There are few dramatists who can genuinely be mentioned in the same breath as playwrights par excellence William Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, but in the mind of Warren Mitchell, Jeff Baron is among them. Veteran performer Mitchell is back in the West End in Baron’s play Visiting Mr Green, which has been seen in over 300 productions around the world. Matthew Amer met the lauded American playwright with a lot to live up to.
“The great roles, as far as he’s concerned, are Willy Loman, King Lear and Mr Green.” This, according to Baron, is Mitchell’s opinion of his globally successful play. “I don’t necessarily consider myself in the company of Mr Miller and Mr Shakespeare, but that was very nice to hear.”
The softly-spoken playwright is in London for the West End premiere of his play Visiting Mr Green, and is doing as much as he can to ensure it is a success. This includes offering his opinions to director Patrick Garland and the actors, and, having only landed on British shores the evening before, meeting me for an interview after lunch.
Baron talks of Mitchell as he would talk of an old friend. But then, they have known each other for nearly a decade, since Mitchell first played the eponymous elderly gent of Baron’s play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1999. Baron likes to work closely with the companies producing his play, when he can, helping out with back story to flesh out the characters – “I know so much more about them than is in the play,” he admits – so when he originally met Mitchell for that first production, the pair built up a strong rapport.
"Occasionally living playwrights are seen as an inconvenience"
Mitchell’s performance, Baron says, is different nine years later. “He’s closer to Mr Green’s age. He’s had some health challenges in between, so it’s kind of a new world. He was very good before and now there’s something extraordinary happening because he’s at the point in his life where the character is, and you feel it. It’s about a man, an 86-year-old man, who is forced to take a look at his life. I think anyone who’s lived as long and been through as much as Warren Mitchell has can really relate to that in a deeper way, perhaps, than he did before.”
It was Mitchell, a Laurence Olivier Award winner for his portrayal of Death Of A Salesman’s Willy Loman, who suggested reviving Visiting Mr Green. Producer Ian Fricker had approached the former Till Death Us Do Part actor with a different project entirely. Mitchell chose to turn down that play, instead suggesting a revival of Baron’s piece. Baron was “incredibly flattered and grateful” at the suggestion.
“Occasionally living playwrights are seen as an inconvenience,” Baron tells me as we sit as casually as we can in a chilly meeting room that is too large for just a couple of people. The American playwright has a wiry frame that is lost in the corner of such an expansive room. He is referring to the fact that he holds proprietary rights over his plays and is not afraid to speak his mind. “I find that if I don’t give [back story information] to an actor and a director, they’ll invent something,” he says.
As a writer he spends much of his time researching the characters for his plays, so much time that when it comes to physically writing the play it is “like going to the theatre or going to the movies”. Baron sees the action unfold before him, he hears his characters talking and interacting, all he has to do is record it. Such in depth knowledge of his creations, though, does seem to have left him a little protective, not wanting a wrong – or, some might argue, different – interpretation put on them.
"There was no-one else who did what I did, but that was cool; I was the one that did it"
Baron, who hails from New Jersey, is not one to mildly let errors of any sort pass him by. He describes one of the main characteristics that links New Jersey-ites as being “very direct and straightforward and confident. I’ve learned manners over the years, but I’m pretty direct. If there’s something wrong with the production that we’re both looking at, I’m going to tell you what it is, otherwise we’re not going to be able to fix it. That’s the New Jersey style.”
He credits his home town and upbringing for giving him the confidence and belief to follow his creative path. The town in which he grew up was a melting pot of cultures, attitudes and ideas: “There was Italians, there was black people, it was Polish people, Jews and Catholics, everything. No group was big enough that they dominated the culture. So you grew up knowing all these cultures. There was no-one else who did what I did, but that was cool; I was the one that did it.”
Though Baron immersed himself in theatre, it was with screenwriting that his work first came to the fore, having studied it at university. Yet he fell out of love with a film industry in which the writer is among the least important players. “They buy your script,” he explains, “and they would rather you completely disappear.” This, as illustrated by his involvement in Visiting Mr Green, is not Baron’s style. He is a writer who invests so much time in his characters that he does not want to lose them to a producer who may wish to ‘tweak’ them here and there. “Money was never my motivation to be a writer,” Baron confirms. “It was to communicate with people. If something isn’t going to communicate what I want it to, I would rather not do it.”
Had he not been a screenwriter, Visiting Mr Green may never have been written, as it was while he was in this role that a friend came to him with a fantastic idea for a film. The friend had recently been volunteering as a visitor to an old man who had no family left to brighten his days. Baron describes the situation as “a lovely greeting card”, a tale to warm the soul, but lacking any drama.
"They buy your script and they would rather you completely disappear"
After a few years, with the suggestion tucked away for a rainy day, Baron’s mind was drawn back to the tale when his relationship with his own grandmother altered. She was of an age and culture where, though she needed assistance, she was too stubborn to actively accept help. Baron had to pretend to win a television in a sweepstake just so that he could replace her old set that no longer showed a picture. “Our relationship changed a little bit. She took care of me and now I was taking care of her… as much as you can take care of someone that doesn’t really want to be taken care of.”
When his grandmother died, he felt that it was time for him to write again, and his friend’s story of the two men separated by age came back to mind, only this time he had a greater insight into their relationship. At the time he had never written a play, but the piece felt more suited to the stage than the big screen and with his history of watching theatre he decided to have a crack at it.
For a first stab, it didn’t do too badly. Nominated for a Drama League Best Play Award for its American run, it went on to win Best Play awards in Greece, Mexico, Germany, Uruguay, Israel and Turkey. “It was a total surprise, I never pictured it,” says Baron, before some of the New Jersey confidence starts to shine through, “and yet, I don’t have another job, I’m a full-time writer. I was a full-time screenwriter and now I’m a full-time playwright, so you don’t do that without believing that you have something to offer. In that way, more than just making me feel like I was great or something, it was more of a relief; it told me that I wasn’t crazy doing this.”
Even with all that success behind him, Baron is still nervous about the play’s West End debut. His history of theatregoing in London is a double-edged sword: “In one way it’s extra thrilling,” he smiles “because I know what it means, and the other way it’s extra scary because I know what it means. It’s a big deal. The London critics are not always kind to American playwrights. I feel no extra pressure in terms of entertaining the audience. I feel confident about that. It’s a good story, it’s characters that you can get involved with, but in terms of the critics and the importance of the critics, that’s something I have no control over, and yeah, it’s a little bit more pressure. It’s a big stage; London and New York are where the world shops for theatre.”
"If 10 or 12 people in London don’t like it, there’s still millions of people who do"
He is swift in his reply about nerves. A smile indicative of both happiness and a healthy dose of anxiety crosses his face. Yet his New Jersey upbringing doesn’t desert him in his hour of need. The confidence, be it real or slightly embellished, kicks in again: “I’ve been doing this long enough that I really don’t think of anything as make or break. The truth is that millions of people have seen Visiting Mr Green and enjoyed it, so if 10 or 12 people in London [the critics] don’t like it, there’s still millions of people who do.”
Just last week he took a group of cousins to see his latest play Brothers In Law in New York. They, like so many, had trouble grasping the idea of producing something over weeks, months, years, only to be placed at the mercy of critics who would splash their views over newspapers after just a couple of hours. Baron smiles again. “The fact that tonight in Santiago, Chile and in Split, Croatia and in Tel Aviv and in Buenos Aires and in London, people that I never met are going to pay to sit in the dark and watch my thing for a couple of hours makes all that other stuff completely worth it. That’s an incredible honour and responsibility, but that’s what I want.”