A Prelude to a Death in Venice

Avante-garde theatre director Lee Breuer describes his Kilkenny show, via hippiedom and Beckett, as Peter Crawley clings on.

Avante-garde theatre director Lee Breuer describes his Kilkenny show, via hippiedom and Beckett, as Peter Crawleyclings on.

It is a quiet midweek lunchtime in the quiet foyer of an aloofly stylish Dublin hotel and, not for the first time, people are looking at Lee Breuer. The writer and director, as venerable as it is possible for a New York-based avant-garde theatre artist to be, does not draw attention unduly. His clothes shun notice the way a rock star chooses to go incognito; a hip conspiracy of casual black gear with his deeply lined but still boyishly playful features concealed beneath the brim of a tight military cap.

His behaviour, however, is hard to ignore. As his foot stomps the hard downbeat of a pulsing rhythm on the wooden floor and his palms pound out the sub- -divisions on the table, tremors ripple through his whiskey glass, his tea cup is dangerously threatened, and the table itself seems momentarily distressed.

He is explaining to me the evolution of American popular music, which is fair enough, although given that my question is about the peculiar relationship between his legendary company Mabou Mines and Samuel Beckett, I am again unsure how we got here.


"You cannot believe the criticalness of going from one to three to two to four in the world," he says, and, although I am willing to accept the changing emphasis from the Celtic folk metre to the rhythms of African music - "And rock'n'roll was the compromise" - I don't see how the points connect.

"Well," says Breuer, in that charmingly husky and perpetually amused voice of his, "it's just that at different ages, different things hit me. And you line up those associations." Breuer, now 70, has made some remarkable associations. A second World War baby, his early years were spent in the southern states - "my father was running around during the war and I was kind of schlepped from place to place" - and settled in California, where he flew through the school system to UCLA's film department, with his eye on Hollywood.

"It became clear that the only way you go into film at that time was to go to the mailroom at MGM and wait around to see who winks at you. If you're cute, somebody will wink at you quickly and if you're not cute you can wait years in the mail department."

Photographs of Breuer in his mid-20s record all the good looks of a Levi's model but, he says, the situation "was not my karma". Instead he and his partner, Ruth Maleczech, who he later married, started a family with and then divorced, and with whom he contently operates Mabou Mines, hitchhiked to Big Sur, where they fell in with Henry Miller at the height of the beatnik phenomenon. "In fact I cut Henry Miller's lawn," adds Breuer, a delightfully unashamed name-dropper, "and I taught Henry Miller's kid to swim."

AT THE END of the 1950s he ventured to San Francisco, where he met Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure - "I did lights for his first play" - and saw another major cultural shift, the one "from beatnik to hippiedom, which was basically just a change of drugs. Instead of smoking a lot of pot and drinking a lot of red wine they suddenly started dropping acid and immediately the culture changed."

It was paradise, Breuer remembers, but a false paradise. "It was fascinating," he says. "It was probably the greatest place to be in the United States: to be a kid and be alive from 1959 to 1967 in San Francisco. Right in the Summer of Love. After that everybody started dropping dead. The drugs got bad. The mafia came into it. It's what always happens with a scene like that." Such disillusion is close to the heart of what motivates Breuer and what has come to define the experimental aesthetic of Mabou Mines, which seems bewildering from the outside but is actually deeply considered.

Intelligent but playful, largely respectful but wholly anarchic, outwardly sceptical and inwardly self-aware, the work defines a man who has described himself as a reluctant radical. "What happened is that the thrill of feeling that you could change the world, that you could stop the war in Vietnam, that you could get Nixon out of the presidency, gave you a role - we were moving towards the revolution. And then everything started swinging the other way and it has hit its nadir with Bush. It's been a steady swing from 1970, downhill, right to 2007."

Breuer, an artist from a working-class background, who, through the decades, has been entangled in situations of "false bohemianism" (he recalls, for instance, that the commune he once lived on was actually based on land owned by the parents of a comrade), tends to play the underdog. At times he gives the impression that he is one of few true radicals among a legion of Manhattan sell-outs.

That might explain why he was drawn early to Jerzy Grotowski in Poland ("He babysat my first child"), embracing the director's theory of a "poor theatre", while the founder members of Mabou Mines became infused with the approach of Grotowski's Theatre Laboratory. Breuer understood, however, that he needed to take the schema of Grotowski and fill it with the flotsam and jetsam of his own experience - the junk and wonder of the US.

