“It’s been crazy, I’ve lost track of dates,” says Benedict Andrews as he flicks through a pocket diary, tracing his finger over graphite smudges. “I had the premiere of a play I wrote called Every Breath in Sydney on March 28, then I flew to Paris for the premiere of Gross und Klein, then I was in Berlin for a few days working with the designer for Three Sisters, then I started rehearsals for Caligula on April 10 and Gross und Klein opened in London the same week.”
This is just a snapshot of the year’s engagements but it gives an idea of the Australian-born director’s varied repertoire, and of the growing demand for his work. Were he not pushing 40 he would be branded an enfant terrible (that lazy, all-purpose term for burgeoning stage directors). Andrews is known for his fearless approach to canonical works; among his most noteworthy productions are The War of the Roses, a conflation of eight of Shakespeare’s history plays, and a staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull that relocated the action from Russian dacha to Aussie beach house.
“I’m not holy about things,” he says, before quickly denying he is self-consciously irreverent. “It’s more about wanting to make sure the piece is alive and that it has a contemporary relevance.”
Critics can’t decide whether he’s a visionary or a vandal (“Benedict Andrews is my nightmare of what director’s theatre can come to,” one has famously remarked) – but there is now plenty of opportunity for English audiences to make up their own minds. Last month he won acclaim for his production of Gross und Klein at London’s Barbican (aided by an impressive performance from Cate Blanchett) but a new production of Caligula for English National Opera is now the focus.
Detlev Glanert’s opera, completed in 2006, examines the decline of the Emperor Caligula, his madness and debauchery, and its effects on Roman society at large. The piece is based on a 1930s Albert Camus play, itself a response to the rise of Hitler and Stalin. But, looking around, it’s clear Andrews’s staging will be contemporary. The shabby rehearsal studio is dominated by bright yellow stadium seating and props include a shrine of sorts, marked with a heap of cellophane-wrapped flowers.
“There’s a lot of baggage in it,” Andrews says of Camus’s play. “You’d want to take it and cut it and do a lot with it. I don’t think you’d want to be faithful to it,” he explains, revealing an editor’s eye for detail and excess. He deems Glanert’s dramaturgy “excellent”: “He’s found in Caligula this fascinating, terrifying monster but there’s this incredible pull and sympathy towards him. [Glanert] lets you into the character’s despair.”
The set is a reference to Caligula’s alleged love of gladiatorial contests but is also inspired by the score. “In a way we’re echoing what [Glanert] has chosen to do with the chorus. You feel the absent presence of a multitude from the beginning of the opera, when the voices echo Caligula, whether those voices are in his head or not,” Andrews says. “It also came from thinking about how stadiums, for instance in Pinochet’s Chile, were used as sites of torture and execution. Why do these places, the places where we should gather for sport, like in the Olympics, also become places of terror and atrocity when the state becomes a terrorist state?”
Images of power from antiquity through to the present are pinned up along one wall of the rehearsal room. “I reference this at one point,” Andrews says, showing me a picture of sobbing crowds after Kim Jong-il’s death last year.
“There are some chorus girls who come on with glycerin tears, and we have a gold submachine gun – Saddam Hussein had one of those.”
Undoubtedly part of the appeal of Caligula is its relevance. We recognise today’s dictators in these portraits of ancient tyrants – the insanity, the violence, the obsession with riches – figures who would be comic caricatures were their crimes not so heinous. “I’m very interested in the mechanisms of power, in the theatricality of power, how power is a performance, and the theatre is a place where we can unpack the damage of that.”
I ask Andrews whether this interest in performance could have been stimulated by his early experience in the church – he was an altar boy at the Catholic cathedral in Adelaide – and he laughs slightly incredulously before offering an analysis:
“I know when I’m in the rehearsal room I’m like a child and it’s very playful. I know that my work moves from this playful quality to a more observed space that is touched upon with ritual – sometimes it’s a shoddy ritual, like these plastic flowers,” he says, pointing to the set. “I guess that sense of procession, ritual and the space of the sacred, albeit in a tawdry, theatrical sense, really interests me.”
Andrews was introduced to the works of Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter early on by an ambitious school teacher, and continued to read his way through the great playwrights, but musically his taste was focused on underground contemporary pop.
“When I was 16 I was obsessed with Nick Cave and I listened to a lot of hip-hop when it first came to Australia. Then going back through black music, through jazz and so on, that was a big passion of mine.”
Opera is a relatively recent discovery for him – he made his operatic debut with Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses for English National Opera last year, and premiered a new production of The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Australia in January. His interest in the genre seems to have coincided with a new chapter in his career.
Until last summer Andrews was living in Berlin, working for the best part of a decade at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz; before that he was based in Australia producing stage works for the Sydney Theatre Company, among others.
“I’m currently of no fixed address,” he says. “I have a storage unit in Sydney and a storage unit in Marzahn in Berlin.”
This summer he plans to move to Iceland, where his girlfriend, Margrét Bjarnadóttir, works as a choreographer, and where he staged King Lear in Icelandic with great success in 2010. Come September, however, he will return to London to direct a new production of Three Sisters at the Young Vic.
In snippets of spare time, he hopes to continue writing plays (Every Breath is one of a number of recent works) and publish his first volume of poetry. “Of course, to be a poet is the ultimate vocation in a way. You have to give your whole life to producing those poems, and I’m not able to do that while I’m directing,” Andrews says. “When I’ve got more time I want to focus on the volume I’ve been working on, and try to get that out into the world – only then can we say I am also poet.”
‘Caligula’ opens at English National Opera, London on May 25, www.eno.org