A tribute to the director who died February 14th 2007
Steven was not only a colleague, an inspiration and a friend, he was also the godfather to my son Cosmo and one of the most remarkable and vivacious men I have ever had the privilege and pleasure to know. Below is the tribute I read at his funeral.
I first met Steven in January 1991 when he interviewed me to be his Staff Director on The Miser at the National. About 2 minutes in, I said that what I thought I really was, was a dramaturg – a term I had started using somewhat pretentiously to silence people who asked me whether I was really a writer or a director. On Steven it had the opposite effect and far from silencing him, led to a conversation which continued until I said good-bye to him outside Covent Garden tube station almost exactly 16 years later, on January 30th of this year. That night we’d just had dinner after one of the most exhilarating of all the meetings Steven, Andrew Lloyd Webber and I had been having about ‘musicalising’ The Master and Margarita. Steven, despite having rehearsed all day, had been in blazing form – he’d fulminated against the lack of plot in contemporary plays, discoursed on woodwind parts in Shostakovich symphonies and fretted whether he would be home in time for Shameless. I’m particularly glad that he chose for his dessert that night, crème brûlée, because it had been in those first rehearsals on The Miser that he introduced me to the crème brûlée principle of French classical drama – the need to break through the crispy shiny surface down into the gunk beneath. One of a host of Steven’s ideas, provocations, inspirations that have shaped my thinking about the way and the why of theatre-making probably more than anyone else I have worked with.
I’d meant in recent months to ask him where some of these ideas came from – I know there was a great legacy from his English teacher at Manchester, another from Clare Venables at Sheffield, but I suspect a huge amount was simply Steven. Steven in constant debate and dialogue with the world, with his friends and above all with himself.
When we did Nathan the Wise together, I was tickled to find Gotthold Lessing had written this about himself, because it sounded so exactly like Steven (and Steven agreed when I read it to him): ‘I am not duty-bound to resolve the difficulties I create. May my ideas always be somewhat disjunct, or even appear to contradict one another, if only they are ideas in which readers will find material that stirs them to think for themselves’ Steven could be the most immensely contradictory person to work with, and he was wilful – but not in the sense of thoughtless – only full of will – a passion to make the thing be as rich as it could possibly be.
If I close my eyes and think of Steven at work I am astonished by how many different people I see. There were script meetings with a rather donnish figure, who would recline peering at the script through half-moon spectacles and then suddenly pounce on some poorly expressed line with a groan of impatience. He could be brusque – but I rarely minded, there was no cruelty, only an inspiration to do better.
The donnishness was also present in the rehearsal room. Actors were often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ideas that poured forth. It was so hard to keep up with him, not only because he was well read, but because he seemed to hoover up experience. In a typical rehearsal Steven might well mention Hammer Horror films, Pushkin, Wife Swap, Agatha Christie, Verdi, Coronation Street, Raffy’s performance in the school play, Tony Blair’s latest speech, the King And I at Manchester Palace, the oboe d’amore part he was playing on Sunday, Freud, Jung, Christ, the Devil and Derren Brown. And somehow it all felt curiously pertinent – whether the production was The Seagull or Joseph. I have to say he was the easiest director to assist because he was so open – there were no mind-games, no secrets – with Steven it was all on show – which is in part why so many actors came to love him.
And because Steven knew that without actors, theatre was nothing – because at heart he was an actor himself. I witnessed too few of Steven’s public performances – his Clare Zachanassian which inspired Nick Hytner, the ‘definitive’ Gertrude, sadly even his one-night stand as Patriarch of All Jerusalem in Nathan (he must have looked fantastic in that frock). I did see several of his Gilbert and Sullivans – definitive too for a kind of superabundant bumptiousness – and I watched him play every single role in every play we ever rehearsed together.
As a young director you’re told not to demonstrate to the actor how to play the role. It’s not advice Steven ever heeded – and yet I never heard an actor complain. I think this was because there was never any expectation that anyone would or could perform the part in the way Steven did. It was as if he’d been briefly possessed by some spirit that he wanted the actor to commune with. In truth, there was something demonic about Steven when working at full throttle, just as there was something angelic about the immense love he brought into the rehearsal room.
And he inspired love in return. Actors loved Steven because he loved acting, writers because he staged our plays so bloody well (and made the effort to understand what we were banging on about), designers because he delighted in spectacle, composers because he was so musical, producers because he wanted to entertain. And we all in turn were made part of his family, his life, the great show that was Steven Pimlott.
I’ve never known a director who brought so much of his life into the rehearsal room. But theatre is not kind to real families. It can be too all consuming and takes place at odd hours and in places far from home. I know that both in Stratford and Chichester, even when the work was flying, Steven regretted the time it kept him apart from Daniela and Oskar and Raffy and Phoebe. But you were never far from his thoughts. And he talked much in the last year that one of the greatest benefits of his illness was being able to spend so much time with you all. And because of that I genuinely think last summer was one of the happiest he had in all the time I knew him.
