The director’s photographer son Conrad took this study of Michael
Blakemore, left, with Michael Frayn and the set of Democracy
MICHAEL Blakemore is
the invisible man. Which is odd for an award-winning director who
is also physically imposing. On Tuesday, the 75-year-old’s eighth
collaboration with playwright Michael Frayn, a political drama called
Democracy, opened at the Royal National Theatre.
Mike’s just been Frayned again
And, as usual, the vast majority of mentions went to the playwright.
Sitting on a sofa under huge windows in his living room in Upper Park
Road, Belsize Park, Mr Blakemore says a new play from Frayn –
who recently moved from Camden Town to Richmond – creates the
same monopoly of attention on the writer as new plays from Harold
Pinter and Tom Stoppard. And, yes, it sometimes rankles.
He explains in the sonorous voice of a former actor, with the marked
twang of his native Australia: “One of the penalties of directing
a premiere is that people think what they’re seeing is just
“But it’s always an interpretation. A director’s
work is far more in evidence with a classic play. The audience can
see a new version of Hamlet is different from the one they saw before.”
Mr Blakemore does the classics too. His West End production of Chekhov’s
Three Sisters garnered much acclaim earlier this year. But he feels
new plays are more important. “If I succeed in launching a new
play, the theatre is renewed,” he says. “It’s harder
to say that about a revival. And, anyway, new plays are much more
Nevertheless, a long-term collaboration with one playwright can produce
particular anxieties. He explains: “It’s exactly like
a marriage. First there is the honeymoon period, then difficulties
may begin. One of the terrors is: will this be the play we finally
fall out about?”
He did eventually fall out with playwright and fellow Belsize Park
resident Peter Nichols, though he doesn’t want to elaborate.
But he claims he never fights with “good” and “decent”
Michael Frayn, despite deciding not to direct one of his plays, Look
Look, which became a rare Frayn turkey in 1990.
In fact, Mr Blakemore says Democracy has been “one of our sunniest
It follows in the footsteps of Frayn’s 1998 multi-award winning
drama Copenhagen, which gave Mr Blakemore a unique achievement on
Broadway – a second Tony award for best director in the year
his Kiss Me Kate won him another directorial Tony – the top
New York theatre gong – for best director of a musical.
Mr Blakemore says of Democracy: “Just as in Copenhagen, when
Michael wrote a major play which dealt with science in a new way,
he’s now done the same for politics.”
The play, which has an all-male cast, tells how the first left-wing
post-war leader of West Germany, Willy Brandt, was spied on by his
devoted personal assistant, Gunter Guillaume, who was working for
I suggest it may be rather heavy going. He smiles. “There are
a few more laughs than in Copenhagen, because politics lends itself
to laughter. But it’s a very foolish person who goes to the
theatre solely because of what a play is about. Good writers can write
Their relationship started as a personal one, ironically because Frayn
is a very good friend of Peter Nichols, who introduced him to Blakemore.
He began holidaying with Mr Blakemore and his family at their hideaway
on the coast of south west France. Then, when his former collaborator,
Michael Rudman, decided not to direct Frayn’s Make or Break
in 1980, Mr Blakemore stepped in.
Now, he says: “I regard myself as Michael’s director.
He shows his plays first to Claire (his wife, the award-winning biographer
Claire Tomalin). Then he gives them to me.
“When it comes to rehearsals, my job is to make the material
live on stage. Michael often gives no more than the core of any scene
and doesn’t have a clear idea of setting. For example, there
were no stage directions at all in Copenhagen. He leaves all that
Mr Blakemore is today (Thursday) off to his French beach to work on
a book of memoirs.
“It’s about coming to Britain from Australia in 1950,
arguing with the English and struggling to make my way,” he
“You know, I still don’t feel very English. It’s
your first 21 years which makes you. Once in London I came to live
in Hampstead because the hills reminded me of Sydney. I suppose I’m
just an Aussie beach bum at heart.”
n Democracy is in repertory at the Royal National Theatre’s
Cottesloe stage until December 30. Box office: 020 7452 3000.