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“Theatre has always been there to restore a sense of sanity”: an interview with Sam Mendes

The star director talks to London Calling about the enduring appeal of the theatre.

London Calling spoke to director Sam Mendes about the continuing success of his latest West End offering, The Ferryman, the state of the film industry today, and the importance of thinking 'green'.

Sam Mendes is very out of love with film. He was recently quoted as saying the industry was in a parlous state, and in Sam’s world, for ‘parlous’, read ‘perilous’. And the prolific director is correct when he supposes the movie marketplace now orbits exclusively around either £200million blockbusters or independent £5million productions, with very few spacewalks in between.
“It’s a challenging time,” he says. “Has the industry run out of ideas? Not so much that – but it’s certainly polarised itself to represent either one thing or the other, and that’s a worry. There is no middle ground.”
That lack of middle ground has led Mendes to enter stage right, bringing with him screenwriter and playwright Jez Butterworth, to present The Ferryman. That’s quite a team when you consider what the pair achieved in their most recent effort – a cheeky little action number called S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

Sam Mendes
“Even in my most dedicated periods on the big screen, the theatre has always been there to restore a sense of sanity,” Mendes admits. And his roll call in the West End is arguably more impressive than anything you’d watch in Cannes – though put Oliver!, Cabaret, Richard III, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and King Lear up against American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition and Jarhead and you’ve got a real battle for supremacy.
“The stage always gives a lot more flexibility and versatility – not in presentation, but in structure, and that’s always been of real interest. It’s a very ‘live’ way of producing art and welcomes intricacies into every performance. There is no set end product – you are talking about something that is fluid every time, and incredibly exclusive as well – in terms of the people who are present to witness what is delivered.
“Society is all about mass media; it craves perfection in how we are entertained, yet the theatre continues to rally against that, which is a relief.”
The Ferryman certainly provides a platform to exploit that. Set in rural Derry at the start of the 1980s, it welcomes in ghosts of the past and hopes for the future, in what is a bleak, black, yet uplifting struggle for the truth.

Sam Mendes
Paddy Considine is uncompromising and Laura Donnelly engaging, and the production quickly became the fastest selling in Royal Court Theatre history, before switching to its current base at the Gielgud Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.
“It’s fulfilled everything I wanted it to so far, and keeps entertaining at every turn,” Mendes offers. “It’s understandable to grow tired of a project when it’s with you for so long, but we’re a long way from that.”
The theatre also offers Mendes a route back towards the greener artistic credentials that once occupied so much of his thinking. “The whole ‘green’ thing is really important. You feel so weirdly guilty when you’re on a movie set, with the ridiculous quantity of accompanying ‘stuff’ that gets involved when the circus comes to town: cranes and trailers, gas guzzling SUVs and vast quantities of food – some of which just gets thrown away at the end of the day.
“Contrast that with people driving hybrids and working out how to drink water without throwing away a thousand plastic bottles a day. That’s the stuff that actually makes a difference – that’s what should be counted as ‘success’.”
For the time being, the success of The Ferryman will do.

The Ferryman runs at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January. Tickets from £12.