“Cellophane, Mr Cellophane,” he sings plaintively. People, he says, walk right past him and look right through him. And, unbidden, that’s the image immediately invoked by more than one theatre-going friend when I mention I am to interview Andrew Upton. They know he is married to Cate Blanchett and heads Sydney Theatre Company with her, but little else. He’s seen as a figure in the background, rendered pale by the dazzling glow of his wife’s remarkable talent.
Upton takes this kind of perception in amazingly good part; indeed, he jokingly used to call himself “the hand”, so often was he clumsily cropped out of red-carpet photographs of himself and Blanchett. “It’s never been something that’s bothered him,” says Upton’s sister, Louise. “He couldn’t care less about that.” For a writer, of course, this relative anonymity is a blessing.
Here is a man comfortable in his skin and his own achievements. He might be relatively little known in Australia, but, apart from being co-artistic director of Australia’s largest theatre company, Upton is a playwright and director who also has an international profile as a highly regarded adaptor of classic plays. And those in theatre circles who do know him well invariably mention his formidable intelligence, wide-ranging knowledge, passion for new ideas and unquenchable enthusiasm for theatre-making.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” he says, when asked if he feels overshadowed. “Look, if I was an actor I would,” he adds with a huge laugh. “I just love actors. I love what they do. I think it’s amazing, so it would be very churlish of me [to resent the focus on Blanchett].”
It’s no surprise glossy magazine editors are frequently tempted to expunge him. Where Blanchett brings effortless style and ethereal beauty to the social pages, Upton, 44, has a slightly crumpled, almost cherubic look about him and has qualities that don’t easily come across in the hurly-burly of the red carpet. He is charming, with fizzy energy, an infectious laugh (it sits somewhere between a giggle and a guffaw), a vigorous, enquiring mind and nimble conversation. Flying hands sculpt shapes in the air as he talks.
As to his playing second fiddle, Blanchett is having none of it. “As anyone who knows us will tell you, neither of us plays ‘second fiddle’ to the other. He is as proud of my successes as I am of his,” she says by email.
Earlier this year the National Theatre in London staged a production of The White Guard by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Upton and directed by Howard Davies, that won five-star reviews. It was their second collaboration for the National following a well-received version of Maxim Gorky’s Philistines in 2007. Next year they will revisit Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, first staged by STC in 2005.
Right now Upton has another Chekhov on his mind. His new adaptation of Uncle Vanya opens in Sydney tonight, helmed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, a leading Chekhov interpreter. Featuring a sensational cast headed by Blanchett, John Bell, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving, the season is close to sold out.
Weaving has performed in two Upton productions: his 2004 adaptation of Hedda Gabler starring Blanchett, which toured to New York, and his original play Riflemind, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for STC in 2007 and seen in London in 2008. “I adore him,” says Weaving. “I absolutely love having Andrew in the rehearsal room. He has a wonderful, infectious energy for the play and for the actors. He’s the most enthusiastic man yet he also has a wonderful intelligence.”
Marion Potts, who has worked with Upton on several adaptations and who is incoming artistic director of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, says he “combines fierce intelligence with a really big-hearted and generous sense of humour. His sense of irony is really sharp and he has a big, humanistic outlook”. Robyn Nevin so loved “his enthusiasm, his positive attitude, his slightly larrikin sense of humour and his brain” that she says she came to think of him “as the son I never had” when she directed Hedda Gabler. On the phone from London, Davies says: “He behaves as if he’s slightly bohemian-loopy, but he’s got a mind which is like a razor.”
Pushing for laughs
So who is he, this man who captured Blanchett’s heart and seems to inspire such affection, loyalty and respect among friends and colleagues? Upton was born in the middle-class Sydney suburb of Eastwood, the youngest of three children. His father was a doctor and his mother a nurse. His sister, Louise, recalls a smart child who read voraciously and was always very funny. “He’s always had the most extraordinary sense of humour,” she says. “We used to have to do the washing up and I remember one day he had to dry the griller and he put it on his head and said, ‘Reverse evolution’. He was man turning into gorilla. He was only six.”
Upton recalls being taken to the theatre by his parents from a relatively young age. “Dad was really into theatre and musical theatre,” he says. “He was a big subscriber type. I loved Nimrod, and my Dad did too, and indeed Belvoir St when they moved there.”