But by the autumn he needed something to occupy his mind. There can be no greater mark of the enormous respect and affection that he inspired, that not one, but four producers – Nick at the National, Mike at the Almeida, Stefan in Athens and Andrew – invited him to work on productions in the knowledge that Steven might, as he put it himself ‘have to leave the room’ at some point in the process. It meant an enormous amount to him. In particular he said that The Master And Margarita musical felt like some kind of a summation of a career which – as all the obituaries observed – knew no boundaries of high brow and low, mainstream or avant garde, musical, opera, theatre, mind, heart, spirit – there wasn’t an either/or in Steven’s contradictions – it was simply what worked. I’m immensely fond of his image of making a production being like trying to tune into a radio station through white noise – an almost mystical belief that somewhere the production was out there and all we had to do was adjust our sets.
And because theatre is such an ephemeral form – something that rarely seemed to bother Steven, productions finished and we move on to the next point of the journey – because it is so ephemeral, what we have now to tune our sets to is our memories of him and the work.
We will all have our own. And I’m not going to take up time now with mine – I’ve deliberately avoided anecdotes, because once I started writing them down I realised we’d be here till Easter – but I hope we will all take time to share our favourites, because they are an important part of his legacy.
And I have two last things to share now. First, Daniela has asked me to share a few extracts from a friend who cannot be here today, but she wanted to be present. Zoe lost her own father when young and for her Steven became – well, I’ll let the letter speak for itself …
Since I am going away for a while I felt compelled to write to you … When I heard you had been diagnosed with cancer I was so over-whelmed by devastation and shock, perhaps because I have always seen you as such an indestructible and ever-present person. Accepting that we will all lose you is still an incomprehensible task. You are such a huge inspiration in my life … I admire your fabulous energy for life and your enigmatic ability to make anything fun, your sharp, clear thinking-mind, and the way in which you articulate your ideas with such fervour. Sometimes you have terrified me senseless with your brutally honest words and passionate tirades, which have always illuminated your majestic, intimidating presence … And let me tell you this, you have been the closest thing I have ever had to a father, I would be so proud to be your daughter. You and Daniela have welcomed me and Finnian with such warmth into your beautiful home and given us such fabulous holidays … When I look at Oskar, Raphael and Phoebe, your three wonderful, beautiful, extraordinary children, I know that you leave behind such precious human beings, in whom everything about you, your energy, your wisdom and your light will live on in them for the entirety of their lives.
Just know and remember Steven that you have such generosity, warmth and love in your spirit, it oozes out of you, enveloping everyone. Please try as hard as you can to cling on to that gorgeous beautiful spirit and not allow this disease to eat away at it.
And then she quotes a poem by Louis MacNeice
‘The Sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold’
And ends by saying
I think we can cage those golden minutes – because there are nets of gold all around us.
Thank you. I love you very much.
But I wanted to give the last word to Steven. When our son was born about five years ago and we wanted to have him christened, Steven was an obvious choice to ask to be a godfather. And he was a fantastic godfather. Here’s an extract from the card he sent to Cosmo, on accepting the post:
“I’ve been wondering what I may be able to offer you. Of course your parents and I have rather similar interests, but where I may score is with my passion for amusement parks in general, and roller coasters in particular. I have an intimate knowledge of most of the great world theme parks and I would like to think that my relationship to Blackpool Pleasure Beach is a peculiarly intimate one. I have made sure that my children have been rigorously schooled in the art of coastering and I would like to think that they will be happy to share some of that knowledge with you. Apart from that I don’t know what I’m good for. Actually I am pretty good at games – Monopoly, Cluedo, Canasta that sort of thing, but I invariably like to win, which may not prove so much of an incentive”
He was good for a lot more than that.
Here are three poems which I wrote about Steven and read at his memorial at the National Theatre. They were conceived almost as diary entries. They appear here in reverse chronological order, the last one having been written on the day he first told me about his illness.
There is no leap to this year.
There is no stitch to save time’s tear.
The world runs on in front
Out of joint with the sun.
How can we stray
Each day more miskiltered from the stars
In hope some four-year fix
Will make amends?
I cannot make the calculation.
I need someone to show me how
Or rectify it now,
Some master of the heart’s cosmography.
When I heard it had returned,
It was the first snowfall,
When the earth is white and not yet treacherous
And we swap small smiles with strangers
As they test the ground beneath their feet:
For we are all in it together.
But this we cannot share –
This you made clear from the off –
This trip you never sought to make.
We can heed the warnings,
Change our schedule,
But bravely or no you must sally out;
Like the snow,
Which does not choose its falling,
Which does not seek to slip us,
Which cannot join in our complicity.
It falls and we are in it.
And if there were forests,
Tight knots and thickets,
Where the paths headed off
In too many contradictions
And thorns snagged you unawares,
Then also there were clearings,
Of such dappled beauty,
Of such dropping lightness,
Of such welcome,
And deep wells,
And reviving streams.
And above all the breath that blew through it
Warm and scented
From a rarer world