The director on his nightmares, a new play about the poet Edward Thomas and the joy of having grandchildren
No – the roads were running in parallel but drew from the same primary sources. I was approached by Nick Dear and Michael Attenborough two years ago. Matthew Hollis's biography was published in the interim. But that can only be a good thing because there is now a head of steam behind Edward Thomas's story and a fascination with his work.
Why is Thomas centre stage now?
It could be that we are coming up to the 100th anniversary of the first world war. But Thomas was always misdescribed as a war poet. He was a victim of the war. He had a very strange death – killed by the last German shell in the battle of Arras which literally sucked the life out of his body. His heart and his watch stopped at the same time – at 7.36 am. Yet his body was untouched. Even the clay pipe in his pocket remained unbroken. No, I think the interest in him now is more to do with his poetry. There is a line in the play where Eleanor Farjeon says: "Your poetry is full of love" – and it is.
Yet he struggled with love in his marriage, didn't he?
This is the play's central paradox. He was self-obsessed, solipsistic, needed to be solitary. We would probably also say he was bipolar. He found it impossible to love. The corroboration of his identity as a poet came too late. No poetry was published in his lifetime under his name. One question the play asks is: would recognition have made it possible to look outside himself and love other people? He understood what he was doing to his wife yet seemed incapable of climbing out… But that's typical of all depressives.
You have written about your own depression. Does it help you feel your way through this piece?
The best book I've ever read about depression was William Styron's Darkness Visible in which he defined depression as a state that cannot be understood by others or communicated. That is a definition of clinical depression, and while I have never been anywhere near that… I know the feeling. That is as much as I would tell you.
As interesting as depression is the issue of cowardice in Thomas's life. His friend and fellow poet Robert Frost accused him of cowardice – and it seems that Thomas joined up to disprove it. Do we even think about cowardice now? Do you ever ask yourself: am I a coward?
Almost every day. At home in west London I have a room where I work, at the top of the house, with a window in front of my desk. I look down and often there are vans arriving and occasionally a police car, and I think: so there is the Gestapo stopping at the house next door and my neighbours are being taken out… Do I lean out of my window and shout? Do I sit back at my desk? Close my eyes? Do I do anything? It is a recurrent nightmare.
Is there any single continuous thread running through your career? And has your style changed over the years?
I am interested in the gap between what people say and what they think – the undiscovered world of people's lives. Lives of quiet desperation. Having said that, I love flamboyance. But I am happier now with less of what Peter Brook called the "ironmongery of theatre". I don't know where that leaves musicals but I am interested in putting less clutter on stage. In The Dark Earth and the Light Sky there is a stage of soil – quite Brookian actually. It is about distillation. Everything has to be rigorously examined. There is no shortcut to that. You can't be minimalist as a director until you have acquired the experience and confidence to say no.
Is variety the spice of your life?
Absolutely. The last thing I did was Henry IV parts 1 and 2 for the BBC. Would I choose between film and theatre? I don't. I suppose my test is… do you know the Yeats poem Vacillation? It is about getting older and testing every work of intellect or faith and only doing what you can do "proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb". The principle of acting in good faith is at the heart of decent work.
And what work is in the pipeline?
My dance card is full – I am going to be doing Quartermaine's Terms, a Simon Gray play, with Rowan Atkinson, in the West End. And two operas, Massenet's Werther and Puccini's Manon Lescaut for the New York Met…
Can you imagine a life with a less full dance card?
I had a lovely two and a half months off this summer. But the answer is no. I don't feel directing has to be a young man's game. It is a bit like with conductors…
Is gardening still a passion? I remember an article in which you compared the need to buy plants with an addict's need for a fix?
I love it and am still seriously mainlining. My garden is three quarters of an acre, south facing, in Gloucestershire, on the side of a hill, terraced with drystone walls.
Is there an analogy between gardening and directing?
Yes – gardening is pragmatic because you never have a plan. And with theatre, too, I don't start with a concept and oblige the play to fit in. In the garden, I'll think: why don't we plant that? Or: we'll put a little wall there, rather than sitting down at a desk and drawing up an über-plan. Our daughter got married in our garden… and that reminds me. I must tell you about the most significant thing in my life. [He produces his phone to show a beautifully taken snap of his daughter Lucy, the novelist, with charming little girl and newborn baby]: "Eve is two and three quarters, Beatrix was born at the end of August. You can characterise me as obsessed by my granddaughters. They are completely wonderful. Everything people say about grandparenthood is true – it is pleasure without responsibility. It is unquestioned love.
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky is at the Almeida, London N1 from Thursday to 12 January