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Alidoro's Pinocchio Hero

Alidoro's Pinocchio Hero


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If Al Yeganeh personified the "Soup Nazi", then Alessandro Gualandi was the "Mussolini" of Italian hero sandwiches when he opened up the Melampo sandwich shop on Sullivan Street in 1986. Taking a cue from the Carnegie and Stage delis, which are known for dedicating their meat-stacked creations to Jewish celebrities (like the Woody Allen combo), Alessandro mellifluously named his sandwiches (of which there are upwards of 40 different combinations) after Italian literary characters, artists, and actors.

Choosing between the Michelangelo, the Scorsese, the Pavarotti, and the Romeo was made that much more difficult by the risk of certain death, or worse, banishment sans sandwich, if you dared ask Alessandro for any variation from the pre-set combinations. The reason there has never been a sandwich named for Robert De Niro, it occurred to me, was because Alessandro saw himself playing De Niro's character from Taxi Driver. Customer: "Could I substitute sweet peppers for the hot ones that come on the Fellini?" Alessandro: "Are you talkin' to me?! Are you &$#*% talkin' to me?!!!" But the heroes were meticulously made and were the best imaginable.

In 2001, Alessandro abdicated his dictatorship over Melampo and handed the reigns to Walter Momente, who renamed it Alidoro. Not much else has changed except that Walter and his wife are a little more tolerant of substitutions (but not by much). The heroes themselves remain the best in New York City. And I don't make that claim lightly. I have toured the boroughs in search of Italian super-heroes. I have marveled at Caputo's in Brooklyn, Mike's Deli on Arthur Avenue in da Bronx, Leo's Latticini aka Mama's in Corona, Queens, not to mention Manhattan's Faicco's, Salumeria Biellese, and the recent addition of Torrisi's Italian combo. But Alidoro (née Melampo) is still the best in all of herodom and the best of the best is the Pinocchio.

If I'm lyin', I'm dyin' when I swear to you that the Pinocchio is the pinnacle of the art of Italian sandwich making. Prosciutto di Parma is sliced delicately as the foundation, on top of which is layered sweet sopressata and then hand-sliced fresh mozzarella. The other half is covered with black olive tapenade, sweet red and yellow roasted peppers, and a proprietary dressing. Walter beneficently permits me to add off-the-menu hot peppers for an additional kick.

The choice of bread, if you're lucky enough to arrive before they've sold out, consists of either tramezzino, focaccia, semolina or, my personal favorite, sfilatino, all sourced from Royal Crown Bakery in Bensonhurst. Wrapped in tinfoil, the meats, cheese, and dressings meld together while the sturdy bread fully absorbs the olive paste, olive oil, and the moisture from the fresh cheese. The sfilatino is an entire loaf, the length of Pinocchio's nose after telling a whopper of a fib, easily shared by two normal people or eaten solo by gluttons like yours truly.

Click here for other featured sandwiches or check out the 52 Best Sandwiches of 2011. Know a sandwich that should be featured? Email The Daily Meal or comment below. Better yet, become a contributor and write up your favorite today!


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


'It's Pinocchio - in reverse'

W ho is the best director in Britain? We could come up with half-a-dozen famous names. Yet one who, I suspect, would come high on the list of everyone in the business is Howard Davies: a Welshman who, in the past 30 years, has moved from the outer fringe to the mainstream without losing his radical spirit or his essential privacy. In recent years, his productions of The Iceman Cometh and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Almeida, and All My Sons and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National, suggest he may be the best interpreter of American drama since Elia Kazan.

All these works exist within a tradition of prose realism. This makes it all the more surprising that Davies's current project is a revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, which kicks off the new £10 season at the Olivier this week. Edmond Rostand, after all, wrote the play in 1897 "with the idea of fighting against the tendencies of the time", in particular the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola. Max Beerbohm also placed the hero in the romantic pantheon alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan, Punch and Pierrot. Needless to say, Davies sees it all rather differently.

"I was first asked to do Cyrano about five years ago when Stephen Rea wanted one last production for his touring company, Field Day. I'd seen Terry Hands's RSC production and the Depardieu film but I still couldn't find my way into the play. Then Stephen said we'd do it as a piece of rough, touring theatre. As we talked I began to see Cyrano as a nonconformist who speaks the truth under all circumstances. The famous nose is like a reverse version of Pinocchio: the more Pinocchio lies the larger his nose grows, whereas the more Cyrano tells the truth, the more he becomes a carbuncle in the eyes of society. His tragedy is that he knows how to fight prejudice and people but not how to speak the truth to the woman he loves most. In that sense, he's a half-person who has never fully grown up." As Davies describes Cyrano, he sounds more like Alceste in Molière's The Misanthrope than the usual self-sacrificing dreamer.