Educated at The King’s School in Parramatta, he performed in enough school plays to realise that he wasn’t cut out to be an actor. “I was too undisciplined and I always pushed for the laughs. I was terrrrrible! I just kind of knew, so I wrote.”
He participated for three years in a row in a young playwrights’ conference organised by Shopfront Theatre for Young People and was in his element. His influence then was “Pinter, wall-to-wall!” he says, laughing. “Pauses, obscurities, mind games. The way I understand it now is quite different to then.”
Enrolling in an arts degree at the University of Sydney, he did some directing at the dramatic society, which he found “quite challenging, but it kept me close to acting, which I always felt was the most important thing,” he says. “Everything else feeds into that, I think: the directing, the set designing, the lighting, the writing – they all lead to that moment where it’s on stage in front of an audience.”
He didn’t complete the degree but moved instead to the Victorian College of the Arts to do a diploma of directing. After graduating, he moved back to Sydney where some of his cousins, who worked in the film industry, helped him find work as an assistant editor on films including Babe. He liked the work rhythm: short bursts of employment then time off to write. In order to get onto set he moved into continuity. “I love being close to the process,” he says. “I got into continuity to get closer to what directing was – and, well, that’s where I met Cate.”
They married in December 1997 after a whirlwind romance; 13 years on, with three children (Dashiell, eight, Roman, six, and Ignatius, 19 months), they seem as smitten with each other as ever.
Asked about her husband’s strengths and weaknesses, Blanchett – who once said her favourite role is that of Mrs Upton – comes up with a list of 16 strengths and only four weaknesses: “Boarding school has left him with an unwillingness to share food from his plate; he loathes saying no; for both of us, enthusiasm can lead us to take on too much; he has a weakness for shoes and gadgets.”
Among his strengths, she nominates his optimism, honesty, loyalty and sense of humour, his ability to take criticism, his strong moral backbone, the fact that he is widely informed but never didactic, and his prowess as a wonderful host. As for an anecdote that sums him up, she offers: “The other day he went out to buy tennis balls and came back with a dog.”
Upton is thrilled about this recent addition to their household, a spoodle they’ve named Dorothy. “We always thought if we had a daughter we’d call her Dorothy because then we’d have a Dot and a Dash. No chance of us having a girl so we thought we’d give the name to the dog,” he says with an impish grin.
Early in their marriage Upton continued working in the film industry. “But I’m not stupid and neither is Cate and we’d seen that it’s a very, very fractured industry, very difficult to sustain relationships in,” he says. “I did Babe 2, which was amazing, but it was untenable because Cate was making Elizabeth and it was awful [being apart]. We said, ‘There’s no need to be doing this actually, I can write while you’re working as an actress’, and that freed her to take the jobs she wanted and that’s really when I went to full-time writing.”
It was through Marion Potts that Upton got his big break at STC. They had collaborated in 1994 on a new version of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, staged Downstairs at Belvoir St Theatre. Potts suggested Upton to then-STC artistic director Wayne Harrison as the adaptor for the Cyrano de Bergerac she was to direct in 1999. The production, starring Jeremy Sims, which was later seen at Melbourne Theatre Company, was a huge hit. Nevin, who had been appointed as Harrison’s successor, was “almightily impressed” and commissioned him to write a play. “He was true to the original but he also managed to have such a clear voice of his own,” she says. “That’s what interested me in him.”
Upton wrote Hanging Man, which Nevin directed in 2002. It centred on a troubled family fighting over the legacy of their dead patriarch, a famous Australian painter. The play was written in a style that Upton developed in Riflemind and which has come to be something of a signature: his use of short, unfinished, overlapping sentences as his characters talk over each other in the struggle to express themselves. What’s left unsaid is as important as what is voiced.
It’s one of the qualities Howard Davies values in Upton’s adaptations. “He’s got a style which he enjoys and which I’ve come to really admire and love, which is that he makes the characters talk not as characters out of literature but in the way that people do talk,” says Davies. “He’s absolutely a theatre animal in that way. What he has also got is great wit. He allows people to be fantastically poignant and funny and ironic and foolish. It’s a gift that I think is terrific.”
