IF THERE’S one thing Kenny Miller can’t stand it’s a moving chair. Not any moving chair, you understand, but a chair being moved by an actor.
As he sees it, a set is arranged by a theatre designer in a particular way and if the actors find it necessary to move the furniture into position not only are they breaking the carefully arranged stage picture, but they’re making clumsy an act that should be graceful and invisible.
“Pulling a chair out from under a table to sit down, I can’t stand it,” says the designer turned director. “Because I can see what the actors are wearing in my head, I’m very conscious of how they sit, the way they sit, how they get to the chair. Everything has to be set so a person can just glide to that seat, so nobody ever has to think about the noise a chair makes on the floor. I like it to move, glide and flow. I want to listen to the play, I don’t want to see a chair moving around.”
It’s a detail that tells you a lot about Miller’s background. This week he is directing Scottish actors Sally Reid and Keith Fleming in Owen McCafferty’s version of Days Of Wine And Roses at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. He made his name, however, as a designer. This year alone we have seen his sets and costumes in the Tron’s Staircase, Visible Fictions’ Clockwork and the Citizens’ Marilyn. It won’t be long before we see his designs for the Tron pantomime, the 25th anniversary revival of The Steamie and the next show by Birds of Paradise.
Miller earned his stripes at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre under the guidance of Philip Prowse, himself a director-designer who worked at the theatre for 30 years. Like his contemporary Stewart Laing, who is staging The Salon Project at Edinburgh’s Traverse this week, Miller was encouraged by Prowse to bring the two disciplines together.
“Philip wanted to create a breed of director-designer because he thought it was so important,” he says. “All that initial stuff I learnt at the Citz is still there. He was just brilliant. He freed you up so much.”
There are not many people who do both jobs, but the way he sees it, directing and designing are bedfellows, the one a natural extension of the other. “When I’m employed just to design a piece I have to shut off the directing side of me because it’s not fair for me to interfere,” he says. “But I do always design something the way I would direct it. When I’m directing and designing, the two run hand in hand. With Days Of Wine And Roses, I knew how I wanted to design it the minute I read it. I’m a great believer in your initial impulse.”
This means his starting point for directing a play is his visual impulse and a sense of what the actors will look like and where they will be in the space. If you see one of his actors moving a chair, it’s because he wants them to.
He admits, though, he has relaxed since the days when he would try to control every last action. “Initially, I was quite dictatorial as a director,” he says. “It was: ‘Turn your head on that line. Move on that line. Pick the cup up on that line.’ It was very dictatorial and I just got fed up with it. There was a turning point with one play when I’d done no blocking in my head before I went into the rehearsal room. It was my chance to work with the actors and see what came up. It was a lot freer and the actors were so much happier.”
The world he is evoking in Days Of Wine And Roses is a bohemian early-1960s London that is just starting to swing. JP Miller’s story was originally a TV play then an Oscar-nominated movie starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. McCafferty’s adaptation is a free interpretation that relocates the story from America to the UK. First seen at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2005, it is about Morna, a civil servant, and Donal, a bookie, who arrive from Belfast, having met for the first time at the airport, and fall in love.
“The film bears very little resemblance to the play,” says Miller. “It’s a fab film and there’s the odd line that you hear that’s in the play, but the film is glamorised. I watched the film, but it didn’t influence me in the slightest.”
Reid and Fleming – a couple off stage as well as on – were the first actors on Miller’s mind when he read the script, which he is staging for his own Theatre Jezebel. “They’re just so good at their craft, those two,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing it with any other people. I knew it had to have that intimacy that a couple have.”
He also knew they would be up for one of the play’s more difficult challenges: playing convincing stage drunks. Morna is teetotal before meeting Donal, but once she has had her first sip, her appetite is voracious. Like her new husband, she is not a pleasant drinker. The dream of a London that is so full of promise, an escape from everything they’ve left behind, starts to turn sour as alcoholism takes over.
“Keith and Sally are the king and queen of stage drunks,” says Miller. “It’s quite subtle; it’s only halfway through a scene where you go, ‘Oh, he’s drunk!’ It’s not Carry On drunk. It’s more about the attitudes that change the minute they take one glass. It’s about topping up what’s already in your body. It becomes vicious; they’re not nice drunks to be around.”
On one level, the play is a love story, but it was this harder edge – like a junior version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf – that drew Miller to it: “It is a beautiful love story, but it’s also vicious. I love doing love with a vicious twist.” v
Days Of Wine And Roses is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from Friday until 29 October