Phillip Breen

Phillip Breen’s career as a theatre director has been varied and fascinating, taking him across the globe. He has directed performances in Tokyo and mustered hundreds to take part in The York Mysteries at York Minster earlier this year.
His next production is his adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which will run at the Crucible from 21 September to 15 October.

What attracted you to Lady Chatterley’s Lover? What themes do you think will resonate with a modern audience?

It all started when I went home to Liverpool for a few days for a Remembrance Day service. I thought: ‘What is it specifically about World War One that had such a disproportionate effect on our national consciousness?’ I started thinking about Lady Chatterley’s Lover and how, for me, it's one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written.

WWI represented a kind of existential crisis. The thing that made the Empire possible was the idea that we were exporting things that were going to civilise the world: industrialisation, capitalism, science and reason. Then suddenly, for the first time, there was a mass war in which everyone participated and everything that was central to our civilisation - the science, the reason, the commerce - was employed to kill millions on an industrial scale. They were turned into spray and mist by shells. There was a sense that suddenly the intellectual underpinning just fell away and class tensions crystallised. There was no doubt about what the ruling class felt about everyone else.

Similarly, people who grew up in the 80s and 90s thought that all politics was on some level economics responding to markets, and markets were somehow a force for natural good. Then suddenly 2008 happened. I think where that leaves us now, it seems to me, is in a place very similar to the aftermath of WWI, where no one knows how to progress, no-one knows what’s next. The first paragraph in Lady Chatterley’s Lover encapsulates it wonderfully:

"Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen."

Lawrence’s idea was that England would be freed by tenderness, that we all should be a bit nicer to each other. In fact, 'Tenderness' was the working title of the novel. There’s this idea of getting back to something very elemental, that we might just step out from behind our computers, where we only touch ourselves and instead touch each other.

How faithful is your adaptation of the novel?

I think it is. In writing the adaptation and reading the novel closely I saw how different it was from the ‘legend’ of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s become a landmark book in the social history of our country, as a turning point in terms of freedom of speech. We vaguely have this idea that it’s about a randy aristocrat who sleeps with her gamekeeper, which has been entrenched by the television versions of the novel. But it’s got a lot of Lawrence’s concerns in it as well. All of his opinions about England and the war, class, the primacy of feeling over intellect, politics and sex.

No matter how one films Lady Chatterley, when you render it in a very literal medium there’s always the authorial control of the camera, guiding where you look. In the play, though, we can start to think a bit more of the poetic content of Lawrence’s work, and more about the social context.

You’ve had a fascinating career and travelled around the world. What was it like directing a play in Japan?

It was wonderful. I loved every minute of it. As an English director one is constantly attuned to the text and listening to it all the time. In a way, you direct it a little bit like an orchestra. When I was directing in Japan, I had a translator. I knew the scene in English, but the actors were playing it in Japanese. After a while it became less complicated, because I ended up watching bodies and the physical action, like a piece of dance. Lady Chatterley certainly came out of the idea of being interested in bodies on stage and movement.

You directed The York Mysteries earlier this year, which seems like a mammoth task. What was that like?

It was one of the most special experiences of my life, no question. It was nearly four hours of the history of man - before man, the creation of the world, the crucifixion of the son of man, the end of the world and the hereafter. It was pretty huge. Mike Poulton gave us a great text. We ended up playing with a company of about 220 and there were back-stage volunteers.

You realise that the process of putting it on is probably miles more important than the actual show itself. Finding a reason for 250 people to turn up for six months and think about the subject matter of these plays is actually the most profound bit of it. It was a wonderful and rare example of people coming together to collectively imagine something and participate in something bigger than themselves.

When you’re at any theatre piece, you’ve got to sit there as a group of people and meditate on truth. Your post-show conversation is implicitly asking the question, ‘Was that true?’, which is rather important.

Kate MacCarthy

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, adapted by Phillip Breen, runs at the Crucible from 22 September to 15 October. Tickets are priced at between £20.50 and £25 and are available at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.

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