As a film director, Joe Wright isn’t afraid to give classic texts a vigorous shake. He made his name in 2005 with an adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”, scouring away the refinement of Jane Austen’s novel and filling the screen with squawking chickens, muddy petticoats and wind-reddened cheeks. His recent take on “Anna Karenina” was more distinctive still: he set most of it in a huge, ornate theatre — a crisp metaphor for the artificiality of Russian aristocratic life. Luscious to look at and inventively shot, with characters moving fluidly from stage to bedroom, and from auditorium to ballroom, the film has been predictably laden with award nominations: for six Baftas (one of which, for costume design, it won) and four Oscars (where it again won best costume design).
At the age of 41, Wright is now making his debut as a theatre director and he could, you feel, have chosen any play. So why is he starting with a Victorian farce almost no one has heard of? “Trelawny of the Wells”, an 1898 comedy by playwright Arthur Wing Pinero, is a play of opposites: the tale of a female theatre star and her struggles to adjust to genteel Victorian society. It is entertaining and endearing — but hardly a classic.
Wright admits the reason is mostly emotional: “When I read it, I laughed and then I had a little cry. I’ve spent the time since ‘Pride and Prejudice’ doing pieces that have been serious and a bit dark, and I wanted to spend some time in a happy play. My work does affect me, and to do something where characters are kind and loving and supportive makes a really nice change.” It troubles him that light-hearted comedies are often undervalued. “We’ve got this thing that it’s not ‘art’ unless it’s angry or pessimistic. Happy things are perceived to be cynical commercialism. But there is joy as well in the world, and sometimes it’s good to sing that song, too.”
Dressed like a 1950s impresario on safari (white shirt, grey scarf sculpted around his neck, sand-coloured suede waistcoat and shoes), there is an otherworldly quality about Wright, as if he has never quite shaken off the years he spent not fitting in. His parents ran a puppet theatre, the Little Angel in north London, which was, he says, “an incredibly magical world, where everything and anything was possible” — but it didn’t exactly prepare him for life at the local comp. He was badly bullied at school and struggled with dyslexia, which went undiagnosed until the end of his teens. Learning happened at home: “We lived next door to the workshop, which was next door to the theatre, so we were taught how to use our hands, how to make things. I think [my parents] thought that I’d be a puppeteer and that what I needed to learn was puppetry.”
But, unbeknown to his parents, he was also bunking school to watch films at a friend’s house. “I’m really glad my sister still works at the theatre and we’re a very close family but it’s their thing. I fell in love with film and its potential. The idea of putting one image next to another image and creating meaning blew my mind.”
When not obsessing over film, he kept himself busy in other ways, performing magic shows in Covent Garden as the Great Kazam, and taking classes at the Anna Scher theatre school, which meant he could earn money as a child actor in the West End (in 1982, he appeared alongside Kenneth Branagh in “Another Country”). It was thanks to a friend from Anna Scher’s, Kathy Burke, that he got his filmmaking break in his late 20s: Burke showed his short films to a producer at the BBC, Catherine Wearing, who invited him to direct “Nature Boy”, a four-part drama about a teenager failing at school, screened in 2000.
It was a fast learning process, he laughs. “I asked my first assistant director, ‘How do I do this?’, and she told me most directors turn up every day with a shot list. So my shot lists kept on coming day after day. Much later, I discovered that no directors turned up with shot lists. It just made her life more organised. But preparation is important in film. You can’t flounce in going, ‘Ooh, I’m an artist.’ You have to have some kind of structure.”
These days, Wright is trying not to work so much; he has made five films in the past eight years and wants to make some space for family life instead. In 2010, he married musician Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the late Ravi; the two now have a toddler, Zubin. Wright finds parenthood both “liberating and limiting”. The move into theatre was supposed to make him less of a workaholic, but he finds it hard. “I can’t not do anything, because I get [restless]. I’m not good when idle.” It helps, he says, that Shankar is “just as bad” — they both get scolded by their son for overwork.
You sense that getting older is rather suiting him. “I’m enjoying myself, by which I mean I’m enjoying my self. I’m more at ease with myself.” He pauses. “Tempting fate there, aren’t I? There’s the next breakdown on the horizon.” He speaks lightly, but it was clear from all the headlines a few years ago revelling in his decision to call off his engagement to Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet in his “Pride and Prejudice”) that he went through a period of uncertainty about where he wanted his life to go. Part of the problem was an attempt to live in Hollywood: “That luxury, ossified Los Angeles world isn’t good for the soul.” That’s why his family are based in London: he prefers to be around “normal people”.
He has come into the rehearsal room with a temporary tattoo on his arm. Scrawled by his wife in black ballpoint pen, it reads: “Practise happiness.” What did she mean? “The more you practise happiness, the better you get at it. So if you spend lots of time practising being depressed, you’re going to get really good at being depressed. And if you spend lots of time practising being happy, you’re going to get better at being happy.” This, he emphasises, is why he’s so pleased to be directing “Trelawny”: “To do a play that is happy is quite good for me personally.”
For all that he grew up in one, being back in a theatre hasn’t been straightforward. “When we started rehearsals, I was trying to talk in theatre terms, and the actors just thought I was weird. One day I happened to say, ‘Oh, that’s a wide shot,’ and they knew exactly what I meant. So now I’ve dropped trying to talk a language I don’t really speak, and use film terms: this is a close-up so everybody focus; we’re in a wide shot so everyone come alive.”
The shift from film to theatre is difficult in other ways. “In film, you have ultimate control — in the cutting room. In theatre, the actors have ultimate control.” He smiles archly. “You’ll be surprised to hear that, as a director, I have control issues in life, so it’s good practice to try to let go gracefully.”
Part of him wants to watch every performance of the eight-week run, so it’s probably just as well that, a week after press night, he is travelling to Kinshasa with Chiwetel Ejiofor on a research trip for his next theatre production: “A Season in the Congo”, in which Ejiofor stars as the Congo independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961. Wright’s own roots are in South Africa (both his parents were born there), so the play allows him to connect with the continent that filled his childhood home with arguments about apartheid and stories of his father’s adventures, touring from Cape Town to Cairo with a van full of puppets.
Wright has another telling story about his parents and their puppet theatre. “Someone once rang up to book tickets and said, ‘I just want to check: is there any audience participation involved in the show?’ And my dad said, ‘Yes — the participation of the imagination.’”
It is a notion that has clearly stayed with him, throughout all those years in the dark of the cinema. “In theatre,” he says, “the audience’s imaginations are engaged in a more active way. That’s what I love about it.”