Diary of a sane man

By Elissa Blake

Neil Armfield (BA (Hons) ’77) speaks between careful sips of homemade vegetable soup. Too busy for a proper lunch break, the acclaimed theatre and opera director sits at his desk in Belvoir Street’s open-plan warehouse surrounded by papers, old Christmas cards and a packet of dog treats for his beloved Labrador, Grace, asleep on the nearby couch.

Image of Neil Armfield

Neil Armfield

His chaotic desk may lead some to think he has a messy mind. But Armfield has one of the fiercest brains in the business. Renowned for his intelligence, keen observation and dogged determination, Armfield has a vast capacity for work.

In the past 12 months alone he has picked up a Helpmann Award for his direction of the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes, wowed Edinburgh International Festival audiences with a new opera, Bliss; revived his Opera Australia production of

The Marriage of Figaro and, in September, remounted his critically-acclaimed production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

If that’s not enough, he has also remained at the helm of Company B at Belvoir Street Theatre in Surry Hills, directing the delightful The Book of Everything and the smash hit Gwen in Purgatory by Tommy Murphy (BA ’04). He is now in final rehearsals with Geoffrey Rush for an encore season of the hugely successful 1989 adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary
of a Madman.

The workload is enough to slay a regular person. But Armfield has a unique attitude to creative work.

I step back and just let it be

“I have adopted a conscious attitude of surrender,” he says, smiling. “I strive to make every moment in a production better than any moment that’s happened before – I have very high ambitions – but then I step back and just let it be.

“There is no point anxiously worrying anything into existence because it will be a product of fear. You have to somehow blend ambition with surrender and just let things happen the way they need to happen.”

Armfield says he learned this philosophy from “four amazing Indigenous women” while he was directing Dallas Winmar’s Aliwa for Company B in 2001. Every morning actors Deborah Mailman, Kylie Belling, Aunty Dot Collard and Ningali Lawford would come to rehearsal, often with young children in tow, and talk about cooking and what they would feed the kids for lunch. “The cooking made its way into the show and I learned how to surrender. It was a terribly important show for me,” says Armfield.

Image of Hugo Weaving and Geoffrey Rush in the original Belvoir St production of

Hugo Weaving and Geoffrey Rush in the original Belvoir St production of

The ultimate surrender comes next month when he says farewell to Company B and Belvoir Street, after 16 years as the theatre’s artistic director. Armfield says Belvoir has been his life’s work but it is “high time” to move on.

“It feels really right, I feel lighter,” he says. “Of course there are many things I will miss. But I have quite a bit of opera coming up and I’m interested in film. I really want to shed some responsibility and get some space. The last 10 years have been mad.”

Armfield, 55, grew up in Concord, in Sydney’s inner west, the youngest son of Len, then a foreman in the Arnott’s biscuit factory, and Anita, a housewife. He was a playful and brilliant student at Homebush Boys High School, often staying back until 9pm, rehearsing with the theatre group.

His first production, Toad of Toad Hall, won a statewide high school drama prize and caught the eye of acclaimed Indigenous actor and director Brian Syron.

“He gave me a gift by telling me I had a gift for directing,” Armfield recalls. “The best advice he had was: if you want to direct, just go and do it. You’ll never learn by watching other people do it.

“Over the years, I have learned the director’s job is to listen. If you are listening to everything, you will find a way through.”

Go to university and study literature

After school, Armfield applied to NIDA as an actor telling the audition panel he ultimately wanted to direct. They told him to go to university and study literature. He did, then won a postgraduate scholarship to research dramatist Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, but says he was “kicked out” of the English Department by Dame Leonie Kramer.

“She quite rightly saw that my interests weren’t really academic. Instead of writing about Ben Jonson, I was putting on a production of Bartholomew Fair. Most of the energy and the pleasure of university was directing with SUDS over and over and over again,” he says.

Image of Cheryl Barker and John Pringle in Opera Australia

Cheryl Barker and John Pringle in Opera Australia's The Makropulos Secret

“When I was there, performance wasn’t a subject and drama was studied as texts in the English department. So we put on shows and bonded with people who were obsessed and loved it. We did it all ourselves with little or no mentoring from teachers. That was a great thing. We learned from our mistakes.

“I learned my craft at Sydney University. So when I was offered professional work, I had already made the mistakes you need to make in order to feel confidence in the rehearsal room working with actors. It was completely crucial and formative.”

Neal Armfield Adoration Society

For SUDS, Armfield directed Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and After Magritte, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and a “really bad version” of Measure for Measure. Despite the strong bonds, half the members of SUDS walked out at one point claiming the club had become the “Neil Armfield Adoration Society” and the precocious director was getting all the best gigs. (Later in his career, actors would mutter that Armfield’s quietly demanding directing style was like “an iron fist in a velvet cardigan”.)

