Chris Naylor: You were part of the evening of three Pinter plays at the Donmar in 1998. I wrote about Penelope Wilton’s performance in ‘A Kind Of Alaska’, but that whole evening was wonderful. I can remember seeing Pinter himself in your production of ‘The Collection’, and being amazed by him.
Joe Harmston: He was stunning.
CN: You worked with him a lot, didn’t you?
JH: I did, yeah. I directed him in his own play twice, and I was his associate director four times. I loved working with him. Interestingly, he was utterly anti-prescriptive. I remember when we were doing ‘The Collection’, we were in the last week of rehearsals, and I gave my notes and then said, ‘But we’ve got to a point now really where it’s just louder, faster, funnier.’ And most of the other actors looked with absolute horror, as if I’d rubbed shit all over their faces, and Harold just went, ‘Too f***ing right’. And he was so much of that kind of world, just sort of, ‘Get on with it’.
CN: And from a rep background.
JH: Yeah. I saw him not long before he died and he said, ‘What are you doing,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of Agatha Christie recently,’ and he said ‘God, I love Agatha Christie! Which one are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’ve just done ‘The Unexpected Guest.’ ‘Oh, fantastic, I played the part of…’ and I suddenly realised how much of the sort of Agatha Christie-style thing actually appears in Harold’s plays, you know – strange characters step through doors and just start talking…
I think it’s very, very unfashionable unfortunately, but so much of my interest as a director has always been about the basic practicalities of ‘get out there and get on with it’. I remember Greg Doran once rang me when I knew him a bit years ago. I’d just directed a show at the Old Red Lion in 3 weeks, and Greg rang me and said, ‘This is a slightly embarrassing question, but I’m in week seven of rehearsals, can you think of anything I can do?’ And I thought, that just says everything.
When we did ‘Hay Fever’, I think we had three weeks, didn’t we? There’s always a great deal about the white heat of rehearsals that makes you get up, try something, decide whether or not it works, try something else – and I think particularly the really, really long rehearsal periods can become a bit of a navel-gazing exercise, where the danger is you forget about the fact that we are there to put it in front of an audience.
CN: I don’t think I’ve ever had anything longer than about five weeks.
JH: I can remember as an assistant director working with people who would say, ‘Well, in the first week I can’t possibly get it on its feet, we have to sit round a table,’ and by the end of the first week, it was magnificent, just fantastic, the performances were brilliant – and then the Monday of the second week, everybody stood up and it all fell to pieces. What was the point of doing that? So I have always felt, rehearse on your feet – you know, read that scene and then get up and do it, but don’t spend two days pontificating about it.
CN: Priestley was the same, wasn’t he? On the original production of ‘Dangerous Corner’, he rehearsed for three weeks, and had another two to go, so he gave them a week and a half off, then came back and tech-ed it, because he thought, ‘well, we’ve done it, what more is there to do?’
JH: Well, interestingly, it’s something I’ve done a lot recently, because I’ve always rehearsed a show over Christmas, so it has tended to be the case that we’ve done, say, two weeks before Christmas, had a week off, and then come back and done the final week and then gone into tech. I’ve found that very, very useful because it gives people the time to go away and learn the lines, but also it all sort of percolates down, and when they come back it’s almost as if they’ve already been running it for a week.
CN: It’s like an extension of that thing that all actors understand, when you’re trying to learn your lines and you think, ‘Oh God, it’s awful’, then the next morning, you know it somehow. Did you start as an actor?
JH: No, I didn’t. Interestingly I’ve had the experience recently – we ran out of actors for ‘Murder On Air’, so I had to do it for a week in Manchester, so I found myself acting in my own show.
CN: That’s a script-in-hand show, isn’t it?
JH: Yes, although because I’ve been doing the show for seven years I knew most of it anyway. But it’s very interesting experience. I kept finding myself on stage watching people thinking, ‘Yes, I must talk about that after because I think we could improve on that,’ or, ‘That’s a good idea!’ and then thinking, ‘Who’s dried? Shit! It’s me!’
CN: But do you think it’s a useful thing for a director to have been an actor?
JH: I think it’s probably more useful for a director to do a bit of acting than it is for a director to have been an actor, because when I was an assistant director I watched some actors directing, and if they were good actors, they tended to be pretty awful directors. I remember watching Derek Jacobi directing, and the bizarre thing was, Derek’s a sublime actor and he therefore doesn’t really understand why people can’t do it. Which is a big problem with a director. I don’t think I did anything that was at all embarrassing on stage in Manchester, but there are plenty of other people I know would have done it even better, because I don’t find acting an instantly effortless thing. I think that’s possibly one of the things that makes me quite a good director, because I can see what an actor is having a difficulty with, whereas if you’re a brilliant actor, you just spend your time thinking, ‘Why can’t you do it?!’