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How To Direct A Play

Braham Murray
Oberon Books

Braham Murray, founding artistic director of Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, seems to write off the need for his own book in the opening chapter of How To Direct A Play—a chapter titled "most of them get in your way"—when he says, "People who say that someone can be taught how to direct are talking nonsense", but goes on to say he is writing the book to help directors to develop their talent. It's the old argument about whether you can really learn how to be an actor, writer, artist or other creative person or whether it depends on an innate ability.

Murray's book is quite slim and easy to read, despite his warning at the front that he has just read it and found some of it to be very complicated. After the introductory material, the book can be divided into three sections. The first deals with the process of directing a production from choosing a play through the rehearsals, previews, press night and the rest of the run. The second looks at different types of production that he believes deserve special mention: musicals, opera, new plays, farce, comedy, Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. The final section is a set of miscellaneous advice such as how to handle difficult actors, working with producers and artistic direction.

The most detailed section in the book is the one about working on the script prior to rehearsals. Here he uses terms such as "objectives" and "beats" to break down the script into manageable chunks and boil it down to a set of instructions for actors to follow, using excerpts from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde to demonstrate.

At first glance it seems like Stanislavski-lite, even using some of the English terms popularly associated with Stanislavski's 'system' and its derivatives, but Stanislavski was instructing the actor on how to create his or her own performance by analysing the text whereas Murray is creating a blueprint of the actor's motivations before rehearsals begin.

It also has similarities to what Max Stafford-Clark mischeviously titles his "Méthode Stanislavskoise" which he describes in his book Letters To George, but again this was created collaboratively between actors and director during rehearsals. Perhaps Murray hasn't left the dictatorial director that he says he once was as far behind as he thinks, or perhaps his method is better-suited to the short rehearsal periods of a regional theatre company.

Much of the rest of the book can be seen as an extension of his recent autobiography, The Worst It Can Be Is A Disaster, with a collection of anecdotes mixed with instruction and a few tributes and digs aimed at people he has worked with.

Although the book has the lengthy subtitle, "a masterclass in comedy, tragedy, farce, Shakespeare, new plays, opera, musicals", the chapters dealing with each of these genres, each of which could easily merit a whole book by itself, are pretty brief and largely anecdotal. That isn't to say that there isn't valuable information in there, only that rather than detailed instruction he opts for making his points through describing his own successes and disasters.

While it certainly doesn't provide an in-depth course in directing by itself, How To Direct A Play is an easy and entertaining read that gives an overview of the job of director from the point of view of someone who has been directing for nearly half a century and points out quite a number of traps and pitfalls for an inexperienced director to avoid. As such, it is a useful introduction to the profession.

Reviewer: David Chadderton