Ben Kidd

Ben Kidd, co-director of Lippy at the Young Vic. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Originally written for The Stage.

Ben Kidd is puzzling over what it means to be a director. Does it mean being in charge of a production? Is it about getting the most out of actors? Is it to do with serving the vision of another, or being the author of your own work? “Being a director only really consists in making decisions,” he eventually concludes. “You’re trying to assemble as many people as you can who you think are really really good at what they do – designers or writers or actors or whatever – and then you’re basically saying ‘that and not that’.”

We’re chatting in the bar of the Young Vic, something of a spiritual home for Kidd. It’s the theatre where he was given some of his early assistant directing opportunities, where he received the Genesis Future Directors Award in 2012, and where his Dublin-based company Dead Centre are about to present the London premiere of their show Lippy. “The Young Vic was somewhere that I found a like-minded assortment of people who thought about directing as a thing,” he explains.

Kidd arrived at directing via acting after training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While training and working as an actor, he was “schooled in this idea that a director helps actors to connect with the text and delivers the play”, an idea that he has progressively broken away from. “There’s a perception of the director as being someone who is either birthing or yielding somebody else’s vision,” Kidd observes, adding that he is more interested in how directing might involve an element of autobiography.

“When I think back to who my gods were growing up, they weren’t theatre directors,” Kidd says. Instead his idols were writers and musicians – he names Bob Dylan and Patti Smith – who poured something of themselves into their work. “It would have been nonsensical if all their work didn’t bear the hallmark of who they were as people,” Kidd suggests. He believes that the same should be true of directing; he wants to “create a new thing in the world”, a thing that bears his signature as a creator.

“If you go and see a Katie Mitchell play, they basically all look the same and feel the same in a sort of profound way,” he offers as an example. “That’s not a bad thing. That’s because she’s in there, her politics are in there, her concerns are in there, and she’s filtered those concerns through artistic practice. That is what real artists do.”

Mitchell has clearly been a major inspiration for Kidd in the process of discovering what directing means to him. He recalls a workshop during which she demanded of the participants: “What do you want to achieve? Find out what you want to achieve and then find out the best way to achieve it”. Whether working with Dead Centre or freelance directing for the likes of the Young Vic and Headlong, this is advice that Kidd has tried to stick to.

He admits, however, that building a career as a director is “really hard”. Despite winning the Genesis Future Directors Award, directing a main-stage tour of Spring Awakening for Headlong last year and gathering a string of awards for Lippy, Kidd still only directs part-time, a situation that is common among directors in the UK. “It does seem to be that directors’ pay hasn’t kept up with pay elsewhere in the industry,” Kidd says, reflecting on the recent research into directors’ fees. “We subsidise the industry because there are loads of us who really want to do it and will kill for a job.”

On the one hand, this lack of money can be liberating and encourage greater risk-taking. As Kidd puts it, “you gain the bloody mindedness to make what you want because you’re not going to make a living from not doing it, so you might as well do it.” But on the other hand, the financial insecurity of making theatre can restrict who enters the profession and impoverish it as a result. “An art form probably is better if a wider section of society is in it,” says Kidd, “it’s going to have more interesting stories.”

Kidd has another thought about the role of the director. “I think that the job is just about returning an audience to a sensation you had when first read a play, or when you first heard of an idea,” he says. The best shows, he suggests, are built around points when that sensation is briefly captured and the mood suddenly changes – what a friend of Kidd’s describes as “David Bowie moments”. “Great plays often hinge on a moment or a series of moments that are a shift in atmosphere, a shift in emotional resonance, a dropping out of the world. Something happens where the world changes.”

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

1984, Richmond Theatre

19841-600x374

Originally written for Exeunt.

George Orwell’s chilling dystopian novel is best remembered for the features that have seeped into our contemporary cultural consciousness: Big Brother, Room 101, the Thought Police. But perhaps the real key to Nineteen Eighty-Four lies in its final, often overlooked pages. In Headlong’s bracing new version, adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use Orwell’s typically discarded Appendix as a means of re-examining his entire narrative, offering – in what sounds like a perfect instance of doublethink – an extraordinarily faithful transformation of the text.

