Portrait

A mid-rehearsal chat over a hurried lunch with Kip Williams. By Romy Ash.

Sydney Theatre Company director Kip Williams

“Well, it was –” Kip Williams stops. He blushes. It rises from his chest and, for a moment, the blush overtakes his face. I’ve reminded the current resident director at the Sydney Theatre Company what it feels like to be an awkward early teen going through puberty. With the blush, it’s as if his body is remembering, too. It’s disarming. I can’t help but instantly warm to Williams who, from the age of nine until his voice broke, sang as part of the St Mark’s Darling Point choir. I’ve asked him what it was like when his voice broke.

He begins again. “Because my father’s a very good singer, and because my elder brother’s a very good singer and my sister’s a very good singer – all of them trained at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney – and when my older brother’s voice broke it just slid beautifully down into becoming a tenor, and when mine broke, it broke badly.”

We’re sitting in the rehearsal room, on the stage, which is a kitchen of a certain era: wood stove, deep ceramic sink, rolling pins, cake tins, a large block of yellow soap, candles. We’re seated at the table with a vase of plastic flowers and a tall pair of riding boots. A woman tidies away empty wine bottles and dirty glasses, her shoes tapping loudly on the wooden floor. The wine is not part of the set, just remnants from cast and crew.

“Thank you for letting me eat,” Williams says, biting into a chicken and avocado sandwich. He’s terribly polite in the face of a great indignity: being interviewed during his lunchbreak. With crumbs in beard and between bites, he eloquently explains his creative process and the work he’s in Melbourne for: Miss Julie, a reimagining of August Strindberg’s 1888 play, to be staged with MTC.

“This…” Williams says, gesturing to the set, “it’s part of Strindberg’s exploration of naturalism … It was quite radical, in his time, to set the play in a kitchen, and also in a working-class setting. He’s interested in the nitty and gritty of life.”

Beyond the kitchen, five cameras scrutinise the set. Their black eyes watch us. Williams explains that in the production, this scrutiny is “an extension of the kind of scrutiny that Strindberg was offering his audience back when it was originally staged, but also there’s a great tension in the story to do with the way people are regulated by being watched, and the silent regulation of looking, and particularly the male gaze, that keeps people not only in their gender roles, but in their class roles. It’s quite transgressive for Miss Julie to be in this room of the house. In the kitchen, in the servants’ quarters.

“The original play is a very problematic work in that Strindberg wrote it with the intent of damning the proto-feminism that exists inside Miss Julie and in doing so he unwittingly has created, for the next hundred and 20 or 30 years, one of the great proto-feminists on stage,” Williams says. “Now, we have the pleasure of being able to shift the focus within the work, within the narrative and look at the events from her perspective rather than from a patriarchal-minded person like Strindberg.”

As he speaks, Williams strokes his beard, and he’s very much transformed from his moment of awkwardness earlier; but he’s still thinking about his voice breaking. He comes back to it. He says, “I remember when I was a boy, not wanting my voice to break. I would say to my mum: ‘I don’t want it to break.’ I didn’t want to lose my singing. I was terrified it would break and not break well, and that’s what happened.

“And I never returned to choral or classical operatic singing. I sang in bands at university but my voice was good as a treble and then kind of passable as an adult, but compared to my brother it was a very different path. It was interesting because I had got such relish from singing all of the repertoire of the Church of England and the masses and whatnot, and had relished the experiences of ceremony and ritual inside those services and the cadences of that music and I’d certainly say that it’s informed my sense of rhythm in terms of how you tell a story. The musicality of how you unravel a narrative for an audience. But it was hard. I missed the music. I didn’t miss the church services, and I didn’t miss the-the-the preaching.”

Do you pray before a show? I ask him.

“Oh, goodness me. I probably should, but no I don’t. I don’t. I’m more superstitious than I am religious in any way.”

And how, I ask, do your superstitions manifest?

“You’re really getting under my skin very quickly,” he says. “I’m mostly superstitious about flying; I’m a terrible flyer. So I’m very superstitious about where I sit in the plane, who I’m sitting next to, what time of day I fly, what route I’m flying, what airline I’m flying with. All sorts of things.”

Aren’t human’s weird, I say, the things we do?

“It’s very revealing,” he says.

He returns to talking about Strindberg and his experiments with naturalism. “He was interesting,” Williams says, “in executing the three principles of naturalism that Émile Zola proposed – a French writer proposed – that it should be real, that it should be of matters of life and death for the characters, and that the setting should be simple.”

I look out of the kitchen with its dirty tea towels and pots on the stove, to the cameras that watch us from each point on the compass. They watch Williams finish his sandwich, stroke his beard, scuff his Doc Martens on the floor. They watch me scribble unintelligible notes, leaning forward, waiting for the next moment when Williams might reveal himself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2016 as "Finding his voice". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.