Jonathan Miller: a useful, imaginative approach to opera directing
Remembering the good doctor Miller4:02, 9th January 2020
By Tom Sutcliffe
I got to know Jonathan Miller partly because I was wasn’t all that nice about some of his work as an opera director. We had a long interview for The Guardian once, quite a bit of which was at his home, when I almost managed to keep up with his prodigious smoking.
In 1979, his Traviata for Kent Opera attracted a great deal of attention because of his application of his medical training to the way he staged Violetta’s death scene at the end – preventing her from trying to get up. His reasoning was that a patient on the verge of death with ‘consumption’ would not be able to stagger around, though she might have moments of clarity and certain ability. I called it ‘a pointlessly clever stroke of medical realism … in a Traviata ‘that is in the wrong sense a travesty’.
At one stage much later, he took to phoning me on Christmas Day. That happened for quite a few years. I think he had gathered that I was a church-going Christian, while he of course was an atheist Jew unlike his child psychiatrist father who was Orthodox. One of his best jokes during his time as a television satirist in Beyond the Fringe was ‘I’m not a Jew. Just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog.’
Jonathan knew brilliantly how to make the best of all the openings which came his way, enabling him to do things he liked, such as directing great actors in plays and finding new angles for operas, not to mention anchoring some challenging television topics and – perhaps most rewardingly of all – running the restored Old Vic theatre in London for three years where he presented a succession of wonderful productions of neglected classic foreign plays that has perhaps never since been matched at the National Theatre. Richard Jones’s terrific productions of Feydeau’s A flea in her ear and Corneille’s The Comic Illusion and were just some of the memorable theatrical cream he provided.
I adored Miller’s English National Opera staging of Rigoletto with John Rawnsley in the title role. I have to point out, though, that the production’s Little Italy mafiosi approach – and especially the juke box played by ‘Duke’ in the final act – quite undermined the tragic bleakness of Verdi’s sublime work. Miller’s take on The Mikado for ENO, thanks to the brilliance of the late huge Richard Angas in the title role and to the aptness of its 1930s ‘nursery’ approach to Englishness, suited Gilbert’s witty dramatic purpose and Sullivan’s marvellously calculated and memorable music absolutely perfectly.
Good artists (actors and singers) liked working with him in the theatre because he was awash with ideas and never short of a word. However, if you try to place him among the great figures of postwar theatre in Britain, in my opinion, he couldn’t hold a candle to Peter Brook, Richard Jones or Peter Hall – not to mention that true past-master of subtle sensitive theatrical direction, Lindsay Anderson.
Nick Smurthwaite’s obituary of Miller in The Stage was perhaps rather hyperbolic in stating that ‘medicine’s loss was the British theatre’s immeasurable gain’. In fact, in many ways Miller was the least talented of the four young geniuses (Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and John Cleese) who made such a justifiable and deserved impact with Beyond the Fringe. He did, however, have immense charm and was able, with his large range of interests, to get most people to take him more seriously than perhaps he merited. He was an interpreter rather than a creator – his best quality was that he enabled the performers he was directing to do full service to the work at hand. He had ideas about the meaning of works he was interpreting and their context, which were useful and effective. And he certainly loved the world of performance which he served so well.
Jonathan Miller, 1934-2019