"[ Grotowski] said, 'Look, you have to understand that unless you really believe in what you do, your work will mean nothing.' His emulators were exactly wrong. I realised that it had to come out of me. It had to come out of my association with Virginia, North Carolina, California, hippiedom and Big Sur. I wasn't Polish with a minister father who drinks too much and smokes too much. No, I'm not that. So my theatre came out pretty different."

THIS IS PUTTING it mildly. Although Breuer has had successes as a writer (which he is still keen to build on), his fame rests on his directing and his adaptations, which, depending on your view, are entirely anarchic examples of postmodern gameplay or motivated by a skewed conscientiousness and faithful updates. His legendary The Gospel at Colonus, for instance, in 1983, matched Sophocles with a 67-strong choir of black opera singers. His Mabou Mines Lear cast Ruth Maleczech as Shakespeare's destroyed king, cross-casting the other roles, and relocating the court to 1950s West Virginia.

Here is his justification: "I started understanding that there were two English languages in the 1600s, the Anglican language and the Shakespearean." In the US, he decided, Anglican English found its patrician heights in the speech of Harvard grads, but Shakespearean English is pure redneck vernacular. "So we did it with a country and western accent," he concludes.

"In other words Edmund sounded like Johnny Cash . . . only a woman." This combination of utter theatrical transformation in the name of textual fidelity is, he contends, the adapter's art. "If I'm to make an adaptation from a great classic, my job is to find a bridge between the time it was written and the present," he says. The greater the distance, the bigger the bridge: if the audience must cross a chasm of 2,400 years for Sophocles, he requires a Pentecostal opera; given that the 150-year gulf to Ibsen's A Doll's House is significantly shorter, his latest version, which is the "biggie" in this year's Edinburgh International Festival, is performed with a cast of little people. "A lot of academically oriented kids feel they can play a lot of academic games" - such as using modern dress, and convoluted metaphors - "but somewhere the poet has to sneak in and you have to actually feel whether it works or not." On the page it can often work, he says, "but theatrically it just dies on the vine."

WHICH BRINGS US, with a Breuerian-like associative logic, back to Beckett. Beckett and Genet were early heroes for Breuer, who gravitated in his college years towards the European avant-garde.

The first production Mabou Mines staged was a faithful rendition of Beckett's Play, performed in Paris in 1968, which was scored by Philip Glass in his first composition. Beckett, who heard favourable reports about the production, sent the company a congratulatory note.

This encouraged Mabou Mines to stage Come and Go, also a success, and led them eventually to seek the rights to produce a "straight reading" of Beckett's The Lost Ones through their mutual friend Jean Reavey. Beckett assented, but Breuer had more ideas for the production than he had admitted.

"We couldn't resist putting a little staging into it," he says with a rebellious chuckle. In the end, the performance was delivered by a naked David Warrilow, manipulating tiny railway model figurines, which an audience of 50 could observe through opera glasses.

Word got back to Beckett and his terse response, in a letter to Reavey, is now more famous than the production: "Sounds like a crooked straight reading to me."

Breuer groans at the memory, but there was an upshot: the company was invited to restage The Lost Ones for Beckett's 70th birthday, and it was, by all accounts, a tour de force. "It got back to Beckett that it was brilliant and Beckett said that he was very, very happy about it. And everything was okay." Warrilow even performed in the premiere of Beckett's Ohio Impromptu.

"So everybody came up smelling of roses, luckily," adds Breuer. "But for a while there we were on Beckett's s**t list."

In Kilkenny, however, we have the chance to see Breuer the director and Breuer the writer in one show, Prelude to a Death in Venice (Harvey's Version), a reworking of an older piece, which was commissioned as a film version by the actor Harvey Keitel, who is not involved in the production. "It's a story about a love affair between a junkie and a dog," Breuer explains, adding that it was originally performed by a 3ft puppet, but will be performed in Kilkenny by Nic Novicki, "who is just as tall" and that "what it is, of course, is a feminist parable". Of course.

In conversation, Breuer can join up the most unlikely dots, and it is intoxicating to follow the train of his logic. Whatever bridge the reluctant radical has found to join the above points, however, is currently beyond our comprehension. But one thing is for sure; you should be eager to cross it.

A Prelude to a Death in Venice (Harvey's Version) runs at the Parade Tower, Kilkenny, Aug 10-13, during the Kilkenny Arts Festival (Aug 10-19). See www.kilkennyarts.ie for details; www.leebreuer.com