Tootsie director Sydney Pollack once said: “Dustin [Hoffman] feels that directors and actors are biological enemies, the way the mongoose and the cobra are enemies.” Sean Penn said of Oliver Stone it was like “talking to a pig”. Alfred Hitchcock infamously called actors “cattle”.
Actors and Howard Davies CBE, the theatre director who died on Monday, seemed to get without the need for any comparisons with animals.
There were good reasons for that.
Kevin Spacey had cause to be an admirer. Davies dived in at the deep end and cast Spacey in Eugene O’ Neill’s four and a half hour epic The Iceman Cometh, at north London’s Almeida Theatre.
The play transferred to the Old Vic and Spacey fell in love with the place enough to be its artistic director from 2004-2015. Davies’ fellow stage director Sam Mendes was in the audience and recognised Spacey’s leading man potential for his debut feature, American Beauty. Studios had wanted Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner or John Travolta for Lester Burnham. Mendes got his way. Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director and Actor followed.
Unlike Mendes, Danny Boyle, Stephen Daldry, or Sir Richard Eyre, Davies did not go from stage directing to big-screen success.
His was nonetheless a powerful, understated influence. Actors, other directors and playwrights all seem to have had the miner’s son at the top of their wish-lists for tough assignments.
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He worked with Trevor Nunn at the RSC and set up a home for new plays, called The Warehouse (eventually to be renamed the Donmar Warehouse, where Mendes made his name). When the National Theatre and Helen Mirren decided to do another O’ Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra in 2003, Davies got the call. It would take a strong character to accept the call to direct Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in a David Hare play, a call Davies accepted.
He directed the first staging of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985 with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, and would work with them many more times. A revival of the same play with Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer is currently at Broadway’s Booth Theatre. It is directed by Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse.
He told The Guardian’s Michael Billington in 2004:
“I don’t have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I’m too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose.”
Cyrano de Bergerac, Private Lives, My Fair Lady, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Troilus and Cressida, the opera Eugene Onegin, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Juno and the Paycock and contemporary plays like Temple, based loosely on the dean at the heart of the Occupy movement – it is a rare director who can marshall such a wide range of material into his own vision.
Writers seemed to be as fond of him as actors. Sir David Hare, many of whose plays he directed, has just written a tribute in The Guardian. Edward Albee called his revival of …Virginia Woolf “amazing”. Howard Brenton was a frequent collaborator. He tentatively approached the late Arthur Miller before a National Theatre production of The Crucible. (He would go on to win an Olivier for directing All My Sons.)
“I wrote a letter to him long before the days of email and I went to his apartment,” he told me in an interview for Miller’s centenary last year. “He made me coffee which was undrinkable, and I sat on the furniture which he had made which was incredibly uncomfortable. I thought he would probably grace me with half an hour. Three and a half hours later, I emerged having had this incredible debate with him.”
When Miller came to London for the production, he went to Davies’ house: “I walked out to the garden to see him swinging my kids and two days later, he sat down with the cast having seen a preview. It turned into a free form debate.”
Right up unto his passing, he never stopped working. His production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at Chichester this summer was full of righteous anger and tension. His version of Tom Stoppard’s spy comedy Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre in December 2015 was laced with a quick wit and plot twists.
We kept in touch after our interview and his response to an email about how much I’d enjoyed the Ibsen play was typical of his modesty. “So glad we were doing our jobs.”
Kevin Spacey, Helen Mirren, Zoe Wanamaker and countless others would agree that Howard Davies certainly did his.