The Nutcracker, Nuffield Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As Chris Thorpe acknowledged while discussing Northern Stage’s Christmas show, there is something about this time of year that feels intimately tied up with stories. Whether it is fairytales, stories of Santa or the tale of the nativity itself, the festive season is drenched in narrative. The story chosen for this year’s family show at the Nuffield Theatre is one so familiar that it has become part of the cultural fabric of Christmas, but the creative team have approached it from a slightly less familiar angle. A play with songs rather than the well known ballet, this is a Nutcracker with no Sugarplum Fairy and rather more back story, taking its lead from ETA Hoffman’s original tale.

Unfortunately, the story is the very element that lets this production down. Here, young Clara’s journey into the Land of Sweets and the central battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King occupy only a fraction of the stage time, the greater portion of which is taken up by exposition and scene-setting. The darker elements of Hoffman’s short story are welcome antidotes to what can be a queasily saccharine tale, but their incorporation into Hattie Naylor and Paul Dodgson’s script is decidedly laboured. We find out plenty about the curse of the Nutcracker and how he came to be the enemy of the wicked Mouse King, but all in a series of scenes that play out like an extended prologue. The first act ends beautifully, with an image to send chills down the spines of the children in the audience, but there is a niggling feeling that it is only just getting to the heart of the narrative.

This adaptation is also one that suffers from something of an identity crisis. The conventions of audience interaction are called upon early on, as the performers enter through the auditorium and talk to the kids on the way, but from this point onwards the piece is torn between fourth wall storytelling and pantomime style involvement. The narrator figure is an odd fit with the rest of the show, while the recruiting of the audience to hurl foam balls during the battle scene – while undeniably great fun – jars awkwardly with the action that has preceded it. Neither simple storytelling exercise nor riotous panto romp, The Nutcracker wants to be both at once, but struggles to knit the two genres successfully together.

There is, however, a fair sprinkling of magic in Blanche McIntyre’s production. The opening scene is a delight, pulling out all the tricks of the stage to establish a mood of enchantment and wide-eyed wonder, while raising several gasps from its young audience in the process. These moments of dazzled awe are the most rewarding, reminding adults as well as children just how magical theatre can be. Rhys Jarman’s design does a lot of the legwork, offering a series of charming transformations, while the cast bring an infectious energy to the range of roles they are asked to adopt throughout the twisting narrative.

The production is at its best when playful, whether that is the deliciously hammed up villainy of the Mouse King or the cheekily self-aware conclusion. At the end, the characters leave us deliberately in doubt about the nature of what we have seen, embracing the more uncertain and dreamlike qualities of Hoffman’s tale. Implicit in this ending is a question about stories themselves – why we tell them, what they mean to us, and when they become real. It is only a shame that it takes this long for the storytelling to come into its own.

Taking Wing: Headlong’s Emerging Director Scheme

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Originally written for The Stage.

Beneath her eloquent enthusiasm, there’s a jangle of nerves in director Blanche McIntyre’s voice as we speak over the phone. It’s easy to understand why. After being widely tipped as one to watch and winning the Critics’ Circle Best Newcomer award, she is now taking on her biggest and riskiest project to date. This spring she is directing a new version of The Seagull with Headlong, touring to main stages around the country. For a director who has cut her teeth on the intimate spaces of the London fringe, it’s a huge leap.

The initiative allowing McIntyre to take this leap is Headlong’s emerging director scheme, which funds an annual midscale tour for a director in the early stages of their career. The programme, now in its fourth year, has previously supported work by Simon Godwin, Natalie Abrahami and Robert Icke, the last of whom is now the company’s associate director. The aim, as Headlong’s executive producer Henny Finch explains, is to stretch the artistic ambition of emerging directors within a touring structure.

“The key difference between this and other schemes is that it’s touring,” she says, keen to highlight the significance of this distinguishing factor. “It’s offering directors an opportunity to direct for a load of different spaces and to find out about how to programme for different audiences up and down the country.” Unlike building-based schemes such as the Donmar’s prestigious resident assistant director programme, Headlong offers emerging and mid-career directors the chance to present work on stages ranging from the Richmond Theatre to Newcastle’s Northern Stage, supported by an experienced creative and technical team.

Headlong’s departing artistic director Rupert Goold also points to the importance of creating work for different venues, explaining how his own early experiences of working both in London and regionally offered him “a great insight into different audiences and spaces”, with a huge impact on his subsequent practice. “I am a firm believer in giving people the opportunity to learn their craft in a practical way,” Goold adds, speaking of his desire to offer directors “chances to test themselves in larger theatres and a route beyond the fringe”.

The scheme that has allowed him to offer those opportunities first emerged through a partnership with the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, which as executive producer Kate Anderson explains has a long-standing relationship with Headlong and a strong affinity with its work. Seeking to pair an exciting director with a classic text, the project was first trialled with Simon Godwin’s production of A Winter’s Tale in 2010, followed by bold versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and last year’s widely acclaimed Romeo and Juliet. Anderson makes it clear that artistic quality has always been at the scheme’s heart: “It’s led by the work and by practising artists, rather than led by a scheme that has a fixed set of rules. That makes its aspirations very high indeed artistically.”

