THEATRE

A man for all seasons

ROBERT CUSHMAN March 14 1988
THEATRE

A man for all seasons

ROBERT CUSHMAN March 14 1988

A man for all seasons

THEATRE

It was standard behavior for Jonathan Miller to visit Canada last week wearing two hats—those of public speaker and theatre director. Nobody else on the British arts scene has his peculiar, wide-ranging medley of credentials. Trained as a neuropatholo-

gist, Miller, 53, is also a comic writer and actor (Beyond the Fringe, the international hit revue in which he performed in the 1960s with, among others, Dudley Moore), an author (Marshall McLuhan, Darwin for Beginners), a popular television writer-host (The Body in Question) and a theatre and opera director. The lecture that he gave in Toronto last week touched on a number of those interests. But the main reason for his visit was to present N. F. Simpson’s comedy One Way Pendulum at the city’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, where it will run until April 9. The show will then travel to London’s venerable Old Vic Theatre, now owned by Torontonians Ed and David Mirvish, where Miller took up his duties as artistic director in January. “One of the wonderful things about him,” said David Mirvish, “is his ability to make things accessible, to make things clear.”

A tall (six feet, three inches), greying redhead, Miller is a compulsive talker—and compulsively funny. During a recent interview with Maclean's in a large, untidy room at the Old Vic that doubles as his office and a company lounge, he discussed Pendulum and its links with his own performing past. He appeared in a 1961

film version of the play, whose surrealistic humor is similar to that of his own monologues in Beyond the Fringe. Pendulum, which premièred in London in 1960, is the absurdist story of London’s Groomkirby family. Kirby Groomkirby, whom Miller portrayed in

the film, is a young man intent on teaching 500 speak-your-weight machines—coin-operated scales with recorded messages that announce a person’s weight —to sing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. His father, Arthur, is obsessed with the law to the point of assembling a “build - it - yourself Old Bailey kit” in his own living room.

One of the five plays that Miller is directing in his lineup of seven works, Pendulum is the lightest, most accessible offering of his adventurous debut season at the Old Vic. Since the Mirvishes rescued and renovated the theatre five years ago, the Old Vic has lacked a recognizable artistic policy. But Miller seems determined to provide one by selecting demanding works, many of them neglected classics. At least some observers have approved of his choices: in January, London’s Sunday Times applauded Miller’s “exciting selection of European drama.”

He got off to a daring start earlier this year with a production of Jean Racine’s Andromache, a French classical tragedy widely considered to be resistent to the English language and sensibility. Miller, who directed the production, won critical applause for having transformed the drama into a

bitterly comic exposé of supposedly heroic characters doing abominable things for the highest-sounding reasons. Later in the season Miller will direct George Chapman’s 17th-century tragedy Bussy dAmbois and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Apart from Pendulum, Miller insists that he has no plans to transfer the plays to other theatres for extended runs. “I like them to be like shooting stars,” he said, “sizzling across the firmament.” Miller’s dual allegiance to science and art originates with his family. His father was a celebrated child psychiatrist who painted and sculpted in his spare time. His mother was a novelist and the biographer of such figures as Robert Browning. Miller was first drawn to medicine, studying natural sciences at Cambridge University and later becoming a doctor. Although he appeared in two student productions at university, he did not make his first serious foray into the theatre until he was two years out of medical school. By then married to Rachel Miller, also a physician, Miller became one of the four creators of Beyond the Fringe, which opened in London and later travelled to New York and Toronto. But he regarded it as only a temporary diversion. “I reasoned,” he said, “that I could make money out of it. I wouldn’t make much in my first five years of

doctoring.” Besides, medicine was “socially very uncongenial, unconvivial,” Miller recalled. “Doctors die earlier than other people; they commit suicide; they drink more.”

As a scientist, Miller has created television programs and books explaining the human organism while continuing to pursue his interest in the brain. In 1983, while a visiting professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, he researched the neurological basis of human speech, perception and the use of language. But his commitment to theatre has been as strong as his love of medicine. Abandoning performance in the early 1960s, he went on to direct both opera and plays, for the stage and television. And from 1973 to 1975 he served as associate director at the National Theatre, one of Britain’s leading theatrical institutions.

Miller has established a reputation for an iconoclastic attitude toward the classics. His acclaimed 1983 production of the Verdi opera Rigoletto was set in Manhattan’s Mafia underworld and was staged at London’s Coliseum and, later, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Miller has compared his approach to “Picasso taking an existing picture and making another work of art out of it.” He added, “The history of art is the history of transformaI

tion.” But he is also concerned about finding what he calls “something unchangeable at the heart of a play, a relationship between people occurring in a particular order.”

Throughout his career, Miller has moved restlessly between the worlds of art and science. He once said that he would have to leave the stage because he distrusted a way of life where the barometer of achievement was applause. Yet when a British actor sought Miller’s help in dissuading his daughter, a qualified doctor, from becoming an actress, Miller talked with her until 3 a.m. and convinced her that she should go to drama school.

Despite his accomplishments with the classics, Miller retains his initial attraction to stand-up comedy. He glows with enthusiasm when he recalls such 1960s American comics as Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He can deliver letter-perfect reproductions of their routines, expressively contorting his gangling limbs as he once did on stage. But Miller contends that “even the most serious plays have unexpectedly comic elements.” For all his breadth of learning and accomplishment, Jonathan Miller’s great strength and appeal is that he remains a comedian at heart.

-ROBERT CUSHMAN in London