Orwell’s dry, formal Appendix, entitled ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, begins with the seemingly innocuous words “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania”. Realising, like Orwell, the huge difference contained in a change of tense, Icke and Macmillan latch onto that crucial “was” and hang upon it their entire adaptation. In their nightmarish rendering of this dystopia, past, present and future are slippery, fluid categories, bleeding into one another before our eyes. What we are left with is the blank, continuous present that the Party envisioned, where the notion of history has been all but abolished.

This is achieved through the canny addition of a framing device, which tackles the troublesome Appendix by way of a book group interrogating Winston Smith’s tale. Imagining Orwell’s novel as an artefact, this structural flourish puts Winston’s experiences in direct dialogue with the future he hoped to speak to when starting his diary. And yet, in a conundrum that reveals the central problem of the Appendix itself, this textual artefact is not in fact Winston’s diary, but a third person account of his rebellion and suppression. How, then, has this document survived? Who has written it? And if it really has survived, who has allowed it to survive?

These questions are persistently posed by an adaptation that strikingly reconfigures Orwell’s text in service of a searching examination of what it is doing. Through an unsettling temporal slippage, the future framing of the narrative exists directly alongside Winston’s hatred for the party, his ill-fated love affair with Julia and his horrifying ordeal at the hands of the Ministry of Love. The world this structure creates is one where no firm foothold can be made on either the past or the future, one where uncertainty is the only constant, one where – most importantly – no document can be trusted.

The theatre, where a kind of doublethink is constantly in play, is the perfect arena for this dizzyingly intelligent interrogation of truth and fiction. Here, we are always caught in the process of accepting that an object on stage is at once one thing and another, a function of theatrical metaphor that Icke and Macmillan’s production repeatedly exploits. Mark Arends’ haunted, disorientated Winston always creates the impression of being both here and not here, dislocated from linear time. “Where do you think you are?” he is repeatedly asked, to which the answer is always bewilderment.

As well as the crossover between temporalities and characters, Chloe Lamford’s inspired set design epitomises this relentless doubling. The first part of the show is contained within a bland office space, all non-descript chairs, wood panelling and boxes of files. This serves as both the setting for the book group and the backdrop of Winston’s existence, demanding metaphor in order to function within the narrative. The only area external to this space is Winston and Julia’s short-lived retreat, which is at once hidden and exposed; it exists off stage, beyond our immediate gaze, but it is revealed to us via video footage on screens, putting us in the position of the ever-vigilant eye of Big Brother. In the final third of the show, meanwhile, this design achieves a breathtaking transformation, stripping away tangible referents in a process that mirrors Winston’s struggle to hold onto memory and reality, yet still refusing to fix itself on just one, determinable location.

And it does not stop with the design. Every last element of this production, from the discordant strains of Tom Gibbons’ sound design to Natasha Chivers’ accomplished lighting, which ranges from the unsettlingly anaemic to the blindingly bright, contributes to a disquieting atmosphere of uncertainty and uprootedness from time. We, like Winston, have nothing solid to grasp onto.

With Chelsea Manning, the NSA and Edward Snowden still dominating headlines, we hardly need reminding of the continued and disturbing resonance of Orwell’s 1949 novel. Headlong’s startling new production, however, suggestsNineteen Eighty-Four’s prescience in another, deeper way. Orwell’s vision, Icke and Macmillan reveal, penetrated beyond the structural framework of surveillance, right down to the disorientating experience of modern life under late capitalism. Like all the worst nightmares, its chill emanates from its uncanniness.

Vault Winner: Theatre Archives

AllsWell1981

Originally written for The Stage.

