Written by Kate Wyver
In conversations about the late director Howard Davies CBE, two aspects of his character crop up repeatedly: his rigour and his kindness. One of the greatest directors of his generation, his death from cancer in 2016 was met by an outpouring of love from some of the biggest names in theatre. “To witness one of his productions was the culmination of all the great pleasures of theatre,” Dame Helen Mirren said at the time. “Thought-provoking, exciting, moving and above all, great storytelling.” This autumn, whilst its doors remain closed, The Yard Theatre is running Live Lab, a new programme, dedicated to Davies’ memory.
“He made everybody feel special in the room,” Davies’ widow, actor Clare Holman says. “He had a 360 degree attitude with all of his productions that meant that everybody was important, from the person who brought on the chair with one line to to the person putting a nail in a table in order for it to hold together. He understood that if you treat people well, you get their best work.”
Davies was renowned for his productions of 20th century plays, particularly those in the Russian, American, and Irish canons. Born in Reading, he came from a working class Welsh background and worked his way to the University of Bristol. In the 70s, he worked extensively with the Bristol Old Vic and Birmingham Repertory Theatre, as well as serving as an Associate Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He later became Associate Director at the National Theatre, where he put on thirty-six productions, filling the Lyttelton stage with stories of politics, love and tragedy. Some of his most memorable productions include David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and Gorky’s Philistines. He won three Olivier awards, for his productions of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard.
But Davies also advocated new work. When Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play Her Naked Skin was rejected from the National, Davies read it and saw its potential. As a result, it became the first original play written by a woman to be performed on the Olivier stage. His appetite for new work has impacted theatre history; stumbling upon an old banana warehouse in Covent Garden, he founded the RSC’s Warehouse in 1977 – which later became the Donmar Warehouse – and which championed new writing. “So many of the famous actors we know had some of their earliest experiences of acting with Howard,” Holman says. “People like Taron Egerton, Emily Watson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucian Msamati. I think he was very excited by young talent. He relished it.”
“This is a program inspired by those meetings, a sharing of skills and experience, in the hope those who take part can develop their craft.”
The programme also has personal significance for Jay Miller, The Yard’s Artistic Director. When he moved to London after graduation, he’d never seen a theatre show in the capital. He got a job working in the National Theatre cafe, hoping he might be able to get to see shows for free. “The first play I saw was Her Naked Skin in the Olivier,” Miller says, “which was directed by Howard. I thought ‘whoompf, this is a play!’.” Miller wrote to Davies asking for advice on how to get started, and he responded. “After a shift in the café we sat down and he gave me invaluable words. From that point on, every now and then, we’d sit down, Howard would ask me how I was getting on, and give me some suggested pointers,” Miller says. “He was so kind. This is a program inspired by those meetings, a sharing of skills and experience, in the hope those who take part can develop their craft.”
The Live Lab is designed to teach and support a group of six artists over a period of four months. With workshops from practitioners including Katie Mitchell, Omar Elerian and Tarik Elmoutawakil, the programme aims to strengthen artistic style, develop directorial voice and support the creation of new work. Initial conversations about the programme discussed the potential of an award, Cheryl Gallacher, Associate Director at The Yard and the Live Lab’s course leader, explains. But since the programme had been “very much formed by the pandemic,” they decided the priority was to “support more people more meaningfully.” In essence, the award is a place on the scheme.
The participants will get a bursary of £1200 and a £500 fee for a week of research and development, plus free rehearsal space and a budget for collaborators. “One of our core principles was that we could only do it if we were resourcing people to take part,” Gallacher says. “I did loads of amazing directors programmes but I would struggle to have the headspace outside of it because I was doing three different jobs around it.” The hope is that the financial support offered will allow participants to make the most of the artistic support.
Davies is remembered for his generosity both in and out of the rehearsal room. Bijan Sheibani, one of the artists teaching on the course, was an Associate Director at the National at the same time as Davies. They never worked together directly, but Sheibani could always rely on Davies for advice, and Davies would come and watch runs of all his shows, offering “succinct but accurate” feedback. “I miss him now,” Sheibani says. “I always wish I could just call him and ask him what he thinks, because he’s had so much experience – not only with different plays and different styles, but also because he’d seen all those big institutions as they were growing and developing. It felt like he’d seen everything.”
“Howard had this gift of making him see the world of a play from the least obvious angle.”
This blend of knowledge and compassion was what made his plays so impactful, Sheibani suggests. “What he got as a result was something that was really rigorous and political, and always really moving and truthful. I always came out of watching his shows feeling like I’d learnt huge amounts.” Holman remembers a conversation with designer Bob Crowley, who Davies had worked with on many occasions. “He said Howard had this gift of making him see the world of a play from the least obvious angle,” Holman recalls. “His interests lay in hidden corners.”
Thorough preparation was key for Davies. He paid acute attention to detail, creating what Holman, who worked with him on a number of plays, including the 1996 production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Diana Rigg, describes as a “safety net” at the start of rehearsals. “He will have done so much work, he’s so incredibly well prepared. If he’s doing something Russian he’ll have read a 500 page book about the history of Russia that he’s condensed into a speech, and the speech would then be reflected in the work that he’d done with the designer.” Within the boundaries he set with his vision, she says, he gave space for actors to do their own thing. “You felt safe, you felt challenged. it was really exciting.”
(Howard Davies and Edward Albee)
Throughout his career, Davies was a magnet for talent. “His reputation among actors, writers, directors and designers alike was beyond question,” said Rufus Norris at the time of Davies’ death, “and has been for so long that his name has become a byword for quality and depth. His gaze and focus were unswerving, but his twinkling humour sat on the shoulder of his fierce intellect.” Nick Hytner called him irreplaceable. “Howard Davies was the director all actors wanted most to work with, and his productions were the ones I most wanted to see, always cracking with intellectual and emotional energy.”
In spite of his starry attraction, Davies was a practical man. “There’s sort of no bullshit with Howard,” Holman says. Sheibani recalls this no-nonsense attitude extending past his directorial style. “Howard was also notorious for just getting up and leaving [a show],” he says. “Sometimes if I’m not enjoying a theatre show, I will think ‘Howard would have definitely left by now’.”
Davies had an extraordinary career and he inspired many. It is suitable that he continues to do so after his death. Live Lab will allocate places to six artists, with a certain number of places offered to people of colour and disabled people. “Theatre needs it,” Gallacher explains simply. “The best work comes from a cohort who have different lived experiences and come from different backgrounds. There are stories that we as a sector have overlooked, and we need to support those artists.”
“When you get beyond a certain age you don’t get to go into anyone else’s rehearsal room for the rest of your career,” says Holman. “You don’t see the process.” The Live Lab provides six practitioners the time and space to develop their own practice. “ I think he would have loved what they have put together, Holman says. “It’s great to have something that can directly lead into the next generation.”
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Kate Wyver writes about theatre for The Guardian and The Stage.