Ian Mullins up at the Mercury


When I asked Ian Mullins how he felt about staying on as Director of the Mercury Theatre in Auckland for another two or three years - would he be prepared to stay? - he didn't answer. It was a cruel question and hardly likely to have elicited a smooth response. Yet his previous track-record would seem to indicate a preference for substantial periods of tenure. He was director of the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham for over six years and director at Farnham for close on seven. In addition to this he comes across as a man who likes a fair time in which to implement his ideas. As he says: 'You don't make sweeping changes: changes come gradually. You develop slowly and steadily, not sensationally.' His own beginnings and subsequent career in the Theatre would seem to bear this out: workmanlike rather than meteoric.

Mullins left the army in 1949 at the age of eighteen after two years compulsory military training, and enrolled at the Central School for Speech Training & Dramatic Art - at that time situated not where it is today at Swiss Cottage but at the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. His ambition as a student was to be, 'an actor simply and solely. Preferably famous and preferably Shakespearian.' Cicely Berry, Voice Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company and author of Voice And The Actor, was at that time a junior voice tutor at Central, and Mullins, who has kept in touch with her over the years, hopes to be able to persuade her to visit New Zealand in the near future in her capacity as teacher.

Ian Mullins
(Photograph by Susanna Burdon)

After Central, Mullins was fortunate enough to be accepted into The Royal Shakespeare Company, or as it was then called: The Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company. He was hired specifically for their 1952 Australasian tour - the youngest spear carrier in the company - and made his professional stage debut at His Majesty's Theatre, Auckland, as an elderly senator in Othello. The tour company's principals included: Anthony Quayle (acting as well as directing), Barbara Jefford, Keith Michell, Leo McKern and Ian Bannen.

After Australia and New Zealand he returned to Stratford for one season. I asked Mullins what it had felt like to be thrown in amongst so many illustrious names. 'Fascinating,' he replied. 'Though it might have been better to have gone straight into a good, hard slogging rep.' Yet it was at Stratford that his whole future philosophy as a director was laid down. He remembers three notable directors from that time: Glen Byam Shaw, Anthony Quayle and George Devine; although it was from Glen Byam Shaw that he learned the most.

Mullins was out of work 'quite a lot' after Stratford; though he did join Carrie Jenner's Mobile Theatre Company, for a tour of one night stands. The play was Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Whilst on tour with the company he met and later married the actress Helen Dorward. Today they have two teenage sons and Helen appears regularly on the Mercury stage.

In 1956 Mullins was given his first and last substantial break as an actor. He joined the Salisbury Repertory Company; at that time under the general management of 'Reggie' Salberg. Salberg, although now retired from active administration, is likely to be visiting this country later in 1979: a visit which may prove to be of interest to our own professional theatre administrators.

Salberg's previous role as general manager is one that no longer exists in modern theatre. He chose the plays, cast them, hired the company, and ran the business side of the theatre without ever actually directing any of the shows himself. He was always bringing in outside directors - some good and some bad. It was from the bad ones that Mullins decided he could do better himself. He approached Salberg, Salberg took a chance on him and Mullins finished off his four years at Salisbury in the combined role of actor and director. From this development he stepped straight into the post of Director, at Cheltenham, in 1961; remaining at Cheltenham for almost seven years and leaving only under protest after a bitter showdown with the Cheltenham Theatre Board. This was a battle not unlike that fought at Nottingham Playhouse over the dismissal of their own resident artistic director John Neville. Mullins felt he hadn't fully implemented his aims during his term of office. He'd wanted to extend his company still further - to develop in particular the area of children's theatre - but the board wanted him out. They felt he'd been there long enough. Public meetings were held on the issue. Petitions and letters of support flowed in for his reinstatement: but the board was adamant, their decision final.

Mullins' free-lanced for a time after this. His work has mostly been in the English regional theatre, rarely in London: although he did spend some time directing at RADA, believing himself well suited to instruct students. . . Then in 1970 he was appointed Artistic Director at Farnham in Surrey. A new theatre (the Redgrave) was in the process of coming into being, although the appeal for funds at the time of Ian Mullins' appointment was, as he said, 'in a right mess.' During the building of the new theatre (named after the actor Sir Michael Redgrave) he kept the old company going; and when the 'Redgrave' was finally completed he stayed on and ran the new company for a further three years.

In January of 1976 when he was still at Farnham, 'Tony' Richardson, the then director of the Mercury, arrived on Mullins' doorstep to 'sound him out' over New Zealand. Richardson didn't know at the time that Mullins had already spent time in Auckland; and when I asked Ian Mullins whether he'd had any premonition before he was offered the post of returning to New Zealand he replied that his wife Helen was convinced that Auckland was where they would be going. In April of 1977 he took up his responsibilities at the Mercury.

Auckland's Mercury is the biggest theatre complex Mullins has handled to date. Cheltenham was similar in size to Mercury 1: but with the recent reestablishment of Mercury 2 on a full-time basis the permanent company has been forced to expand considerably. Had Mercury 2 not proved a viable proposition then Mullins would have abandoned the permanent company and rather as with Wellington's Downstage he would now be employing his actors on the equivalent of a 'run of the play' contract only.

