Director Q and A

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Phillip Breen, Director of The Merry Wives of Windsor explains his approach to the play.

What makes this different to other Shakespeare plays?

It has a realistic, recognisable setting. This is a comedy set in a realistic Windsor with recognisable geography. The other comedies are set in Ephesus, Bohemia, Venice, an island in the Caribbean and so on. So as far as comedy goes it's a different experience for audiences.

This is your first RSC show – how do you feel?

A mixture of nerves and excitement. It's a huge honour. I think we've had some good thoughts and ideas and looking forward to exploring them. We hope audiences will laugh and have a good time.

Why did you cast Anita Dobson as Mistress Quickly?

I saw Anita in Frozen, a new play by Bryony Lavery. She was stunning in it. And then I saw her as Gertrude in Hamlet in which she was equally good.

I wanted someone who I thought had an affinity with the audience, is funny and charismatic and someone who I think the audience will love. When I met her I really liked her. We genuinely had a lot in common. I grew up in a working class environment in Liverpool and she had similar up-bringing in the East End of London. We know similar types of people, have similar reference points.

And what about casting Desmond Barritt as Falstaff?

He's just brilliant; and when the possibility of Merry Wives came up and the fact that Des might be playing Falstaff – I couldn't have imagined a more perfect piece of dream casting.

When it was first mooted I was convinced he had already played the role – but no, although he's played Falstaff in the Henry IVs at Bath and he was Falstaff in the RSC's Henry IVs for This England in 2000. This is in a lot of ways a different Falstaff. We're looking for a big guy, a mature man, with charisma and comic timing - you couldn't get any better. I'm absolutely delighted.

Why are you setting the play in November 2012?

Great plays are always relevant, that's why they're considered classics. But there are certain things in the current climate that leap out, not least the shortage of cash.

Falstaff does things because he needs the money. The idea of a guy in his sixties having to hustle because he doesn't have enough money to retire on is quite a current idea. The notion of some people being able to comfortably retire and younger people having to be a bit more hard-headed has resonance now.

But the main reason that it works now, is that it's always worked. The prospect of your wife leaving you for another man will always be upsetting, or living with a jealous husband, or being concerned about your daughter marrying the right man, or just being skint. These are all pretty timeless issues. Falstaff is like an old wizard for whom the magic isn't working any more, who's maybe having to consider the hereafter for the first time.

Are you influenced by previous RSC productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor?

I try to start from the perspective of a 15-year-old audience member hearing the play for the first time. I remember how I felt when I first came to see a show at the RSC when I was 15. It was incredible. It absolutely blew my mind.

I hope to tell the story in a fresh way, and concentrate on telling the story as if it's a brand new play that no-one has ever seen before. We'll have been successful if we can excite our audiences with the feeling they're seeing a new Shakespeare play.

RSC productions they don't come along very often but every production has had a massive impact – for example Bill Alexander's and Terry Hands' iconic versions. I want to know about all the productions. I want to know how other people did it.

When I was preparing the script, I had mine in the middle, and I had the Bill Alexander (1986), Terry Hands (1968), Trevor Nunn (1978), the musical, and Ian Judge's 1996 version, quarto, folio and so forth. Within the scripts, were various cuts, re-arranging and ideas, cues etc. I wanted to build up a real treasure trove of wisdom about the play.

What have been your biggest influences as a director?

I've learned a lot from my work at the RSC – from directors like Michael Boyd and Gregory Doran, as well as from chatting to people in the green room when I was assistant director.

I was lucky to assist RSC director emeritus Terry Hands for a number of years. I've learned a lot from working on live comedy and with new writers and at the Opera. I'm a director principally because I'm excited by great writing and being around talented actors.

The design has been influenced by your home town of Stratford-upon-Avon – will your neighbours recognise themselves?

I am setting the play in Windsor, not re-setting it in Stratford-upon-Avon. But like any director I am alive to the things that are around me and yes there are images that I've observed around the town which have made their way in to the production. Will people recognise themselves? I hope so. In a warm way I hope.

I hope everyone will see themselves as it's quite a recognisable set-up. It's about two families. One family has a teenage daughter and a little boy. The other family doesn't have children, they go off and they go hunting and playing sport together, there are little antagonisms between neighbours. They go drinking in a pub – all recognisable.

Can you tell us something about yourself?

I'm from Liverpool originally. I went to a state school in St Helens and read Social and Political Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. There I got involved in Footlights and directed a production which was nominated for the Perrier Award, toured nationally and played in the West End.

I was Assistant Director at the Royal Opera House, Chichester Festival Theatre and Theatr Clwyd after I won the Channel 4 Award for Young directors in 2002. Since then I have made work all over the UK, Australia and the US, directing over 30 professional productions and winning awards such as a Stony and a Time Out Critics Choice Award in New York, The Edinburgh Comedy Award last year and two Fringe Firsts in 2008 and 2009.

I was director of new writing at Clwyd Theatr Cymru between 2006 and 2008. I have directed comedy for the stage and television.

My great love is Shakespeare and I have contributed essays to the Routledge Companion to Actors Shakespeare and Director's Shakespeare. I've taught Shakespeare at conservatoires all over the world. I enjoy cricket, football and cooking and I live in the village of Luddington near Stratford-upon-Avon.

More about Phillip Breen.

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