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Manchester book reviews

How to Direct a Play

How to Direct a Play: a Masterclass in Comedy, Tragedy, Farce, Shakespeare, New Plays, Opera, Musicals

by Braham Murray. Oberon Books, London, 2011

Reviewed by Dr Charlotte Starkey January 2012


A new book by Braham Murray, the fruits of his many years as a successful theatre director not least at The Royal Exchange in Manchester, is relevant to the interests of a number of groups: student dramatists, aspiring directors, designers, stage managers, in fact anyone directly involved in theatre; teachers of drama as a performance subject, teachers and lecturers and students of plays as texts both in school and university; and, most importantly, anyone who loves theatre and who loves reading a well-written narrative.


It is witty, anecdotal, informed, informative, intimate and frank. This is the work of a professional expert and Braham Murray’s account of ways to approach Shakespeare as a director (followed by a discussion of producing and directing Greek drama) is one of the best practical discussions of how to approach a Shakespeare play both as text and performance that one could find today. The book is not a bible in how to direct a play; it is one man’s account of what has, and has not, worked for him – a passionate, dedicated, lived and lively statement of what can happen when theatre is performing powerfully; and Murray believes deeply in the importance of theatre for the world beyond the stage.


Braham Murray is well known not just in Manchester, but also nationally and internationally, for memorable productions first at the Century Theatre as Artistic Director and then as Founding Director of the ’69 Theatre Company, the University of Manchester’s resident professional Company. He has been responsible for major productions at The Royal Exchange, nurturing his Company through the traumas of the IRA bombing of Manchester in 1996 and achieving international recognition for major productions with some of the greatest actors and actresses of recent decades: The Rivals with Tom Courtenay (1976), The Winter’s Tale with James Maxwell (1978), famously Waiting for Godot with Max Wall and Trevor Peacock (1980), a production still fresh in people’s minds to this day, and recorded hilariously in the book, then Hamlet (1983) with Robert Lindsay, more recently The Glass Menagerie (2008) with Brenda Blethyn. If he is leaving The Royal Exchange, he is going to be greatly missed even though he leaves the marvellous enterprise on very firm foundations.


How to Direct a Play is a testament to a prolific, very experienced and demanding master of his craft and profession. It has the tenor of a person who has always aimed for the highest possible standards in his work, expecting as much of himself as of others in production and performance, but equally, like all those who are expert in what they do in life, marked with a significant humility in his frankness, honesty, admissions of failure and disappointment and aspirations where every situation is turned into a search for even more achievement on stage. This book has its frequent moments of adrenalin-filled excitement at witty anecdotes of working with egomaniacs but equally a huge compassion for those who depend upon theatre for their livelihoods, especially the actors and actresses approaching previews and first nights. The book is characterised by a creative tension between this restless search for perfection and the realisation that the task is never done. The writing is shot through with humour, self-mockery, admissions of failure, words of wisdom for any aspiring director (equally relevant to an aspiring artist in any medium, in fact), fully aware of the pitfalls when personal expectation and idea, rehearsal, performance, audience reaction all fail to materialise as he had hoped.


One of the values of this book for the practitioner of theatre is the meticulous manner in which every aspect of the director’s role is itemised and discussed chapter by chapter, including the importance of the costume department. Murray acknowledges that every director will have their own method of working; but his analysis is valuable because it arises out of an almost confessional self-analysis of how he has developed his own working practices and dealt with the pitfalls, dilemmas and inevitable frustrations of producing major stage events. In early chapters he considers each element in the director’s process, from choosing a play and a team, through casting and auditions, to working the script. There then follows an illuminating analysis, revealing the early influence of Stanislavski on Murray, of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and it is here that we discover the detail that shapes so much of the experience behind this readable book. The analysis of the significant dramatic moments (beats) and moves in the script, followed by a similarly close analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, is a central part of Stanislavsky’s own methodology but, when seen through the eyes of a director like Murray, it emphasises the importance of every movement in the language of a text. It has its parallels in the way L. C. Knights, in a wonderful essay How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? (1933), analysed some of Macbeth’s language in order to focus upon precisely the tensions and drama in the language that give depth to a play’s key concerns.


