I’m disappointed this director didn’t plunge the knife into Dustin Hoffman

A review of ‘I Joke Too Much: The Theatre Director’s Tale’, by Michael Rudman. Despite the dearth of score-settling, there’s a good laugh on almost every page

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

I Joke Too Much: The Theatre Director’s Tale Michael Rudman

Capercaille Books, pp.272, £12.99, ISBN: 9781909305823

At the age of 75, the theatre director Michael Rudman has got around to his memoirs, their title taken from the mouth of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the play in which Rudman once directed Dustin Hoffman to great acclaim. The author is also Felicity Kendal’s other half, making him a figure of envy for much of male Middle England.

A tall ‘Texan Jew’ who went to Oxford, Rudman has quite a CV. He started at the Traverse in Edinburgh, where with the approval of the theatre’s chairman Nicholas Fairbairn he put on drugs and porno plays. An award-winning stint at the Hampstead Theatre followed, then a spell at the National Theatre. He later ran the Chichester Festival Theatre before going to the Sheffield Crucible.

He’s also freelanced on Broadway and in the West End and one of his theories is that the way creatives behave is usually determined by profit. If a writer or actor thinks someone else is making a lot of cash out of his or her work then toys will invariably fly out of the pram. Put the same person in a permanently broke theatre (like Hampstead), argues Rudman, and everyone is pleasant and grown-up. Art flourishes best where bankruptcy looms.

Rudman reprints in the book a 54-point plan he drafted for his successor at Hampstead. Point 54: ‘Treat every board meeting as if it were your last.’ His stint at Chichester taught him a thing or two: ‘I thought I could deal with the board with charm and jokes.’ They sacked him. So much of directing is about diplomacy, patience and the fraught business of handling superb but tricky actors like Frances de la Tour, John Alderton and the abusive Rex Harrison. As for Dustin Hoffman, most of us would probably have just smacked the tantrum-prone little runt but Rudman hung on doggedly and coaxed an amazing performance out of him.

Halfway through his story, we dive into his Texan adolescence, meeting Rudman Snr, aka ‘the Duke’, who once turned down the offer of a free picture (it didn’t appeal) by an artist he met in Cannes called Pablo Picasso. His mother sounds a character too: ‘When I married your father he looked like a Greek god. Now he looks like a goddam Greek.’ There’s a lot of similar family anecdotage but not enough to be boring.

Rudman doesn’t have a go at critics which seems a bit of a waste. Indeed the sound of scores being settled is curiously absent. How unlike his fellow director Michael Blakemore, who in a gripping recent memoir, repeatedly and horrifyingly plunged the knife into his former boss Peter Hall. Rudman by contrast deals with Hall with admiration and generosity and then moves on. What a relief!

As for Felicity Kendal, their 30-year relationship gets a gallant chapter without beans being spilt. There’s one good story though. Rudman publicly admitted to their suspected affair while directing her in Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray. Felicity was being very flat in her role in rehearsals. Frustrated, he asked her in front of the cast: ‘I don’t understand why you won’t play the part after all you did to get it.’

The tone of the book is dead casual — so casual that Ian McKellen, Paul Scofield and Shirley MacLaine are misspelled — and the last chapters feel written in a deadline rush. But there’s a good laugh on almost every page. Directors as a breed tend to be clever, nose-picking introverts. Rudman comes across as great company.

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Show comments
  • What are those ghastly slacks she’s wearing? The trouble with Kendal is that she’s transparently vain about her looks. Or was. I saw her interviewing one of her former co-stars (on YouTube, after he died) and she spent most of the interview fluffing her hair and interrupting. He was just the occasion for the camera being turned on her. It was almost embarrassing to watch. Even worse, she was just as transparently anti-Thatcher, and I thought, watching this glossy well-paid ignoramus: ‘you prissy little ignorant cow’.

    • john lyttle

      This is satire, right? If not…

      • Freedom

        You like the slacks? No accounting for taste….

  • Guest

    Felicity Kendal a pint sized woman who knows men are always looking at her bottom.
    I ask myself why she always walks near mirrors and I now know the answer.

  • Andrew Constantine

    Where is ‘Middle England’?
    It’s the sort of silly reference to some imaginary part of England that a foreigner like Gordon Brown would make.

    • Garry Knight

      Maybe she was only lusted after in the areas between say ..Luton & Lincoln

  • thomasaikenhead

    This article says far more about the fantasies of Robert Gore-Langton than anything else!

    As for his somewhat bizarre assertion that ‘much of middle England’ might even be aware of Felicity Kendal let alone attracted to her, it serves only to show how divorced from reality he really is.

    This vain, shallow actress who is best known for her role in The Good Life in 1975 which ran for three years has never demonstrated any real acting ability despite winning an Evening Standard award in 1989.

    Notoriously promiscuous, “‘I always did have affairs when I wanted,’ she is vastly more famous for the men she slept with than her acting career.

    As Fenton so eloquently noted;

    ‘you prissy little ignorant cow’!

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Funny, always thought she was rather cute but not at all fanciable on the level of, say, Natalie Wood or Julie Christie. A journo friend told an amusing story about reporting from Blackpool when some film or other was being made using the Tower Ballroom: he talked about La Kendal brazenly trying to pick up blokes on one side of the hotel lobby – with Rudolf Nureyev doing exactly rhe same on the other…

      • MidnightSkulker

        What a pity I wasn’t there – on HER side of the ballroom.

  • Mark McIntyre

    This Northern England Underclass Scrounger still has the ‘hots’

  • MidnightSkulker

    I’ve been hopelessly in love with the adorable little lady for 30 years now. At first after discovering “The Good Life” (“The Good Neighbours” here in the States) on public television, I actually was more attracted to tall, elegant Penelope Keith – then one day, it quite literally hit me like a sledgehammer…

    DAMN that “Texan jew”….:o)

    • Al Bowlly

      I regard myself as relatively broad-minded and an easy-going sort of fellow but I wouldn’t touch her with a barge-pole. I wouldn’t, for that matter, touch a barge-pole that I suspected of having touched her. Each to his own.

      • MidnightSkulker

        I know that she’s a polarizing figure over there in Britain, with the women especially. She’s the cute little elfin type that people either love or can’t stand.

    • PeterDeVilliers

      Bless you. Skulk less. What have you to lose?