Roxana Silbert: “Theatre should get in the gut!”

Following the huge success of the productions of Anita And Me, Of Mice And Men and The King’s Speech, Argentinean born Roxana Silbert, Director of Birmingham REP Theatre, has chosen as her next production, The Government Inspector, a satirical play written by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol in 1836.

The play was first staged at London’s Stage Theatre in 1906 and more recently, the Young Vic Theatre in 2011. However, Silbert’s production seeks to break new ground, leveraging the available technologies of innovative video projection and set design, while opening up the performance to a broader audience with the inclusion of sign language. If recent successes are anything to go by, then this new production of The Government Inspector promises to be groundbreaking.

I managed to catch up for a brief chat with Roxana, as she juggled her day between rehearsals and the management of the REP Theatre.

Фотограф: Robert Day

You were born in Argentina, and your family decided to move to the UK, it must have been quite a change?

Argentina is a melting pot of culture and ethnicity. My father’s family was actually from the Ukraine, while my mother’s family was Italian – they met and married in Argentina, were I was born.

I was seven years old when they took the decision to move to the UK, so I have been here for a long time. I grew up here.

You have such an interesting cultural background! Has it had much influence over how you live your life?

Yes, certainly, I’m bilingual. Spanish was my first language, which my father spoke with a Russian accent as he was brought up in a Russian-speaking home. So I’ve got much more temperament than most English people have, a kind of Mediterranean energy. Although my English is absolutely perfect, people often ask me where I am from, perhaps because they feel that I am not very English; it obviously shows in the way I behave, although I’m not particularly aware of it, obviously other people are.

Could you tell me a little bit about your background?

Because English is my second language, I have always been very interested in it, and was fortunate enough to have studied English literature and language at Cambridge.

When I finished my degree, I worked for a little while in television as a Production Assistant before taking the decision to go back and train as a Director. I attended the London Drama Studio Ealing where I did an MA in Directing.

I have always found that there is something about language that fascinates me; it’s the words and the meaning beneath the words. I often feel that you can understand what is said, more than you can understand the texture of the way people speak.

It’s an interesting and challenging career move from reading literature to directing theatre, what inspired you?

I think because I love stories and love language – my love of theatre was already there. And even though I grew up in a city where there was no producing theatre, and where drama was not offered in the schools. Perhaps that’s why I came to drama and theatre so late in my life, after I left university and moved to London. I was in my twenties when I started to go to the theatre with friends, and suddenly realized these plays were completely different to what I had studied.

So, I took on work at an Art Centre where I specialized in working with autistic children. We used drama games to help them, and I began to do little shows, as well as creating small films. It was the time when I became more and more interested in drama, and I started reading plays for theatres.

As a theatre reader, you receive scripts that are sent to the Royal Court or the National. Most of the plays that go to the theatres are unsolicited and never produced, although there were exceptions. And regardless of a playwright’s merit, the submitted work needed to be read and evaluated and a letter and report written – a resume about the play, what you thought worked, and what you thought didn’t. It required me to be very analytical and articulate, which was something that I enjoyed hugely as it combined my enthusiasms – and an important experience.

Is it almost that you began to see the scenes – or the way the play could be produce?

Yes, but it is really difficult. When you reading plays as you can’t read it with a production in your head; you have to read it in 3D, with the possibility of being live. It requires an enormous amount of concentration to turn the words into a cognitive 3D experience. Which is why I think it’s very easy to get it wrong even with years of experience. I’ve sat in lots of meetings, with incredibly talented and intelligent individuals and we’ve all agreed that something is either terrible or brilliant, and then been proved completely wrong when the play has actually gone into production.

I went to a company called Paines Plough, who specialise in the production of new plays, as a Community Out Reach Worker I was the person who went out and ran workshops with young people, in an attempt to enthuse them. However, I also assisted the director on the shows, so really, at that point, my two different interests came together, it was the point when I became more and more interested in actually directing, and less interested in the educational aspects.

Фотограф: Robert Day

So as a director, where do you find your inspiration from and what really motivates you?

I love good stories. For me, you have to really care about the people on the stage. I need to feel that a play will somehow touch people and make them think about things differently. And while I like to be entertained, if a play is only entertaining and there is nothing underneath it, if it is more superficial, well then I could simply watch television or film. Theatre should get you here, in the gut! And if a play can’t get you in the gut, then I tend to lose interest in it.

