Laurence Boswell interview: fessing up about Madonna
28th February 2012
Was it stressful working with Madonna. Only if you redefine the word stress, says Laurence Boswell, who has given up working with celebrities. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Feb 28, 2012.
‘What can I tell you that’s fun but legal?” Laurence Boswell wonders aloud. It’s now 10 years since he directed Madonna in the West End in Up for Grabs, a comedy in which she played a desperate New York art dealer, willing even to strap on a dildo to help get a prospective buyer to part with millions. But even though he’s prepared to go on record about the experience for the first time, he’s still careful to watch his words, conscious of the long shadow of contracts.
Was it stressful, I ask. Boswell is a big, imposing, confident-talking chap, and when he laughs the table we’re sitting at rattles with him.
“If there’s a way you could redefine and rebirth the word ‘stress’, it would be that,” he says. “It was utterly, utterly stressful. As soon as it started, my life disappeared. She has people in London, she has people in New York, she has people in Los Angeles. She is constantly firing out questions, worries, anxieties. From the minute I signed up, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I was answering questions about the show and her involvement and how it would happen for her. So in the simplest terms, you’re lifted into Madonna-land, which is” – he smiles – “incredibly intense.”
It may seem by the by to be quizzing Boswell, 51, about a show that has pretty much passed into theatre history – if only as one of the more bizarre, headline-grabbing instances of international celebrity crash-landing on the British stage. We’re supposed to be talking about a batch of new American writing he has programmed for the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio, the second of six three-play seasons he will curate over three years. But to understand why he’s in Bath at all, you need to grasp just how much his directorial date with Madonna marked the moment when his soaring career started to get the better of him.
By this stage, he had become the go-to guy for starry, commercial-theatre projects, a buzzing reputation that began with his enormous success directing Ben Elton’s Popcorn in 1997. Around the same period as Up For Grabs, he directed Eddie Izzard in a successful revival of Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg – which also went to Broadway. And in addition, he was handling a whirlpool of Hollywood hysteria surrounding Kenneth Lonergan’s slacker comedy This Is Our Youth, which brought first Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen and Anna Paquin, then Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix into London in a blaze of debuts.
It was a remarkable ascent to the top for an only child from a Coventry council estate who got hooked on theatre after showing promise as an actor at the city’s Belgrade Youth Theatre.
On the final Saturday of Up for Grabs, the police could barely contain the crowds surging along Charing Cross Road to catch a glimpse of Madge. “They were at their wits’ end. It was like a riot – there were dogs and helicopters!”
The pop star had a good time – unfazed by the poor reviews – but Boswell, while coping well enough with his high-maintenance star, regards it as a turning-point at which things began to run away from him.
“Success is more difficult to manage than failure. Around this time, I was asked to be an associate director at the RSC, I also set up a West End production company and I was asked to write a film. That was hubristic. I said ‘yes’ to too many things and I got burnt out.”
By 2007, when he directed Billie Piper in Christopher Hampton’s Treats, he was struggling to get out of bed in the mornings. “I didn’t want to go into work, I didn’t want to direct plays. After this period of relentless, sustained stress, my body just said ‘no’ – and I decided I’d had enough. I had overworked until I had got sick of it.”
It was the drama of the Spanish Golden Age – the discovery of which galvanised him as a tyro director while studying at Manchester in the late 1970s, and then made his name while at the Gate, Notting Hill, first under Stephen Daldry and then as artistic director in the early 1990s – that rekindled his passion for the theatre.
He had stumbled on Lope de Vega’s The Dog in The Manger (c1613) in his second term and enjoyed a major campus hit. That was relived on a grander scale when he tackled it again as part of the Golden Age season he mounted at the RSC in 2004. The production went to Madrid and caused such a stir that Spanish companies clamoured to work with him; so he went back to direct it again in 2007, along with a production of De Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna – which he also presented in English, in Canada.
All that time abroad gave him the breathing space he needed. “The Spanish Golden Age saved me,” he says, jokey-serious. “I needed to ask ‘Who are you? What do you want to do? Are you going to be the next Peter Brook or are you going to be another West End Wendy?’ The answer, of course, ends up being a bit of both – but in proportion.”
Back in the UK, refreshed and refocused, the call to the Theatre Royal Bath was just what the doctor ordered – artistic freedom without worrying administrative burdens, art for its own sake, a properly funded ensemble. Last October he made a splash with a superb revival of Calderon’s The Phoenix of Madrid and other rarities from Goethe and Marivaux.
The American plays – Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter, Howard Korder’s In a Garden and Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room – show him mixing things up again; he’ll only direct the third play this time, but Ruhl’s comedy about a 19th-century American medical bid to cure female hysteria by electrically stimulating orgasms should cause a stir in these genteel parts.
Does it have West End legs?
“It’s the most commercial of the three,” Boswell says, but he’s taking things as they come. “I’ve realised that if I have any talent as a director it’s because I’m good at going: is there any life in this? That’s what I need to ask generally: is there life in my present situation? Am I growing as a person? If not, I will walk away. My career,” he concludes, “has been a series of explosions – not a strategic campaign. I’m aware that, after a few years away, people are going ‘Boswell who?’. But that’s fine by me.”