December 1995: Harpers & Queen

The Entertainer

After five years at the Almeida Theatre as joint Artistic Director, Jonathan Kent has joined the directorial big league. He has proved himself both versatile and prolific, directing a stream of first-rate, critically acclaimed productions, and forging the kind of close actor-director relationships many would die for. One of the most fruitful of these is with Diana Rigg, who sits on the board of the Almeida and with whom Kent has collaborated on All For Love (Almeida, 1991) and Medea (1992), for which Rigg won a Best Actress Award. They are now poised to carry off a hat trick with Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, opening this month at the Royal National Theatre, in which Rigg plays Anna Fierling. On the eve of rehearsals, the director and his leading lady went out to dinner...

Cast: Jonathan Kent and Diana Rigg.
Scene: A banquet at the Savoy. It is evening. Both are guzzling cocktails. A tape recorder sits on the table between them.

JK: This is fun. I had forgotten how great the Savoy Grill...wonderful menu. Who is paying for dinner?

DR: Harpers & Queen. I think.

JK: Terrific. We can order a really good bottle of wine. [They order a bottle of Condrieu '92 at 64.65]

DR: Okay. But I've got to stay sober and do this interview with you.

JK: Oh God, do you have to?

DR: (Firmly) Yes.

JK: sighs

DR: (Presses record button). Here goes. We start rehearsals for Mother Courage on Monday. I am always horribly nervous at the first read-through, how about you?

JK: It is nerve-wracking for everybody, but particularly for actors. Mainly I've got to remember people's names, and I can never do that terribly impressive thing some directors do, of going round the whole room and introducing everyone. The fact that I can't seems like a signal of my utter failure. ('Mother Courage' co-stars, among others, David Bradley as the Chaplain, Michael Gough as the Colonel, Geoffrey Hutchings as the Cook, Doon Mackichan as Yvette Pottier, Donald Pickering as the Commander-in-Chief, and Lesley Sharp as Kattrin)

DR: Do you feel as though you are being sized up by us all?

JK: No, curiously not. What I hope to do is to encourage a sense of collaboration - so we all embark on the same journey.

DR: The train is just pulling out of the station...

JK: Exactly, and you very much hope you have marked up the right destination on the board.

DR: You were an actor for 20 years before becoming a director. I think that is what makes you so much easier to work for than most...
(Most recently, Kent appeared at the Altmeida in Frank Wedekind's 'Lulu', co-starring Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and Jonathan Firth, and also in Anuilh's 'The Rehearsal', which he also directed and which co-starred Nicola Pagett and Julia Ormond)

JK: The whole thing is to empathise with actors, to encourage them and give them the confidence to do better than they ever imagined they could. When I was an actor, I thought all directors were punitive figures, whipping me into a bull-pen and making me serve the production better.

DR: Yes, I know that feeling only too well. But do you regret giving up acting?

JK: No. I wasn't by nature and actor. I found it painful, difficult. Hundreds of people a night would see me, and I would never know them. It used to worry me.

DR: Doesn't worry me. It is the right ratio as far as I am concerned.

JK: That is why you act and I don't. I like the anonymity of being a director. The last five years, running the Almeida and directing, have been the most fulfilling of my life. I am doing what I should be doing and it is a wonderful feeling.
(Kent joined the Almeida Theatre as joint Artistic Director with Ian McDiarmid in 1989. Other directing credits include 'Le Cid', at the National, and the Almeida Theatre's production of 'Hamlet' at the Hackney Empire, which transferred to Broadway, and for which Ralph Fiennes won a Tony Award)

DR: Are you completely fulfilled?

JK: I suppose the fact that I don't have a partner could be considered sad. I don't think so...

DR: I always worry when people use the word 'partner'. I play bridge and all sorts of things spring to mind: my partner was dummy, my partner doubled and we went down, etc.

JK: You're right. The term 'partner' is just not on. Your 'significant other'? Oh, no, what makes them significant anyway?

DR: Just 'my other'? Whatever. It is a weird old world. On the one hand you are encouraged to find self-fulfillment. Yourself. An entitiy. On the other, if you don't have a partner, questions are asked.

JK: Exactly. We've got all our values screwed up, we limit everything to sex. A friendship that is forged at work, at the crucible of creating something together, lasts a lifetime, is immutable. Who is to say that it is not love?

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