To date, Upton has had greater success with his adaptations than original plays. Many found Riflemind unengaging. “It’s no surprise that a play about a rock band getting back together after 20 years apart should be dull. But Andrew Upton has invented a different kind of dull,” observed The Observer of the London production.
“Some people got it and some people didn’t, and that’s fine,” says Upton. “It’s not about rock music; it’s about getting old. I could just as easily have written about a sports person, but I don’t know much about sport. It’s all tied to that flower of youth and how do you live with the passing of time. I was 39 when I wrote it, so I was about to turn 40 and it answered quite a lot of questions for me about longevity – I don’t just mean in your career, but in the way you keep learning and growing in life.”
Asked how he coped with the critical pasting, he admits: “It was upsetting because I still to this day – and I will to my grave – believe in that play and certainly in the work that the actors and Phil [Seymour Hoffman] did on it. [The critical response] was of a level that suggested to me that it was engaged with quite cursorily. But maybe I didn’t write it in a way that opened enough doors of revelation for people to see into the things I thought I was writing about. I’m not ¬foolish enough to think Riflemind was great and people didn’t get it. There was something that didn’t come out right.”
He would like to write another play but for the time being “the seeding patch” at the back of his mind is already crowded with ideas bubbling away for STC in his capacity as co-artistic director. That does allow for adaptations, however, which require a different process, although Upton’s are rarely straight translations, leaving plenty of room for creativity. For Philistines, he and Davies went as far as changing Gorky’s ending, which they both considered unsatisfying. “We were very cheeky with it and I think he made it a better play,” says Davies. “I do enjoy working with him a lot.”
Upton sees nothing wrong with making changes to strengthen plot or character. “Every play is different, of course. It’s great to do some plays as written, but not all plays remain immediately relevant. First of all, translation changes everything. And so the fabric of any piece is in question. The production must be able to breathe, so I make whatever changes necessary to let it live.”
For his adaptation of Uncle Vanya, Tamas Ascher gave him “one very simple direction, which was that he wanted it as close to the Russian as possible. He said with Chekhov it’s very brutal, like stones dropped into a pond causing ripples. He said, ‘I don’t want anything else, just the stones, let the actors do the rest. You don’t need to elaborate Chekhov.’”
Upton sat down with actor Alex ¬Menglet, who was born in Moscow, and together they went through it line by line. “It’s brutal, he was right,” says Upton. “The sentences are shorter than they often are in translations.”
For Upton, one of the great pleasures of adaptation is working closely with a director. “That’s why I think it’s important to direct, if you love working with directors. I wouldn’t call myself a director, first and foremost. I enjoy it every now and then because it’s important to know what it is but actually I love the relationship with someone whose vision it is.”
He will direct his own adaptation of The White Guard for STC next June, saying the decision was partly “a practical consideration: my commission from the National Theatre was to create a work for a cast of 23. Our production will have a smaller cast . We hope my close association with it from inception will assist with the necessary fine-tuning… It is a play I know well and love. But it is not a well-known play. We don’t like to just dump plays on directors. We like them to be personally connected to the project.”
Upton is still relatively inexperienced to be helming major productions on the main stage and he has his detractors in this sphere. His recent production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring Nevin and William Hurt, was generally well reviewed but certain critics in Sydney and Portland, Oregon, where it also played, found it emotionally distant.
Nevin, who won universal plaudits for her riveting portrayal of the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, describes Upton as a “very inexperienced” director. But she says she knew that she could trust his “understanding, deep love and appreciation of the play, and his understanding of the characters … The [rehearsal] room was full of people who are at different stages of their acting career and each of us had different acting processes,” says Nevin. “So it was a real challenge for Andrew but we loved him because he has that stable, encouraging, enthusiastic manner that he brought in every day, consistently.
“He’s not a man who’s threatened by somebody who knows more than he does. He becomes very interested and that’s a joy in the rehearsal room … He was always patient and a great listener. We ended up being a very closely bonded group of people who had a completely wonderful, rich, satisfying experience, so that says a lot about the director.”
Upton describes it as “a great experience. I learned a lot about writing, about theatre and, most importantly, about family life.”
