Game plan for a life going in new directions

Director Kate Saxon goes seamlessly from serious theatre to opera to computer games, working with dream casts. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad met her.

The job of a director appears to be nothing if not varied.

You might be, as Kate Saxon currently finds herself, grappling with the work of one of the great dramatists of the last century and then within days on a film set, or directing a television advert.

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Or, in the specific example of Saxon, in a movie studio in Los Angeles working with an A-list cast directing a computer game.

For those not in the know, the computer games world is a multi-billion dollar industry – last year it earned more than movies worldwide.

“It is quite a strange thing to be flying in and out of LA to direct computer games, I suppose,” says Saxon.

“I was there recently directing for a game using the same motion capture technology that was used on Avatar – in fact, it was in the same studio where Avatar was made. I was directing a game called Fable The Journey and the cast included John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Ben Kingsley Simon Pegg, Zoe Wanamaker – if only I could get casts like that on a theatre budget.”

The mouthwatering cast is possible to get because of the vast sums of money involved in the games industry.

Today Saxon is in the slightly less glamorous surrounds of the West Yorkshire Playhouse restaurant. One imagines lunch is something more impressive than a baked potato with tuna (which she makes do with at the Leeds theatre) when she is on the set where Avatar was made.

Despite the smaller budget and the less starry casts, Saxon is at home in her current environment – the theatre.

“It’s where I have worked for most of my career and it’s where I belong really,” she says. “It’s great to go off and do the games, but it’s in the theatre that I really feel at home.”

She’s in Leeds directing a classic of British Theatre.

The Real Thing premiered thirty years ago with Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees in the cast. When it opened in 1982 it was acclaimed as one of Stoppard’s (or Sir Tom’s) best and most accessible plays. It won best play awards in London and New York and was quickly pronounced a modern classic.

Calling it accessible is a relative term. Stoppard’s work, while always brilliant, occupies a nether world where huge, bold and brilliant ideas are explored with a deft touch. The audience invariably has to work at full steam to keep up with the playwright’s ideas and, says Saxon, The Real Thing is no different.

“It’s a play within a play and it shifts between different times and realities, so at some points you’re not sure if you’re watching what’s real or what’s imagined. The conceit is that you are watching actors and a playwright and sometimes you are watching them in a play and other times in their actual lives and there is a sort of blurring between reality and fiction,” says Saxon.

“Funnily enough, I think it’s one of his most accessible plays. It is a play which explores huge ideas – as you might expect with this being Stoppard – but it’s also a play about love. He said he would only ever write one play about love and this is it – and I think that is why it’s accessible. Even though it’s exploring these big ideas, it’s about universal themes. Even though it was written in the 1980s, it really hasn’t dated at all.”

In preparation for directing the piece, featuring a cast of seven, Saxon had dinner with Stoppard and found that, one of the great playwrights of the last century, the man behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, Empire of the Sun, Shakespeare in Love, is ‘a kind, generous, lovely man’.

“He explained some of the thinking behind the play and what he was saying with some of the ideas,” she says.

“Even with that, and even though it is accessible, it is still something you have to work really hard at in the rehearsal room.”

Working hard at mastering a script provides a change of pace for Saxon who, when she is working in the field of computer games, finds herself with perhaps bigger name casts, but not necessarily scripts of the standard supplied by Sir Tom.

However, she says, the scripts are improving in that world.

For those unfamiliar with the games world, if you thought it was Space Invaders, or Sonic the Hedgehog, you really have no idea. The graphics have moved beyond the scope of what you might imagine possible, with epic worlds and stories now de rigeur in video games. ‘Gamers’ – the people who play computer games, are no longer the geeks they may once have been dismissed as, but a powerful economic force. Which explains Saxon’s diversion into their world.

“It came sort of out of the blue,” she says.

“A company called Side UK that works on the performance aspect of games, about eight years ago, got in touch and asked if I wanted to direct actors for a game called Dragon Quest 8. There was a realisation that game developers aren’t necessarily directors – they can do the thing they do, but they need actors to record voices for the games and increasingly for motion capture, and they just didn’t have those skills to work with actors doing that – so they called me in as a director.

“It was very clear that the first one was going to be something they would try and see if it worked. But I guess it did, because I’ve done quite a lot of them over the last six years or so.”

And in doing so, has worked with some seriously impressive names. Judi Dench and Daniel Craig were at her disposal for the James Bond games and she has worked with Andy Serkis.

“It’s all directing. You’re telling stories and making sure the actors are playing the truth of their intentions.

“That applies when you’re directing a video game or a great play by Tom Stoppard,” she says.

Stoppard’s hit play about love

The Real Thing, following its 1982 premiere, won the Evening Standard Award: Best Play, Drama Desk Award: Outstanding New Play, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award: Best Play, Tony Award: Best Play.

The Real Thing, produced by West Yorkshire Playhouse and English Touring Theatre, tells the story of playwright Henry, who casts his wife Charlotte in the starring role of his new play, examining the complexity of love and infidelity. Reality and fiction blur when passions ignite and his own marriage becomes entwined with that of Charlotte’s co-star Max and his wife Annie.

West Yorkshire Playhouse, to May 26. 0113 2137700.