Is it too early to assess Mullins's influence on the Mercury? Perhaps so. He has already established himself as a consummate director of large scale epics: although not all have proved successful. His 1978 production of Robert Bolt's State of Revolution was, however, a justification of his skill in the handling of large groups of actors with fluidity and pace. Perhaps his interest in this type of theatre is understandable when you consider his formative years with Glen Byam Shaw, and his professed discipleship of the late Tyrone Guthrie. His two other major achievements to date at the Mercury would be the re-establishment of Mercury 2 as a going concern, and his introduction of subscription selling.

The credit for this latter scheme cannot rest wholly with Mullins; the idea was suggested to him on his arrival. He put the scheme into operation however. The original idea was devised by the American Danny Newman. Based on commercial 'hard sell' principles, subscription selling in the arts has apparently been proved successful in both America and Australia. Mullins went across to Sydney to study the scheme at the Old Tote (in retrospect perhaps not such a good example as the Old Tote has recently gone bankrupt). He then returned to Auckland and with Newman started the whole thing up over here. Newman's basic philosophy is that: 'The art starts when the curtain rises. I'll get you your audience' he says: 'When the curtain rises it's up to you to make them want to come again.' As Mullins says: 'There's nothing dishonest about this. If the audience don't like what they're paying for they won't come a second time.' And certainly the scheme does offer a genuine discount: six plays for the price of four. You could have seen every play at 'Mercury 1 & 2 in 1978 and in 1979 for less than it would have cost you in 1976-77. Mullins is also quick to point out that. 'although the subscription campaign has increased the audiences it has not, substantially, increased the revenue, But then,' as he says, 'this is what theatre is all about. I can't be doing with a half empty house, it's a depressing experience.'

The one critical question remaining from all this is whether the arts in general should be promoted like a cut-price bar., gain basement. Also, in fact, half empty houses do sometimes come along - with the Wood family much in evidence - although on paper the theatre appears to be full: the subscribers having simply decided against that particular play. They've paid for their tickets but their bums are not on the seats they're at home, sinking into plush cushions.

Mullins' plans for 1979 include the formation of a lightweight touring company able to play in almost any space available. This would comprise a group of maybe six actors plus stage manager, with a repertoire of four plays, some of them having been lifted from Mercury 2. Each tour would last approximately three months. He is also interested in the establishment of a school's touring group, which if nothing else will provide unwelcome competition for Theatre Corporate's Theatre in Education team. His plans for the resident company include two major epic productions for the first half of this year: Henry IV Part One and The Naval Officer.

Ian Mullins has been in New Zealand now for close on two years. I asked him what impressions he'd gained over that time regarding our national theatre. 'The most important thing' he said, 'is that the theatre here is growing.' Well, fair enough. I went on to ask him how he felt about working with the New Zealand actor, and he admitted to noticing a certain rawness - a lack of formal training especially in voice; and a lack of tradition within the theatre itself. He is a great believer in rhythm. It is something that he finds hard to define in words but recognises instinctively when it comes to shaping a scene. And it's this lack of insight into the technical shaping of a play (the rhythm of the piece) that he finds lacking amongst our own actors.

What he does find rewarding is the way in which our actors respond with immediacy - more directly, more spontaneously, than their English equivalents. . . 'In a way that I have often longed for actors to do.' He demands that the actor brings a lot to his part: 'I expect him to know his job and then, if possible, to use in production what he has brought to the role. The fresh insight may then shift the emphasis of a scene in a way I hadn't previously conceived.' Like Guthrie he believes that the director's role is essentially that of a pivot around which a great many things evolve, both administratively and artistically.

Mullins is obliged to be a champion of the 'popular' theatre. His work as a director has always been in the commercial (albeit subsidised) theatre and past experience has shown him the pitfalls to avoid. He admits to a feeling of frustration over the physical shape of the Mercury - originally built as an Edwardian variety theatre - as well as its locality in the city and feels that not a lot more can be accomplished in the present building. He expresses considerable anger that nothing whatsoever is being done by Auckland to rectify the situation. 'A civic theatre' he says, should be a priority, not a luxury.' Since his appointment as director he has revamped the Mercury's foyer and improved Mercury 2. He is now considering a restaurant area within the building itself: believing firmly in the concept of theatre restaurant but 'loathing' the New Zealand trend toward restaurant theatres.

Auckland's Mercury Theatre is the top appointment in New Zealand for an artistic director; it is also, probably, the most invidious one and the one most open to criticism. Richardson put the Mercury on its feet. Mullins has been given the unenviable .task of lifting it to the heights. Yet no matter how large or how 'popular' the inherent structure becomes, unless it can shatter, transform, and renew its patrons nightly in the craft of theatre then it is not worth a brass farthing. Size and prestige of company may be necessary. Vitality and risk within its four walls are imperative.