Max Stafford-Clark's MeToo mea culpa: how a giant of British theatre was brought crashing to earth

The director Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court in London in 1988 – Judy Goldhill

During the rehearsal process for Caryl Churchill’s 1982 feminist gamechanger, Top Girls, the director Max Stafford-Clark kept a production diary, as he did for many of the plays on which he worked.

The play, a scathing indictment of feminism under Margaret Thatcher, was partly devised in the rehearsal room, with Stafford-Clark inviting his all-female cast to collaborate in the writing process. On one occasion, he asked them to talk about the aspects of male behaviour that made them angry, and on page 131 he made brief notes of their responses. Deborah Findlay mentioned the way women were taught to “suppress anger”, while Lindsay Duncan brought up the fact men “like control”. Carole Hayman simply said: “Women harried at work.”

It is one of the great tragic ironies of modern British theatre that a director so apparently sympathetic to women’s experiences of patriarchal oppression. and who more than any other practitioner pioneered female voices in the theatre. should have had his career ended by his alleged abusive attitudes towards women in the workplace.

For Stafford-Clark – who, with his Joint Stock company, also launched the directing career of Danny Boyle – was forced to resign from his theatre company Out of Joint in September 2017, after Gina Abolins, a 29-year-old production assistant, accused him of making lewd comments to her a couple of months previously.

In a line that has since gained squirm-inducing infamy within the industry, he allegedly told her: “Back in the day I’d have been up you like a rat up a drainpipe, but now I’m a reformed character. My disability [the stroke he suffered in 2006] means I’m practically a virgin again.” Other women came forward with similar stories of Stafford-Clark having used sexually revolting language towards them. Out of Joint, which Stafford founded in 1992, cut all ties with its former leader; today, it is known as Stockroom.

Stafford-Clark was key in promoting Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls – Johan Persson

This week, Stafford-Clark, who was left partially paralysed by his stroke but still able to work, released a memoir, Some Letters I Never Sent, in which he apologises for saying “what I pleased”, and for exceeding “the norms of office banter with members of the opposite sex”. As part of a statement released in 2017, Out of Joint attempted to mitigate the allegations by referencing the disinhibiting impact of his stroke, saying that “Stafford-Clark’s occasional loss of the ability to inhibit urges results in him displaying disinhibited and compulsive behaviour and his usual (at times provocative) behaviour being magnified”.

In his new memoir, Stafford-Clark too waves the diminished-responsibility card, but also qualifies it, saying: “I am certainly not claiming that every provocative or irresponsible remark I made between 2006 and 2017 was caused by the injuries I had suffered.” He goes on to add: “I can only say that I deeply regret any behaviour of mine that has caused hurt or offence. If it is any consolation, the punishment has been duly severe. Theatre has been my life and its abrupt removal has been hard to bear.”

It would take a heart of stone to not feel a shred of sympathy for someone now denied access to an artform he not only adores but has done so much to nourish, protect and promote. Yet for many, Stafford-Clark’s sorrow, shame, remorse and self-disgust is not the point. Stafford-Clark, who is now 80 and who married his third wife, the Irish playwright Stella Feehily in 2010, expresses the hope that he may yet work again and found a new theatre company. The question, though, is whether his mea culpa is enough – or indeed, if anything can ever be enough.

Stafford-Clark with wife Stella Feehily in 2013 – FilmMagic

Not helping matters is the fact that his stroke seems, for some, to be a convenient smoke-screen. In 2017, the actress Tracy-Ann Oberman wrote in The Guardian that when she worked with Stafford-Clark in 1992, he talked about wanting a threesome with her and another female cast member, and once offered to accompany her to the loo. “I often left his rehearsal room feeling confused and ill-at-ease,” she wrote.

Many of Britain’s most exciting and important playwrights owe a huge debt to Stafford-Clark. As, indeed, does our theatre landscape itself. Some directors simply directed plays; Stafford-Clark enacted a vision of what theatre could and should be.

After a decade working in Edinburgh, much of it spent at the Traverse Theatre, he co founded Joint Stock in 1974 with David Hare and David Aukin. Fusing egalitarian collaborative techniques with a documentary-style approach to story telling, the company’s work combined hard-hitting social issues – immigrant communities, the sexual revolution – with populist entertainment, in ways that bore comparison with Joan Littlewood’s groundbreaking company Theatre Workshop, and its hits included Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, a carnivalesque satire about sex and colonialism.

In 1979, Stafford-Clark left to run the Royal Court in London, where over a 14-year period he produced a string of landmark new plays, including: Andrea Dunbar’s seminal Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1982), a vividly poignant snapshot of teenage working-class life; Timberlake Wertenbaker’s rousing love-letter to theatre, Our Country’s Good (1988), set in an Australian penal colony; Jim Cartwright’s extraordinary Road (1986), which gave voice to the impoverished residents of a street in Lancashire; and of course Top Girls, alongside work by the Irish playwright Sebastian Barry and plays by regular collaborator Howard Brenton.

The Royal Court’s 2018 production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too – Alastair Muir

But his work with Out of Joint had the biggest impact. Stafford-Clark sought out new plays that spoke of lives existing far outside the London metropolitan bubble and which also often reconfigured the theatrical form. David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2003) deployed verbatim techniques to expose the corporate incompetence at the heart of the privatised railway system. Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996) was a zeitgeist-defining satire of nihilistic 1990s consumerism. Robin Soans’s Talking To Terrorists (2005) was based on interviews with ordinary people who had been affected or involved in terrorism. Forty-eight per cent of the work that Stafford-Clark programmed at Out of Joint was by women.

So what next for him? Such is the morally righteous climate we live in, and the revelatory impact of the MeToo movement on abuses of power in the workplace, it would take a brave group of actors to work with Stafford-Clark again. This feels wholly understandable. Nonetheless, in a foreword to Some Letters I Never Sent, Boyle writes that his former mentor’s reputation is now “inexorably tarnished” with discernible sadness. In a rigorous and sternly-worded introduction, the retired critic Michael Billington wonders whether it might be time for forgiveness.

Stafford-Clark has been one of the giants of British theatre, and his attempts to reckon with his failures and his flaws should be regarded, at the very least, with a degree of empathy. “No legacy is so rich as honesty,” says Mariana in All’s Well That End’s Well. Whether or not this is to prove true for Stafford-Clark, only time will tell.

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