Although the Field Day version was stalled, Stephen Rea is still on board, along with a new Derek Mahon translation that highlights Cyrano's boiling anger at society's compromises. And Davies's approach to the play has come full circle.

"When Nick Hytner asked me to join him at the National as an associate," he says, "he asked me what three plays I'd like to do and I said Mourning Becomes Electra, Cyrano and The House of Bernarda Alba. Nick said, 'I'll have all those,' and he envisaged Cyrano as something like my earlier production of Boucicault's The Shaughran: a big, late-19th-century melodrama starring Stephen. But I realised that if we put it into the £10 season rather than treat it as a stand-alone production, I could go back to something like the Field Day concept. If you've got a total production budget of £65,000, which has to include 100 costumes - that instantly imposes a simpler style."

For Davies, this is not a compromise but an opportunity it is a reminder of his radicalism. "I started out doing fringe agitprop. All my interests were in the social and political purpose of theatre, and I half-wrote a version of the Oz trial that Buzz Goodbody picked up for the RSC. That led to an invitation to join the company and my being spat on by all my friends for betraying alternative theatre. But I told Trevor [Nunn] that I'd only join the RSC if I could set up a new-writing base at the Warehouse where we put on 35 plays in five years. I was part of a whole gang of young directors and we brought in our own acting generation - Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Bob Peck - while still working with established classical actors. At the RSC I was seduced by acting talent, which made me unafraid later of working with big names."

Even at the RSC, Davies retained a slight bolshiness. Shortly after joining he protested to David Jones, head of the London company, about the way it was run. He was told if he didn't like it, he could leave. He replied that he'd prefer to change the company from within. To which he now says: "Fat chance!" And in his published diaries, Richard Eyre offers a crisp portrait of Davies that suggests he hadn't changed much when he joined the National. While acknowledging his gifts as a director, Eyre writes: "Slightly self-regarding and self-conscious about his politics, as if they were a badge of credibility."

Not having read the diaries, Davies chuckles when I put the quote to him. "Implicit in Richard's remark is that I was a bit pompous and assumed that I alone had any politics. But certain plays come in my direction which I find I just can't do. Duncan Weldon was interested in reviving The Philadelphia Story but, although it's adroit and funny, it's about the rich and spoilt and has certain ley lines of comedy you just have to observe. And Private Lives lay on my desk for three months because I had this huge class-prejudice against Coward without knowing his work. It was my partner, Clare Holman, who made me read the play and I found it was about a compulsive, self-serving, narcotic attitude towards sex that is powerful but also disruptive. The play seems to be about social behaviour but the second act is actually about two people in Paris screwing each other for a week without even bothering to get dressed."

Davies's magnificent production was helped by the fact that he had previously worked with the two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But did he feel any butterfly tremors on the first day of rehearsal of David Hare's The Breath of Life, which starred Judi Dench and the reputedly formidable Maggie Smith?

"I'd worked with Judi before at the RSC, but not Maggie. What you realise quickly is that, if you tell actors of that calibre that they shouldn't be doing something, you have to say, 'Because . ' The 'because' part of the sentence is crucial. On the second day I very foolishly wagged my finger at Maggie and went, 'No, no, no.' Maggie looked askance at my wagging finger and said, 'What's that for?' I quickly apologised and said, 'I don't think you should do that because . ' and I was over that hurdle."

What is fascinating about Davies is that he has moved from Brecht and Bond to the West End and Broadway, without compromising his questioning spirit: even when he applied for the National directorship, he had a combative interview that ended up with his telling members of the board he knew more about the National than they did. But he is genuinely delighted that Nick Hytner got the job: "I couldn't have dreamed up the £10 season," he says, "which was a stroke of genius."

Maybe Davies's real secret is that he has managed to combine political radicalism with a balance between life and work - something few of his contemporaries have achieved. He relishes disappearing for a month to go trekking in the Himalayas or spend time with his partner, his grown-up daughters or his friends. "I don't," he says, "have that social gift for making speeches or the appetite for spending my evenings fund-raising, which means that my dreams of running my own theatre have probably gone. I'm too private for all that. What I really enjoy doing is directing plays that combine white-hot emotion with a social or political purpose." Add to that Davies's ingrained respect for text, strong visual sense and love of actors and you begin to see why he is one of the best directors in captivity.

· Cyrano de Bergerac is in rep at the National Theatre, London SE1, until June 24. Box office: 020-7452 3000.


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