However, having said that, I am interested in so many things; I simply love working with actors.

How would you describe yourself and your approach or style as a director in few words?

I am very actor friendly. I love working with other people, and really enjoy being able to collaborate with the actors and the creative team. And while I manage fifty people, and have to be very organized and strict sometimes, I also ruthlessly look to take everybody’s ideas on. I like people to be creative in the room. Just as I like actors to be creative in the moment, I don’t like to over plan.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new production – and what actually motivated your decision to stage the Nikolay Gogol’ 19th century play “The Government Inspector” given that he’s not as widely known amongst British audiences, let’s say, as Chekhov or Dostoevsky?

My view is the Government Inspector is a masterpiece. It is such an extraordinary play. Technically, it’s brilliant and also extremely funny. The play has real emotional depth – I think it is very current to the moment. And while I feel that British theatre audiences do not know Gogol perhaps that well, the vast majority of theatre people love him.

Do you believe the issues explored in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” are as relevant today as they were when the play was first written – if you will, a cliché of modern life?    

Yes, I do. We have corruption in football, in cricket, the Olympics, it is constantly with us in the news. And Gogol deals with both political and social satire brilliantly. It’s what I believe is so fantastic about the play – he explores this in such depth. Gogol explores the corruption of the sole.

What I believe the play does superbly is investigate what happens if you’re not honest with yourself, because if you cannot be honest with yourself, you cannot be honest with the world, and that’s what creates corrupted society.

I am very interested in the idea of lack of personal authenticity and what it does to you. As a society and culture we are under huge amounts of pressure to not be who we are, to not look the age we are, we’re learning not to worry about other people. Greed and ambition has taken a firm hold. And in the regard, I think Gogol’s, the Government Inspector feels really relevant to me.

You have directed the both classic and contemporary plays. Do you have any personal preferences? What is more interesting for you to work with Shakespeare or some unknown author?

I had spent about fifteen years only directing new plays, and then I went to RSC and started directing Shakespeare. They are just very different disciplines; I love doing both.  

For me, the great pleasure of directing a new play is that you‘re working directly with a writer. It is a very intense relationship as you are making something together for the first time. It is also incredibly exciting because when you direct the play for the first time it is very much about facilitating the playwright and trying to understand how the play can and should come to a life.

While the pleasure, when you are directing a classical work like Shakespeare or like Gogol is that you know that the play works. It has been done hundreds of times before, which means that you have a freedom to express yourself through it. It is such an enormous pleasure to live in these worlds that are so beautifully crafted.

Do you have any favorite playwrights?

I love Lope de Vega, although it’s a very hard to choice once you’ve done Shakespeare – no one writes like Shakespeare. However, from among the contemporary writers, my favorite is Dennis Kelly who I‘ve worked with a lot. I just think that he is an extraordinary playwright; we‘ve done some hard-hitting plays together.

And what about the Russian authors?

I’m a huge fan, I love the great Russian novels. I like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, obviously I love Gogol and Chekhov. And Pushkin is one of my favorites. 

So from your perspective what are the significant changes that have happened since you took over the REP Theatre?

Obviously, the building became a lot bigger; we suddenly had three theatre spaces as well as the Library. We needed to learn what the new space was useful for. The Main House became more populist, and the Door became a bit more avant-garde. While the New Studio bridges both.

I was very keen to open the door to both local and new emerging artists; it was why we launched the artist-developing program for writers, directors, and theatre makers.

So, yes, there was quite a significant change; we needed to diversify the program, which had its own challenges given the reality of when the theatre was closed for redevelopment around 2008. It was certainly a very different economic and cultural climate to when it reopened in 2013; the audience and the city’s diversity had broadened enormously. We needed to offer a much broader type of performance: we introduced contemporary dance once a season and offered commercial co-productions, as well as several West End shows. We wanted to try to reflect the city a little more, so that our audiences felt the theatre better reflected the rhythm of Birmingham City life.

What are your plans for the future productions?

Chekhov always, we love Chekhov – and we’re talking about the possibility of an adaptation of Anna Karenina. I would love to do some contemporary Russian plays.

Interview by Olga Kenton
Photos courtesy of the REP | Photographer: Robert Day


«The Government Inspector»
19 – 26 March
Broad St, Birmingham, West Midlands B1 2EP
Tickets: £17.50-20

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