“If you are original, all the better. But, above all, you need to be personal”

Julio Manrique

Retrat de Julio Manrique. © Clara Soler Chopo

He is the most decorated theatre director in Catalonia today and the one capable of bringing together the most people in a room. The secret to his appeal lies in his enthusiastic, energetic, contemporary style of doing things, which comes to the fore on stage and rubs off on the audience. Beguiling, with a piercing gaze and a charming smile, as an actor he has starred in some of the most brilliant scripts of Catalan theatre in the 21st century. He knows what he is looking for when he takes on a theatrical project. And he isn’t afraid of waiting. Jerusalem, for instance, was tucked away in a drawer for years until the opportunity arose to direct it. He has just staged Les tres germanes [The Three Sisters] in the Lliure theatre. He is bursting with ideas...

In these times, does theatre make more sense than ever?

To begin with, it is one of the few places you can go at night. Apart from that, which is silly, I think it has always made sense, in bad times too. It is a gathering in which you can have a collective experience with other people and are part of something that is happening here and now. The theatre’s here and now, which is so powerful, so soothing and necessary.

Which of the plays you have taken part in draws you closer to the strange world we are living in?

I couldn’t say one, but Chekhov is one such example of an author, on account of his characters always looking ahead to the future. However, as always when we are in the midst of a crisis, now Chekhov is recurring. That things are running out and are about to change... Since we have been living with this feeling for many years now, Chekhov has become very powerful. Like in Les tres germanes, which we just staged at the Lliure theatre. While I was doing it, I had the feeling it was a play for this time. The very scenographic approach, with the actors closed off behind glass, was prior to the pandemic. People told us that it was a “COVID” set design. Yes, all of a sudden I had the feeling that this play was powerful.

It is a family that has turned inward...

A family trapped in a bubble. I discussed it in depth with the set designer, Lluc Castells. And with Marc Artigau and Cristina Genebat, when making the adaptation. The bubble, the bubble... And now we are all stuck in a macro bubble.

And we mustn’t forget the sisters’ desire to change, to return to Moscow...

We have to get out of here, start over, that’s possible... But they never set that in motion. Big projects escape from their clutches and they pass over them. They get trapped because of the little things: the teacher’s job, the “I’ve fallen for this guy”, the “I can’t stand my partner because I think he’s more of a simpleton every day”... Those little things that consume us.

You were part of the Teatre Lliure company at the time of Àlex Rigola (2003-2011), surely the last public theatre project of an international scope created in Barcelona. What memories do you have of it?

We travelled a lot, from Chile to Australia. Things were always happening, here and there. I often think: “Let’s see if all that comes back”. Rigola’s Lliure theatre company travelled. The shows were performed beyond the Lliure theatre: they toured Spain, Europe and the world. Recovering this would be really worthwhile. Now we are in a god-awful place. The people running the theatres are trapped. But I think the perspective should focus on recovering that... They were years of great euphoria. We were 30 years old; we were taking shape and opening up. It was a really fun Lliure theatre. And everything he brought to us was very stimulating, like the early Thomas Ostermeier shows. We watched Shopping and Fucking and went nuts. We all wanted to do German theatre and to head for Berlin. It was very inspiring. The parties at the Lliure were amazing. It was a time for theatricalism, which is something beautiful, very characteristic of the profession, of our tribe. That, on account of the crisis, is somewhat fading. It’s a shame.

Could you take flight there?

I was an actor and I started directing, with La forma de les coses [The Shape of Things] and American Buffalo, which I remember fondly. It was Àlex who invited me to do them. And very cool things emerged, like 2666.

The Lliure theatre company at that time didn’t have a bigger budget than the current one and was able to launch an international project that aroused interest, from Saint Petersburg to Cadiz.

Yes... Money is an issue, but it is not the issue. Alex’s gaze was here, set on opening the Lliure theatre company to Europe and to the world.

When Rigola announced that he was leaving the Lliure, your name was mentioned a great deal to take over, but that didn’t happen and you ended up being the director of the Romea. Would you have liked to direct the Lliure theatre company?