Art, and life
Juggling their own family life with the demands of running a major theatre company is a huge challenge, admits Upton. We meet immediately after the recent school holidays, during which Blanchett spent the first week at home with the children while Upton took the two eldest to Vanuatu for the second week. Sharing duties is par for the course. “A lot of the night stuff we split now,” he says. “We used to go to everything together and ideally that’s what we would do. We would be at every opening and closing together but now we see the shows we take charge of so we’re not leaving the boys at night too often.”
Away from work, Upton and Blanchett try to lead a fairly normal life: taking the kids to school and standing on the sidelines at their Aussie Rules games. “I don’t know how either of them do it [cope with fame]”, says Upton’s sister, Louise. “They’re so genuinely themselves. They are who they are and that’s all they ever present.”
Upton says the other big challenge in running STC is finding a balance between the rhythm required to lead a company and the very different rhythm of the artist: one needing strategic forward planning, the other a more immediate, instinctive, organic engagement.
“One of the big things this job has taught me is the difference between the artistic urge and the places or institutions in which it gets expressed – though I hate to think of Sydney Theatre Company as an institution,” he says. “The difference between them is fascinating. That balance has been a bugger, but a really interesting bugger because it’s not my natural rhythm and it’s not Cate’s.
“Cate is much more capable of that than me. She’s much more of this planet than I am. Not that I’m weird; I’m just a bit disorganised and that’s been interesting to manage: to be part of that and to be responsible to that and to still be responsible to your own creativity.”
Asked about the different strengths they bring to the joint role of artistic director, Blanchett says that “the big ideas are invariably Andrew’s. We then pick them apart and through conversation we add and subtract.”
Their partnership is often characterised as Upton being the thinker and optimist, Blanchett the doer and realist. Patrick McIntyre, STC’s general manager, says Upton is actually a very analytical and strategic thinker and can be a good decision-maker: “Sometimes you think that Cate is the very focused, very direct one and Andrew is the one who likes to explore around the grey fringes of an issue, but then other times it’s Andrew who’ll hear something once and come back, bang, with an answer or solution.”
Their appointment to the role of co-artistic directors was greeted with cynicism in some quarters, with accusations that an Oscar is no qualification for running a theatre company and suggestions that Upton was riding on the coat-tails of Blanchett’s celebrity. That talk has died down, and news in January that their contract had been extended until 2013 was welcomed.
There’s no doubt there is a fresh buzz at STC. Upton and Blanchett’s programming has depth and intelligence, and their international contacts, which have led to the involvement of artists including Steven Soderbergh, Seymour Hoffman (whose production of True West is now running), Hurt and Liv Ullmann, have added an undeniable glamour and excitement. At the same time, more fringe-style productions outside the subscription season, such as the recent season of The Ballad of Backbone Joe, have attracted hordes of young people.
They have eagerly engaged with other companies: Melbourne’s Malthouse, Perth’s ThinIce and Britain’s innovative physical theatre company Frantic Assembly to name a few. “Andrew is an omnivore artistically and he’s also an enthusiast and a fan,” says Patrick McIntyre. “That’s where the breadth of stuff comes from.”
Behind the scenes there is some strategic work going on in the area of education. The pair also have a strong commitment to the environment with STC’s Greening the Wharf initiative (Wharf 4, in Sydney’s Walsh Bay, is where the company has its HQ). On November 26, the switch will be flicked on its rooftop solar array – the second-largest in Australia. The couple have also converted their Hunters Hill home into an eco-friendly abode “and I haven’t paid an electricity bill yet”, says Upton.
Away from work, Upton’s favourite form of relaxation apart from family time is wandering around places and countries he doesn’t know. “I do actually love going through people’s lives but not being part of them,” he says. “I find it very relaxing and exciting. It does come back very quickly to my work as a writer. Obviously, a lot of that happens with Cate’s work because I can nick off and have a couple of hours in a foreign city – well, that’s my idea of heaven.”
For now, more earthly concerns await as back-to-back meetings call. Upton courteously accompanies me from the office he and Blanchett share, with its brightly coloured, comfy chairs, piles of books and lively profusion of photos, snippets and art covering the walls. “I don’t know how someone runs a company like this on their own. I take my hat off to them,” he says. Then with a quick, cheery wave, he heads back to business.
Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya opens November 13.