He still remains close friends with many of his SUDS contemporaries, including playwright and director Michael Gow (Armfield directed his award-winning play Toy Symphony in 2007), composer Alan John and librettist Dennis Watkins, who co-created The Eighth Wonder, an opera based on Jørn Utzon and the building of the Sydney Opera House (directed by Armfield in 1995).

“I loved university. I’m surprised that I did quite well really academically; given the amount of time I spent with my concentration on SUDS. It just felt like an immensely stimulating and safe time,” he says. “It was 1973 and Whitlam had just come in, it was a really extraordinary time for state education. There was no such thing as HECS. There was great support within the campus for all the societies. It was a very privileged time.”

Image of Dan Wyllie in Cloudstreet

Dan Wyllie in Cloudstreet

Armfield’s final productions at SUDS, Gimme Shelter by British playwright Barrie Keefe and Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, were noticed by the arts industry and led to his first professional play, aged 24, at Nimrod: David Allen’s Upside Down at the Bottom of the World. He then worked with Jim Sharman’s Lighthouse Theatre in Adelaide before returning to Sydney in 1984 where he was involved in the purchase of the Belvoir Street Theatre and the formation of Company B, becoming it’s artistic director in 1994.

“I resisted coming to Belvoir for a long time. I was wary that becoming artistic director would interfere with my development as a play director, but I suppose I got to a greater level of confidence to know I could combine the two,” Armfield says. “I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of jumping in the deep end and just free falling. You can’t wait for certainty.”

Vaudeville or music hall aesthetic

Armfield brought a larrikin, undecorated theatrical vision to Belvoir. He reinvented classics, sometimes with a vaudeville or music hall aesthetic. He gave voice to many Indigenous writers and performers and nurtured a generation of talent including Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Geoffrey Rush.

Image of Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Belvior St

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Belvior St's Hamlett

“I always aim for a simplicity of means. I get rid of any decoration or embellishment and place the performer in a space where there is concentration on the human body and the clarity of the story,” Armfield says of the house style he forged at Belvoir. “The theatre here is a rare space where the audience breathes the same air as the actors. It’s a handmade, intimate experience.”

He says his early landmark productions at Belvoir include Ibsen’s Ghosts, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Hamlet; Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing and two by Indigenous writer Jack Davis, No Sugar and State of Shock. Among the personal milestones he nominates are Small Poppies, Exit the King (which successfully transferred to Broadway in 2009), the plays of David Hare, his epic staging of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain, the satirical musical Keating!, and recent productions, The Book of Everything and Gwen in Purgatory.

“I’m proud of all of them. From the moment I left school, creating works of theatre has been as natural an action as cooking or eating for me,” he says.

“Every piece of theatre involves an act of will. It’s just what I do. If I were a painter I’d paint. I think there’s a constant rejuvenation in the experience of an audience receiving a performance and I think that there’s a thrill of something being right and funny or communicative and meaningful in all sorts of ways. I take pleasure in other people’s pleasure.”

Image of Emma Matthews and Ladies of the Chorus in Opera Australia’s The Cunning Little Vixen

Emma Matthews and Ladies of the Chorus in Opera Australia’s The Cunning Little Vixen

Armfield says the new production of Diary of a Madman will be a fitting bookend for his career at Belvoir Street. “I’d almost given up on reviving it, but after Exit the King was so well received, Geoffrey said ‘let’s do Diary again’. It’s the most perfect expression for Geoffrey’s mixture of total physical immersion in a part and very robust clowning and great, great, capacity for emotional release. It’s an extremely appropriate last show,” he says.

It won’t be Armfield’s final show at Belvoir, however. Next year he returns as a guest director with a new production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, starring Robyn Nevin, Dan Wyllie, Yael Stone and Helen Thomson. He will also take Diary of a Madman to the Brooklyn Academy of Music before heading to Toronto to direct Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos for the Canadian Opera Company.

Opera Australia and Houston Grand Opera

After the warm reception for his feature film debut, Candy (2006), he has his eye on a number of film scripts (he has a film agent in Los Angeles and a theatre agent in New York) and he will soon start work on his most ambitious opera project yet, Wagner’s 12-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle), a joint production of Opera Australia and Houston Grand Opera to be staged in Melbourne in 2013.

“I’ve never really planned my career. I just follow what comes up and keep as many possibilities open as I can. Next year isn’t too jam-packed,” he insists.

His plan to stay sane and creative includes simple pleasures. “I just try and sleep in on Saturdays. I keep my dog close by and I go up to a beach shack at Patonga, which is an extremely important retreat for me. I think it’s important to look at the horizon every now and then.”

The Diary of a Madman opens at Belvoir Street Theatre on December 8.

Image of Peter Coleman-Wright in Opera Australia’s world premiere production of Bliss

Peter Coleman-Wright in Opera Australia's world premiere production of Bliss