David Berthold (Interview 32)

Image of David Berthold by Justine Walpole

A couple of weeks ago, David Berthold and I find ourselves seated on a very lumpy couch outside Room 60 down the hill from La Boite Theatre’s Roundhouse precinct at Kelvin Grove. We have taken refuge outside because it’s movie night and, apparently, one of the worst movies ever made is screening inside for the afficionados of such things. We take our two (very nice) glasses of Pinot Grigio outside to enjoy the early Spring weather. It is, I think, a rather nice way to conduct an interview. A couple of hours later we head off after a chat that revolved around Tender Napalm, the play by Philip Ridley which David is currently directing for La Boite. We actually spun out over lots of things from opera to Berlin to arts funding and the kinds of audiences that La Boite has attracted during his tenure – he became Artistic Director in 2008. It was a good chat, all in all. Here’s what I remember of it; the notes helped.

I’ve known David for years, ever since he was Artistic Associate at Queensland Theatre Company way back – well, in the early 90s anyway. I’ve worked with him (for the first time earlier this year in As You Like It) and we’ve chatted on many occasions, but I hadn’t known till now that he is a baritone and an opera buff and that once upon a time, he wanted to be an opera singer. He confesses that his dream is still to sing Schubert’s Winterreise with all its ‘infinite meanings’ in German – but more of that later.

We get started in our conversation with Philip Ridley whom David knows quite well. They hung out together in 2003 along with the ATYP who were in London at the time with Brokenville, one of Ridley’s plays for young children. ‘He’s gentle, generous, a painter and photographer as well as a playwright, screenwriter, novelist and director,’ David tells me. He trained as a painter at St Martin’s College of Art in London, and began his literary career with writing for young people.

‘What’s remarkable is that Ridley has kept his aesthetic alive in the 21 years since Pitchfork Disney, his first play.’ Some of the subject matter is horrific but it is the notion of story which remains constant and the thing that David refers to as a key element in Ridley’s work. ‘He uses the idea of telling story for various dramatic purposes.’ It’s also what intrigues me with Ridley’s 2011 play Tender Napalm when I read it a day or so before meeting up with David.

Ellen Bailey and Kurt Phelan Image: Dylan Evans

The first thing that confronts you with this play is its language. I mention I think the title is a perfect analogy for the way Ridley uses words. They caress and burn, the images they sculpt are graphic to the point of discomfort. As you read further into the play script however, what becomes quickly apparent is the monstrous task Ridley has set for his interpreters. It’s a daunting blueprint that dares you in turn to confront its challenges. It’s this aspect of the work I want to discuss with David. Why did he select this play, and how are the creative team – and especially the actors – accommodating Ridley’s demands?

‘I’ve seen and directed some of his plays over the years but Tender Napalm the ‘most distilled’ so far of Ridley’s work – out into a nowhere with few social circumstances. It fits in well with the line of our repertoire. Its language is gestural but not necessarily dance.’ David continues, ‘another line is that all the plays I’ve programmed have a fluid relationship with the audience. There’s often direct audience address – conscious theatre-making.’ The nature of the room which is the Roundhouse’s auditorium means a particular kind of theatrical energy is needed, and David notes that it’s a space that’s ‘not kind to the spoken word.’

A page in to Tender Napalm and it’s clear that the spoken word in this play is in a league of its own. By turns savage and lyrical it is, above all, muscular. It’s this muscularity that weighs on the imagination and almost demands a physical response from its actors beyond that of mere breath and spoken articulation. It’s text that’s suggestive of the gestural, physical line that David mentions. There’s a particular segment in which the protagonists MAN and WOMAN who are dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic event – the death of a child – conduct a battle for control of their imaginary island. I’m fascinated not only by Ridley’s razzle-dazzle linguistic flights but also in the way this will be staged. David confirms that, indeed, the action breaks out into contemporary dance from time to time and this is where his collaboration with an old friend, the Artistic Director of the Australian Dance Theatre Garry Stewart begins.

Kurt Phelan and Ellen Bailey at work on ‘the battle’ Image: Dylan Evans

‘Garry’s in the room with me every day. We both need to be there with the actors to see what has to happen. We run on instinct.’ Actor-dancers Ellen Bailey and Kurt Phelan have a dance class each day for an hour and a half. There is then another hour and a half on ‘the battle’ sequence and we spend the afternoon working on the stories.’ Exhausting? ‘Very.’ I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to sustain.

I wonder whether working with Garry has created any surprises for either of them. ‘Neither of us knew how to prepare for this one,’ he confesses. ‘Garry has never worked with text, and watching him approach scenes from angles I would not have considered – the particular angle in contemporary dance – has been terrific. It’s been watching a moment expressed obliquely,’ he adds. Gary, on the other hand, has been surprised by the level of textual rigour brought to the process. ‘It’s also been great being with a mature artist. He’s interested in the work first and foremost. That’s been a great pleasure.’

Feeding the Inner Artist

What art form other than the theatre do you love? Opera by Mozart, Verdi or Handel. My first choice was to have been an opera singer (he’s a baritone) and I have gone back to directing opera from time to time. It gives me a great and particular pleasure. It’s lovely being in a room having Mozart sung to you. I also love Schubert leider and the song cycles.’ This is when I found out that David’s favourite Schubert is Winterreise and about that dream to sing it one day in German.

What are you reading? History and biography. I’m not a habitual reader of fiction. I prefer contemporary thought; I read Christopher Hitchens‘ diaries and a biography of Leonard Bernstein recently. I’m also interested in the history of Berlin and really enjoyed Stasiland (Anna Funder) and Gitta Sereny’s The German Trauma. Berlin is a fascinating place with a rich and unusual history. It’s been in a constant state of becoming, a city on its way to something; there are very few old buildings. Hitler loathed Berlin and he didn’t trust Berliners.’

How do you relax? With music or at the beach where you can just sit and read a book. My beach reading has seen me starting to read more fiction – a recent read was Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I’m training myself to have that kind of holiday and not just run around in big cities getting cultured.


Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley | Directed by David Berthold  | Choreographed by Garry Stewart opens at La Boite Theatre’s Roundhouse from 21 September to 13 October. Details on the company website.

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