Interview with PAUL CLAYTON on his celebrated work as an actor and directing THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR
Paul Clayton is an RSC actor to the core. He has immense presence, a rich timbre to his powerful voice and his knowledge of theatre goes right to the bone.
Most recently Clayton has been appearing in Holby City and The Split on BBC1. He is in the new Alan Partridge series with Steve Coogan and has filmed a guest lead in the new series of Shakespeare and Hathaway for release in 2019. With such a busy schedule it’s surprising that he’s fitting in directing Joe Orton’s THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR at The Hope Theatre January 2019.
It is fitting that Clayton who is patron of The Hope Theatre, should be directing a play from the short body of work written by Orton. Orton lived and breathed in Islington, where his main haunts were along Upper Street. In 1967, his lover, Halliwell, murdered Orton (aged 34) before committing suicide. Whilst the Hope theatre isn’t particularly a gay venue, Clayton says frankly that “we know from the diaries of Orton’s sexual exploits which would have included areas not far from The Hope”.
This is not the first time Clayton has directed an Orton play. Clayton (61) has an extensive career in television, film and theatre. Clayton made his first stage appearance for 10 years in BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE at The Hope Theatre for which he was nominated for an Off-West End award for Best Actor. Now, he is re-emerging as stage director.
“The whole thing about directing has changed. Theatres used to ring you up and ask what you are doing next season” says Clayton. “You could cherry pick what you would like to do and who you would like to do it with - who are the names?” During the 90s and noughties Clayton was doing a lot of corporate. In 2007 he joined PEEP SHOW and the acting took off again. “Suddenly people wanted to get you in the room. I was Rather lucky to do five series over ten years”. Meanwhile, he continues to work in the corporate event world, most recently, four in a row for McDonalds. “Thanks to a wonderful team, at the end of one business meeting, 3,000 people got to their feet and applauded; that’s a show for business, to be able to turn it into something emotional” recounts Clayton with a measure of understandable pride. It’s this work which enables him to do something like RUFFIAN. Fringe theatre is notoriously strapped for cash.
Fringe theatre is very important to Clayton. “We all did it, because it was there. Now it’s a key part of your career plan and it enables actors with creating a project they’re passionate about.” Therefore, when AD Matthew Parker invited him to be patron of The Hope Theatre, he was keen to support and help. “It’s really vital that places like The Hope are there to let young people find a space for their ideas and that’s what I love about it.” At The Hope theatre there are the Sunday and Monday slots for those people who cannot commit to a full 3 week run.
Sitting in this elegant restaurant chosen by Clayton, he fits in rather well. He looks dressed by Saville Row, with Italian grooming and the staff know him by name. His presence could easily be that of a lawyer in court, confident and assured. So, in one of those theatrical reversals, it’s fun to know that, he is the one who coaches lawyers, in one of his corporate role play jobs on how to pitch.
This is not so far from the rehearsal room where Clayton’s job is to make suggestions. “The actor takes that suggestion and makes it his own. You don’t tell people what to do but you open up possibilities for them and they are surprised by what they’ve achieved. That’s when it works at its best”
The thing he most enjoys about directing is “being in room with actors but not doing the acting myself.” He loves “creating an environment”. One of his favourite directing jobs was on COMEDY OF ERRORS at Nottingham playhouse in 1994. “In a room for 4 weeks with 12 actors, and a 400-year-old play that had the audience rolling about. After four weeks of rehearsals it gets to be hard work but when the whole theatre roars with laughter, I think Oh! My god it works, it works! I’ve been lucky enough to play comedy. The sugar lump of the laugh”
Clayton read Orton before he saw any productions. “Primarily the things I love about Orton, is that he’s naughty and funny. There is that sense of wanting to shock and yet at the same time an understanding of being an outsider and loneliness in all of the plays. There are facets of him in them. The young men in Loot, the title character in Entertaining Mr Sloane, and even the bell hop in What The Butler Saw. In the mid 70s The Royal Court did a season of three Orton plays, one directed by Lindsay Anderson. Clayton remembers queuing for tickets.
Clayton has a clear understanding of Orton’s language and is a stickler for getting it right. He explains how important it is to be true to the writing. In his final year at drama school he had to do a bad play. Lord Arthur Savile's Crime by Constance Cox based on an Oscar Wilde short story. “Our director knew all about stage business, double takes, slow burns … picking up a glass” but in this play Clayton had to use devices to make the dialogue interesting.
Clayton demonstrates the line “I was walking to the church at half past two and I saw Mrs Yates”. He explains that if he breaks after the words ‘half past two’, what follows seems much weightier. Clayton’s face takes on an ironical smile - “... sometimes naughty and I’d do it in Shakespeare”, he says under his breath.
But Clayton insists this cannot be done in Orton. “You cannot put naturalistic pauses and para linguistics into an Oscar Wilde script and Orton is the same. You have to honour the script, it’s the gift of epigrammatic language. If a young actor can handle this dialogue, he can forget the acting and make it work, and make it funnier, just by the delivery of it.” The language is not necessarily naturalistic. “Wilde gave everyone an archness” explains Clayton. “Orton relishes and uses that”. He gives an example:
Fay : Have you known him long?
Hal: We shared the same cradle.
Fay: Was that economy or malpractice?
Whilst Clayton jokes that he might find his inner Ivo van Hove or Robert Icke, both taking theatre in radically different directions, he will be bringing the weight of all his experience as an actor. He has been very cautious with casting, two of the actors he has worked with before and he prefers to trust in the casting director and see only the most likely candidates.
He uses an analogy: “I don’t like a menu that has 30 choices because it gets in the way of me eating. I like a really nice restaurant with 3 or 4 entrées rather than a café with 30 choices … and everything with chips”. He prefers to spend a bit more time working with the actors. He has an idea of what he’s looking for and where to find it, but he keeps an open mind because he’s sometimes surprised.
THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR is a play that is not done very often. It’s an early piece written originally for radio and adapted for the stage by Orton. “It’s a microcosm of what he then goes on to use as a prototype for what becomes ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE” says Clayton.
Clayton thinks that he’s clearly influenced by Pinter. “It’s similar to Pinter’s THE ROOM. It’s really a Comedy of menace. Things are not always what they seem to be. There’s also a resemblance to Pinter’s pauses, although …” Clayton adds “there’s a bit in Orton’s diary when he says actors shouldn’t pause”. Clayton is enjoying the journey of the piece. “What you think you see at the beginning is not what you see at all. What you saw and what is committed are two different things. The story peels back. We think we’re watching a woman being terrorised by a man when her partner/husband is away and possibly that’s not what we’re seeing”.
Clayton is clearly impressed with the script and its secrets. His assistant director has arrived at the restaurant, auditions are being held and rehearsals start soon. The excitement is palpable.
Paul Clayton was interviewed by Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres Magazine.
THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR is at The Hope Theatre, Islington, 29 Jan – 16 Feb 2019
@December 2018 London Pub Theatres Magazine Ltd
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