In the first half of Murray’s writing we enter the mind of a man entirely committed to his craft, the Artistic Director opening a door upon his own methodology in the production and performance of a play. The subtitle of the book is so appropriate here: we are given a ‘masterclass’, like the student being coached by the maestro; and it is rare, outside of the performing arts, to have that kind of experience. Early in the book he describes his role as akin to the conductor of an orchestra, an interpretive artist. Whatever sense the book gives of being in touch with a totally focused, self-acknowledged power-crazed artistic director – and it does give that sense sometimes – it also frequently reminds us of just how firmly grounded it is on the humanity that drives the enterprise. There is a section on “Fear”, the fear the director and the performers feel, the fear of the opening night, the fear of the possibility of failure; and it marks the distinguishing quality of the writing as a whole that the challenge to achieve perfection is rooted in the aspirations, achievements and limitations of a human being.


Braham MurrayOf course, such intensity of control – Murray admits “the director is a megalomaniac” – suggests an intolerance of views that do not match the standard he has set himself throughout his working life. There are many illuminating, sometimes tantalising glimpses, into a world where egos are not in short supply. The relationship between playwright and director is, perhaps, the most revealing section for many in the discussion of “New Plays”. At best a relationship between the writer and the ‘interpreter’/professional reader/director can be a creative tension, at worst it can become a war. There are visions of tormented souls lurking behind some of the accounts, when the playwright is banned from rehearsals, or possibly found distributing clandestine stage-notes to performers without consulting the director. Devastation in pre-production and rehearsal encounters may be hidden beneath the actual performance. This book is not short on the warts of theatre production.


So what about Shakespeare? Murray acknowledges the seminal influence of Neville Coghill at Oxford upon his reading of Shakespeare. The chapter dealing with Shakespeare’s plays appears in the second part of the book, a section which provides discussions of comedy, tragedy, farce, new plays, opera and musicals as well as Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy as a separate genre. This second half of his book has a much wider appeal to students and lovers of theatre. Murray’s purposes are, of course, distinct, based upon production and performance but, ultimately, anyone approaching drama would do well to be aware of what Braham Murray has written here. In his discussion of Shakespeare he dismisses a brand of theatre that became popular in the 1960s with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the direction it was taking when Jan Kott’s book, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (publ. 1964,; now by Norton Library), appeared. Kott was a Polish academic; and his work came to the attention of university English Departments, university drama groups and workshops, and the RSC among others. Murray’s riposte is illuminating to an understanding of his motivations as an artistic director.


In a chapter on Shakespeare’s King Lear Jan Kott had considered the play as an ‘absurd’ drama in the style of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Kott was motivated by his political activism within the then Communist state of Poland, at a time when radical political debate and action was influencing much student activity, worker protests and civil rights movements in Europe and America. It influenced approaches to many art forms. There was a Brechtian type of challenge sweeping theatre, the audience challenged by the unexpected on the stage to rethink their own realities. In fairness to Kott, I do not believe he actually created the vogue for, and the authority given to, the idea of ‘contemporary relevance’ for a play but that was the emphasis adopted in key productions of Shakespeare which followed in England and it is this to which Murray objects.


One can understand why Murray was impatient with the new standardisation of dramatic production, however, and particularly with the idea that there was a new and authoritative ‘relevant contemporary’ way to produce Shakespeare. English playwrights, and some directors up to that point, did not have a strong theatrical tradition on which to approach Theatre of the Absurd and had been resistant to the type of absurdism found in German, Irish and American theatre, where, in part, Kott, found his inspiration. English philosophy, for example, was in the treadmill of logical positivism and remote from the activism of Sartre and such like abroad. English art had lost a strong tradition of portraying absurdity as a cultural or political statement about the absurdities of life more widely since the eighteenth century with the work of Swift and, in the nineteenth century, with the novelist Dickens. So the RSC produced King Lear and Hamlet in ways that seemed to pander to a woolly kind of ‘contemporary’ 1960s cultural and political relevance’. Peter Hall’s production of Hamlet in 1965 produced a young university-type undergraduate complete with long, wrap-around flowing scarf, trying to look a middle/upper class bohemian, genteelly and intelligently hippy, with a Ghost for a father so outlandish that it was risible: absurd, but not absurdist. The Ghost appeared like some gargantuan pantomime troglodyte at the left rear of the stage and at least one in the audience fell apart with laughter. It certainly made sense, unintentionally, of Hamlet’s dithering. How on earth could he take his Dad seriously appearing in that guise? And in the case of King Lear that play above all others never needed twentieth century absurdism to bring out the play’s innate ability to alienate, challenge and disturbingly reconfigure any audience. The ‘nothing’ and ‘never’ of this play say it all.


