 17 people, all with the same sense of humour’ – and solving technical design problems imposed by a touring production. `We’re having to compromise and make the set quite stylised because that’s the nature of the beast. It’s got to break down and move on’.
It could describe the whole theatre business – coming together only to be broken up and move on, something Burke admits she finds the most difficult part of the whole process. But for the moment, this most open-hearted, egalitarian of directors is looking forward to just getting out and meeting people when The Quare Fellow opens in Liverpool, and all points in between – and concerned that the sum of all their collective efforts `will touch a nerve with every man.’
‘Course, she says, normally directors are anonymous. The public don’t know them. `It’s part of my life at present to be recognised. A few years down the line, they’ll probably have forgotten me’. Fat chance.
The Quare Fellow runs at York Theatre Royal from 6-10 April. Contact the box office on 01904 623568 for further details.
By Carole Woddis. Original article on York Theatre Royal website.