Director Jack Silver and actor Lizzie Stanton first came together this summer in an electrifyingly original, immersive production of Tennessee William’s Confessional at the Edinbrugh Fringe. Like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman or Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, the pairing of Jack Silver and Lizzie Stanton has brought out a quality in each of their work that has put them both on the map. Now director and star are hoping to bring the production, which the Stage called “a masterpiece of theatre” to London.
Two years ago, already 30, Jack Silver was working as a web-developer in a car dealership in Glasgow. He wasn’t happy. “To be truthful, I was miserable,” he says. So, one day in 2013 Silver quit the dealership, moved to London and decided to give his dream of acting and directing a chance. “I got on the train from Glasgow with no job and nowhere to live.” Within weeks he’d enrolled at drama school and later did a course in Directing for Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Lizzie Stanton’s road to the stage was more purposeful. She graduated with a BA in Theatre Arts from Brown University and completed her MA in Acting for Screen at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. In August 2012 she won Best Actress award at the 2012 Providence 48 HR Film Project.
Stanton first got to meet Silver when she was an extra on the first short film he directed. She’d just come from working a night shift and introduced herself to Silver with pain aux chocolat on her face. He says, “There was just something very memorable, strange and beautiful about her.” The two kept in touch and when Silver mentioned the idea of staging Confessional at the Edinburgh Fringe, Stanton immediately read the play and says she “had fallen in love with the character of Leona by about mid way down the second page. She’s such a force of nature and so different to me in so many ways. I wish I could be more like her at times.”
Seeing Stanton as the tragic and needy beautician in Silver’s Confessional, it’s clear she is every bit as fine and serious an actor as Rachel Weisz or Cate Blanchett. One can’t believe she’s not yet as famous. But if I’m not wrong, she will be soon. The influential stage blog, Broadway Baby proclaimed “Stanton grounds Williams’ often poetic, always complex speeches with a down-to-earth reality. She stumbles around the room in perfect control of the scene. She laughs, cries and drinks with such vivacity that it is often impossible to look anywhere else on stage.”
Silver is quick to acknowledge the auspicious casting of his star: “Lizzie just brought something incredible to the role. Leona is so different to her, and yet there’s so much of Lizzie in there. She’s one of the best actress I’ve ever seen and there’s no way we’d have had the success we did without her performance.”
Confessional is a one-act play from Williams’ last years, set in a seafront bar where the flotsam and jetsam of society gather for a series of alcohol-fuelled straight and (for the first time in Williams’ work) gay encounters. The play deals with love, loss, betrayal, loneliness, and hatred – all things that connect with a modern audience. Silver’s genius is to transplant the action to a bar on the Essex seaboard, where chilled bar owner Monk (Raymond Bethley) serves drinks for cast and audience alike. In Silver’s immersive production of Confessional, we are all customers at Monk’s bar. You don’t know till the very end, which of your fellow drinkers has a speaking part. Unlike the cast-members, the audience members, at least on the night I attended, were left speechless.
“I want the audience to feel unsafe,” Silver says, “I want them to have a physical reaction to the play which means something in their instinct compels them to watch. When you sit on a subway and there’s a sketchy guy on the train, you have to watch him, even out of the corner of your eye. Not because you’ve paid for a ticket but because something deep within you says that if you don’t watch out, you might not be safe. I’m trying to recreate that instinct, to compel you to watch.”
Confessional is a play that Silver feels deserves to be much better known. At first reading it seems like a simple bar room drama, but Williams’ masterful use of religious metaphors and his tackling of taboo subjects like homophobia, promiscuity, and medical malpractice make it much more than that. “When I decided to direct Confessional I always wanted audiences to be unable to take their eyes off the action for the full hour. It’s a fun, booze-fuelled hour but with the writing of a genuine literary genius to underpin it all.” Silver, grew up in Cornwall, in the far south west of the UK. His first home was a caravan about half a mile from Land’s End at the most westerly point of mainland England. Their mobile home was tied on to the cliffs with rope by his father, so that when it got windy the caravan didn’t fall into the sea
The first of five children born to two teachers, Silver spent a summer in his teens working at a holiday park as the part-time arcade manager. The staff and the holidaymakers, he says, were like characters from a Tennessee Williams play, “broken but beautiful.”
There were ex cons working as bouncers, local kids, stoners, weird old men from the local town trying to chat up teenagers; a drama school graduate dressing up as an elephant at 8am to perform to an audience of 5 year olds. This guy from the bar sleeping with a lifeguard. The bouncer beating up the pool attendant because he’d slept with his daughter. “When I read Confessional it just reminded me of that summer: Full of people who were broken, who’d made bad choices, but were weren’t bad people.”
One night, Silver recalls being propositioned by 3 generations of the same family, the daughter was 15, the mum was late 20s and the gran was in her 50s I guess. For the record he turned them all down. Silver says the greatest influence on his work is that of Sandford Meisner. Silver recently completed a course with Scott Williams of The Impulse Company, who trained with Meisner and was also an assistant director for Tennessee Williams back in the 1970s. Meinser’s approach is very different to the method, which is the acting technique the public is most familiar with. “It’s all about reacting in the moment to the given set of circumstances,” says Silver. “Living truthfully, he calls it. The way I figure it, if the actors don’t know what’s going to happen next, then how can the audience?”
Silver also recalls the words of David Mamet in his book, True or False. “Nobody comes to the theatre to see you laugh or cry. They come to laugh and cry themselves. I love that. As actors, we have a tendency to think that it’s how we feel in a scene that matters, and it’s not, it’s how the audience feels.” Soon, with the support of television producer and Impresario Remy Blumenfeld, Silver hopes to find a London venue for Confessional. The challenge, he says is to find a theatre that’s dingy enough: “The main thing I want is people to see the play as we’ve reimagined it. So having a space that fits is really important, we need to be able to make it feel like a real dive of a bar.” And there is no question that, once again, Lizzie Stanton will take top billing.
With comparisons already being made between Silver and more established directors such as Jamie Lloyd and Edward Hall, does Silver perhaps wish he’d come to Theatre sooner? “I’m certainly humbler and easier to get on with than I would have been if I’d have done this in my early 20s,” he says, “and I think I’ve met more people, been in more situations, and have a clearer idea of what I think of the world and what I want to say.”