Director Dean Bryant has been slowly ‘going legit’ – as they like to say in Variety. After more than a decade developing a reputation as director and co-writer of musicals and cabaret, Bryant is finding more and more work directing straight plays, such as MTC’s I’ll Eat You Last with Miriam Margolyes in 2014 and our forthcoming revival of David Hare’s Skylight.
‘Yes, I’m going legit. I feel it’s time to get rid of the tapshoes and whatnot,’ he says. ‘But, actually, I’ve always read and gone to plays. When I go to London or New York, I see as many plays as I do musicals. And my second professional job was working as Gale Edwards’s Assistant on Hitchcock Blonde  here at MTC. In fact, I think Skylight must have been the first play I saw at MTC as a teenager, when I came down from the country once. It was Roger [Hodgman]’s production with Helen Buday and William Zappa.
‘Musicals were where I fell in love with theatre,’ he says. ‘It’s just how I started and what I’ve always been drawn to. But I’ve always wanted to do all sorts of theatre and, also, in Australia, if I just do musicals there’s a very small amount of work to go around. And another thing is – and it shouldn’t come as news to any musical theatre director or performer – but, even though musicals are incredibly complex to do, people still look at musical directors as if they’re not really directors until they’ve done a play. And that perception is crazy, because the amount of decisions you have to make directing a musical, which all have to come off at the same time, compared to the decisions made by a play director – well, it’s out of this world.’
Bryant considers other differences between directing straight drama and musical theatre. ‘In musical theatre you make a lot of progress in a very short time. Maybe eighty per cent of the decisions that really count are made before you hit the rehearsal room floor. Rehearsal is about filtering those decisions down to the performers and adjusting and adding according to what they’re offering. Whereas directing something like I’ll Eat You Last or Skylight, firstly, the lighting and sound requirements are never going to be anywhere near as challenging as in a musical. But, really, rehearsals for a play are about working with the actors, making sure we mine the text for every nuance and beat and interesting choice. You want the text to sing the way the numbers do in a musical.’
Written in 1994, as Thatcherite conservatism eked out its final years, David Hare’s Skylight is a social and personal cost-counting exercise. Former lovers, Tom and Kyra, attempt a reconciliation despite the differences that have opened up between them. He runs a chain of restaurants and has made a religion out of his faith in market forces; she idealistically teaches at a school in a disadvantaged area. They represent two views of an individual’s place in society and a middle-class divided against itself.
‘The biggest argument the characters have is around education: who is worth educating and to what level,’ says Bryant. ‘And that couldn’t be more relevant in Australian at the moment. Hare criticises that patriarchal view in conservative politics that puts a sort of benevolent face on a lack of concern for the poor, as if to say, ‘We want to support you, but you’ll have to work harder if you want anything.’
Hare’s way of intertwining the personal and the political has always been his strength, but it can be a pitfall for directors not skilled in handling what is essentially political debate.
‘I feel that the trick is to make the political aspects feel like drama and not exposition,’ Bryant says. ‘Let it still be humanly charged. The best thing about Hare’s writing here is that he’s written a super-smart romantic comedy. It does all the things people love in popular theatre, and
while still being very political in every sentence. You are getting the best of both worlds.
‘I am a little concerned that this may look like the ‘worthy’ play of the year,’ he adds. ‘So I just want the audience to know that the best reason for reviving it now and why it is worth doing now is that it’s a really sexy evening. It is not theatre that’s good for you; it’s theatre that’s fun for you.’
David Hare’s Skylight plays at Southbank Theatre from 18 June.