Murray goes close to the heart of understanding Shakespeare, indeed any play well written or edited, by emphasising that the cue to meaning and interpretation lies in the language. There are, he admits, textual problems (there are just a few in this book which could have been proofread one more time) and, even once a text is established for production, not all Elizabethan words retain their ‘meaning’ for an audience today. He acknowledges the almost insurmountable gulf between the wisdom, richness, poetry and drama (his words) of Shakespeare and the stage reality today in attempting to convey that wealth of understanding. Hamlet, for example, is, as Murray recognises, too long for any production unless it is edited; some plays resolve dilemmas in a convenient marriage. The Royal Exchange, of course, as a theatre completely ‘in the round’, can reduce problems with ‘period’ settings to an extent because props are minimalist and the actor/audience relationship is central to any production which really means that the language of the play is foregrounded.


The reader can best judge the success of the solutions to this dilemma offered, but Murray raises the perennial concerns that divide audiences of Shakespeare’s plays in the light of his own experiences: how to make the plays ‘relevant’ without sacrificing the integrity of the text, once established, for the production. Does shifting the time, the dress, even the language help or hinder in this process? Audiences still want the language of Shakespeare: it is sacrosanct. Editing is a very tricky business. Interpretation can be mesmerising as the production of Measure for Measure (directed by John Neville in 1965 at Nottingham Playhouse) with Judi Dench as a powerful Isabella, demonstrated. Lucio and his motley crew as bit-actors in a seedy jazz/night club/bordello played to the gallery against traditional period costume for the principals. Murray in a very different play achieved a corresponding balance between truth to the text and reinventing the context when, in 1988, he directed Macbeth and set it in a concentration camp connecting with the horrors of the twentieth century holocaust and the figure of the crazed dictator. He refers to this performance in his book. That production captured the essential evil which the play Macbeth explores hauntingly.


What is central in all this is Murray’s invaluable insight into the importance of Shakespeare for us today, for any age: that Shakespeare in his own age was so in touch with the key issues of his age, political, religious, cultural and individual, so in touch with the richness and diversity of the language of his age, and so able to bring these two drives together visually, imagistically through language, that he has left an indelible understanding of where the artist of calibre exists within any period – at the forefront of the most important perceptions and expressions of his or her age. We have a firm sense that no Shakespeare play, no play in fact, is ever complete: it is part of a growing corpus of ever-unfolding richness, not a static ‘staged’ entity, like a heritage symbol, but a lived, performed experience, like a musical score forever modified by the interpretation; and that is what Murray emphasises and why this book is so important. For reasons such as this, where theatre is central to the life of a people, a nation, a culture, Murray reassuringly is wary of ‘project’, themed productions that can also be built around a director’s fantasies or, worse still, personal issues.


Braham Murray as the artistic director here draws upon over forty years’ experience of directing some of the greatest plays of the western world, spanning two thousand five hundred years of drama, including opera, musicals, comedy and farce, to offer students and practitioners of theatre a profoundly honest, humorous and informed study that can only help theatre and the creation of drama to grow. Murray himself emphasises that it is not a dogmatic assertion of ‘how to produce a play’, more the account of one important director’s journey through his own work in theatre as director, conductor, manager, inspiration, and, for the cast, above all as artist. As with theatre reviews and audiences, there will always be dissenting voices; but this is a voice that should not be ignored.


This is a short, very readable, focused book, written out of a deep almost messianic commitment to theatre, which only helps to emphasise the truth and complexity of the idea that, in the end, “the play’s the thing”.


Editor's Note: This review was picked up and republished on the prestigious Culture Wars website - see


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