I didn’t want to. I didn’t apply. It resonated more in the press than in the actual conversations that people linked to the Lliure had. At that time I didn’t dare. I considered it too big to take on: I had just started directing small-format shows and I thought I still had a long way to go. I also wanted to carry on acting. I didn’t feel ready. The Romea had another dimension, with a single, private theatre hall...

Would you dare to now?

Now I feel more prepared than back then, yes.

In 2006, for the first time, you swapped the role of actor for director, with David Mamet’s Els Boscos [Forests]. Why?

I realised that I thought a lot about how I would do things if I directed the play I was taking part in. After a rehearsal or a performance, I would think about how I would have settled this or that scene; I challenged the decisions made by the director on duty. Until one day I said to myself: “Enough talk; if you think that things should be done differently, do them”.

Your first three works are two by Mamet and one by LaBute. Three very wild pieces and a whole declaration of intentions: contemporary English-language theatre.

They were works and authors with whom I felt a great connection. I started with others that were very actor-oriented. I was passionate about working on them and am still. These plays required and made in-depth work with the actors possible.

More Broggi than Rigola, when directing?

Neither one nor the other. I think I know both of them very well. Both highly talented, yet very different, each in their own world... But I think there’s a third way. You learn with people. This is a profession, as Mamet says in books like A Whore’s Profession, which we read in the nineties. He insists a great deal on that. The more time goes by, the more I realise that this is so, that it isn’t nonsense. Professions are based on the master-apprentice relationship. When you’re starting out, you should have your ears wide open, which doesn’t mean you should follow in their footsteps. The coolest thing is when the apprentice takes another path, which certainly features things from the teacher.

Why is it so hard to see you as an actor lately?

By not doing it, you lose your edge. Perhaps I am somewhat out of practice and you look at it from further away. Now I want to resume the tour of Una historia real [A True Story], written and directed by Pau Miró, precisely to take a risk, to assert a story. It suits me, for my health. I ask myself, “You have to put your helmet on and go out there”, because it’s like the front line of battle.

Retrat de Julio Manrique. © Clara Soler Chopo Portrait of Julio Manrique. © Clara Soler Chopo

When you rehearse, are you one of those directors who comes on stage and plays all the characters?

Yes... In Les tres germanes I couldn’t because there was a glass panel, and the actors appreciated that. I am one of those directors that touch the actors, get down beside them and perform with them. Always with a great deal of respect, but, sometimes, it is how you explain yourself, instead of looking for the words. That’s always an issue for the director: to find the right words. Peter Brook said that the most important thing is to know when to speak and when to be quiet. And it’s true. Sometimes you have to be quiet and let things happen. However, in other cases, you must step in.

What must a play have for you to decide to do it?

I’ve done quite different plays. I often speak of the soul and of life: this play is alive, it has a soul; not that one, because it is highly constructed using the head or because it is a pamphlet. When the material is good, you can tell, although that does not necessarily mean that they are original. I think it was Francisco Brines who said: “The obligation of a poet, if he or she has one, is to be personal”. If you are original, all the better. But above all, you need to be personal. I try to identify that: living works that the author has written to make themselves clear, not to show you everything they know. A work that they needed to write to delve into some crack, some hole.

More and more you tweak the texts that you take to the stage. You even wrote, with your two regular colleagues, Artigau and Genebat, a play from start to finish for the company T de Teatre, E.V.A....

I have great respect for the authors. I think about them a lot. You are going to collect an award and send thanks to the production, to the actors... And then you think: “We haven’t said anything about the author!” And you add: “Guys, we’ve started this, we have raised it off the ground, it has intrigued us... because of the story that someone wrote!” As I don’t have great confidence in myself, in writing, I like to adapt the texts of others. And I like to do it with a small team, with Marc and Cris. I like to work on it to turn a text that isn’t theatre into a play, or to update a classic play.

Collective writing isn’t usual in theatre.

If you write poetry, it’s impossible. I love working in a team. I’ve always liked it. It may be one of the reasons why I work in the theatre profession. Much more is done on television, and also in film, where there are often two or three people who sign a script. Why not in the theatre? Why not break with the idea of the poet author? It’s a possibility: there are authors who are great poets, such as Koltès, Mouawad and Butterworth. In another dimension and in other types of works, collective writing is possible. It’s really enjoyable.