For McIntyre, this has meant the chance to work on a bold and ambitious scale, offering an interpretation of The Seagull that uses a striking design concept to “go back to what the nature of the play is and do something unusual with it that’s going to bring that out”. Scale is key here; by touring to a selection of midscale venues, the scheme offers a rare opportunity for directors to think outside the small confines of fringe theatres and studio spaces.

“It’s definitely working on a bigger scale,” says Finch, who is concerned that many mid-career directors currently get stuck producing work for smaller venues. The scheme also bridges a troubling career gap for directors and, perhaps even more importantly, does so within a specifically regional context. While many talented directors thrive on the London fringe, the step up to regular work for main stages is a massive and often daunting one. As McIntyre acknowledges, being offered an opportunity to take that step is extremely unusual: “The idea that there is a project that exists which allows someone to take massive risks, to allow a director to really test themselves artistically and creatively – and not only to do that, but to do it on a national scale in a whole range of different venues – is absolutely extraordinary.”

Finch sees Headlong’s scheme as a long term strategy, one that is vital in the current environment of funding cuts. She notes the contrast with her own experience of starting out in the late 1990s, pointing to the opportunities that allowed her and Goold to get where they are. “It’s very different now,” she observes grimly. “So we think we need to keep providing opportunities like the ones we had, which were much easier to come by then when there was much more money around. Because otherwise in 15 years time, when we start to look to the new generation of artistic directors, we’re going to be really impoverished.”

With the search beginning for Goold’s replacement, Finch is firm in stating that this scheme will continue under the company’s new artistic director, expressing a commitment that is echoed at the Nuffield. From both organisations, there is a sense that what they are doing is essential – not just for the individuals who directly benefit, but for the whole landscape of regional and touring theatre. As Anderson concludes, with reserved optimism, “none of us can change the world, but we can all do a little bit”.

Photos: Tristram Kenton

The Seagull, Nuffield Theatre

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There’s a canny, twisting circularity to this bold new version of Chekhov’s gloomy masterpiece. In an early conversation between lovesick young writer Konstantin and his uncle Sorin, a throwaway reference is made to Escher – master of the impossible image. As the play progresses, this glancing allusion becomes something of a metaphor; as in the artist’s famous staircases, Chekhov’s melancholic characters climb only to descend, walking round in hopeless, navel-gazing circles until the paradox of existence itself becomes inconceivable. Here the beautiful is also entrapping, leading to a dead end or a sharp drop.

Headlong’s take on The Seagull was never going to be blandly traditional, but this new interpretation by playwright John Donnelly and director Blanch McIntyre injects Chekhov’s play with impressive vigour, achieving the often promised but rarely delivered feat of rendering a classic totally fresh. The production applies a new lens to the text by wisely resisting the urge to wrestle it into contemporary trappings – the troublesome horses are still firmly present, alongside vaguely modern dress – instead embracing its vaunted timelessness. Much as the Young Vic’s recent version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House lightly played with temporality, displacing the narrative enough that it could seem somehow both period and contemporary, Chekhov’s characters are knocked out of their time.

This temporal displacement works across direction and design; Laura Hopkins’ empty grey shell of a set, virtually robbed of visual reference points, could almost be the post-apocalyptic landscape described in Konstantin’s play, the occasion for which Chekhov’s cast of ennui-stricken bourgeois characters are initially gathered. Throughout the romantic entanglements and artistic trials that follow, a long seesaw becomes the striking centrepiece of the stage, visualising the delicate and ever-shifting balance between the various characters. As one individual ascends, another is dumped unceremoniously back to earth.

As well as drawing attention to its own fragile equilibrium, this production is self-aware in other ways. McIntyre’s approach is deeply concerned with the latent theatricality present within the metabolism of the play, making the characters – in particular the aspiring young artists Konstantin and Nina – sporadically conscious of their own appearance before others, turning to address spectators in sequences that raise the house lights on the audience. Writing, meanwhile, leaves its physical trace on the back wall of Hopkins’ set, vividly animating the act of invention that sits at the play’s core. Essentially, McIntyre reveals this as a play about art, about how the artist sees both themselves and the world.

These particular artists, however, are frequently unlikable in their existential angst, schizophrenically veering between egotistical vanity and brittle, crippling despair. In one pivotal scene featuring Gyuri Sarossy’s quietly self-absorbed Trigorin, the writer’s mental masturbation is strikingly paired with its physical counterpart – a wanker in every sense – as he brings himself to climax while Irina hails him with a verbal assault of praise. Alexander Cobb’s whining Konstantin is little better, weakly reaching for a transcendental ideal that is quickly overshadowed by jealousy, while the excellent Abigail Cruttenden as his narcissistic mother incessantly struts, preens and flirts, the consummate actress in love with her own performance.

For all that stultifying stasis is foregrounded – stillness is central to the make-up of the scenes, while McIntyre is a director unafraid of onstage silences – there remains a certain muscularity to this production, a momentum beneath the lethargy. This is largely down to the vital aggression of Donnelly’s text, fuelled with much the same expletive-laced energy as Benedict Andrews’ revelatory, vodka-drenched Three Sisters, yet equally capable of subdued introspection. Chekhov’s characters might be in love with talking, favouring philosophising over action, but here no words feel wasted. As one character sardonically puts it, “there’s an art to tedium”, and it’s one that this production masters with fresh, fierce, invigorating intelligence.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.