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Thursday 11th September 2003
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FEATURES   BY JANE WRIGHT

The director’s photographer son Conrad took this study of Michael Blakemore, left, with Michael Frayn and the set of Democracy
Invisible Mike’s just been Frayned again
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.
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 the play.
“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 fun.”

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 collaborations yet”.

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 East Germany.

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 about anything.
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 to me.”
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 says.
“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.