What is it about English-language theatre that makes it different from the rest? In today’s dramatic writing, I think the world is divided into two sides: English speakers and the rest.

They are very good at telling stories. Yes, they can deconstruct them, contradict them, but everything stems from that: that they are very good at telling stories. And maybe it’s because they need it so much. Peter Brook said that the English are the best actors in the world. I don’t know if it’s true or if he really thinks it. But he talks about sentimentality when acting and how to handle emotions. He says that we Mediterranean people have them more in the foreground, that we dance with them. On the other hand, the English are so clumsy, they have so many issues in real life with their emotions, with so many inhibitions and so much bashfulness, that, when acting, they go off on tangents and end up making their performance interesting. Perhaps they have such a huge need to tell stories because their personal interaction is so shielded that it is through fiction that they ultimately understand themselves.

You are one of the few directors in this country who has prioritised contemporary over classical theatre. You haven’t done any Shakespeare!

Because contemporary theatre speaks to me more directly. When I read any of these authors that we have discussed or others, I connect more easily. All this is now shifting, it may be because of my age. And I allow myself to read a classic as if it were contemporary. I have chosen contemporary texts because I like them more, especially as a director. And no, I haven’t done any Shakespeare. It’s a pending subject.

As an actor, lots.

Loads: Hamlet, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet... And every time, as an actor, I have been amazed. As a spectator I want to see contemporary theatre, but then I always think: “How great is it that a director has decided to put on a Shakespeare play and has suggested I star in it”. Instead, I open Shakespeare and think, “Which one would I stage? How would I do it? Maybe I would do Hamlet or King Lear... “. I always see a problem with the others, things that separate me from them. As an actor, putting that in your mouth is powerful. Suddenly, you get goose bumps when you realise that those lines you are reciting were written so long ago...

I think there are lots of people who’d like to see a Hamlet play directed by you. It isn’t often that an actor who has played Hamlet directs the play years later.

Time would have to go by without anyone staging it, because it is a play that is programmed regularly...

Oriol Broggi, who directed you when you were playing Hamlet, intends to bring it back to the stage...

Oriol likes to do certain things again. He’s very free. Not long ago it was directed by Pau Carrió, but, nevertheless, if he wants to do something he does it.

In recent years you have also played the role of producer. In 2014, with David Selvas, you set up the theatre producer La Brutal. Why?

I’m a very shabby producer. The ideas, the determination to get the company off the ground, were David’s above all. I signed up for the project and went to see people. I had to take part, because the idea was really good. I really liked the initial project, closely linked to contemporary theatre. It was necessary, because in this country there are very few producers. There are poor companies that work in conditions of great precariousness. But, producers? With the exception of Focus, just a handful. It was brilliant that someone dared, because it generated work not only for those who created it but also for lots more people. We had a very proactive kick-off. We talked to loads of people. Over time, I have gradually detached myself from it because I continued my career as an actor and director. I wanted to do things beyond it and David has kept it going. He has worked hard…

In just seven years he has risen to a very high standard.

La Brutal has taken on a paramount role in our small and vilified theatre scene. Its existence is important.

In your career as a director, do you need to take the leap, to cross the Pyrenees, to stage a work abroad or to direct abroad?

I hope to. I would like to, to keep getting into jams, to keep growing and to break out of the shell. You come out of one shell and get into another. It’s good to steadily break them... In our ecosystem, serious thought should be given to the fact that the things that are born here emerge from here. An effort must be made... I would love to go direct something abroad, with actors from abroad. The natural way would be to first stage something that you’ve done here, with your people. This may already have happened. All of them must be willing to do it. Now, things barely leave Catalonia. There aren’t even tours of Spain. Only a handful of productions with a very commercial profile. Public theatres don’t go anywhere. There are many plays that pass away too quickly.

In 2005, the Lliure company travelled everywhere. And Calixto Bieito’s Romea theatre company too. But in fifteen years we have crawled back into the eggshell. Only the vanguard gets out: El Conde de Torrefiel, Agrupación Señor Serrano theatre company...

They use a more exportable language, with exportable productions. But there should be the resolve to get local theatre companies out there.

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