Think of the archive and the images that typically jump to mind are of dusty vaults and painstakingly catalogued documents. This picture could not be further from the ephemeral immediacy of performance, which for many is defined by its liveness. But what about the traces that theatre leaves behind?

After the final curtain call, a production leaves in its wake a whole swathe of material: costumes, scripts, director’s notes, programmes, set designs. For many theatres and companies, collecting and saving these objects is a central part of their work, establishing huge archives for future practitioners, students, researchers and theatregoers. How these archives are assembled, managed and disseminated can therefore have a significant impact on the theatrical influences passed down to the next generation of artists and audiences.

For theatremakers, the archive can be an invaluable source of research and inspiration, as well as a reminder of the tradition in which they are working. Geraldine Collinge, Director of Events and Exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, places the emphasis on “seeing the archive and the collection as part of our ongoing body of work”, positioning their current productions within the context of the company’s history. She also explains that the archive forms an important part of the creative process, often acting as a first port of call for directors starting work on a new production.

Similarly, the archives at Shakespeare’s Globe are a vital part of the ongoing life of the theatre. As Head of Courses and Research Dr Farah Karim-Cooper explains, supporting the creative team in the researching of new productions is one of the key roles played by the theatre’s archival material. “The main thing about the archive is that it’s not just a repository,” she stresses, “it’s a place where research is actually produced and feeds into the work of the organisation.”

And theatre archives are not just a useful resource for practitioners. Kate Dorney, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, notes that the appeal of their collections is surprisingly broad. “It’s a fairly even split between practitioners and researchers,” she tells me. “Directors and actors often come in to see videos to prepare for shows or auditions, designers come in for inspiration, we get lots of students, academics, TV and film researchers, family historians, authors – all sorts.”

With the advance of ever more sophisticated digital archiving systems, however, the way in which this material is accessed is shifting. Although Collinger thinks the move to digital has not affected archives quite as dramatically as it has other areas of the theatre industry, she says that “what is transformational is that more people will have access to them and they won’t be so rarefied”. As archives gradually become digitised, the information that they contain is increasingly accessible without the need to go to a physical archive, which often involves a complex registration process.

Dorney equally points to a “process of democratisation” around the online archive and to new opportunities for engagement. The V&A, for instance, recently produced Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays as an iPad app, collecting material from its archives in an interactive format. “The idea of the app was to give you the experience of coming into the reading room but having everything at your fingertips,” says Dorney. “It’s our attempt to make people understand how you can relate the different areas of the collection to something that you’re interested in.”

For other organisations, digital now sits at the heart of their archiving project. Sarah Grochala joined Headlong as an Associate Artist in August 2012 to work with the theatre company on their online presence, both around the shows they are currently producing and their production archive. The idea, Grochala explains, is “about giving people who didn’t have a chance to see the show a chance to look at some of the material that went into it, above and beyond a script, and to be able to create an idea of it in their head”. This material might include production images, programme notes, set designs or lists of research used by the creative team. The aim is to “give people a sense of the ingredients, not the cake”.

Continuing in that spirit of democratisation, Grochala is also clear that Headlong sees this material as having a potentially wide reach. Talking about making information “immediate and easily accessible” through the web, Grochala identifies the production archives as being of interest to audiences as well as to practitioners and academics. “It’s a sort of deepening of audience engagement and making sure that that engagement can exist both before and after the show as well as during it,” she explains.

However, the digitising of the archive brings challenges as well as opportunities. Grochala emphasises that Headlong’s project is a slow one, involving a painstaking process of recovery and curation, while Dorney doubts that another app will be produced by the V&A in the near future simply because of how time-consuming it is. Money is another issue, as the process of digitising is not cheap. As Karim-Cooper explains, it’s a project that “requires huge amounts of funding”, which for a non-subsidised theatre like the Globe forms a significant barrier. The desire to digitise is clear; it is simply a case of time and funds.

Despite all these digital developments, though, Collinge is doubtful that digitised archives will ever fully supplant the real thing. “That moment when an archivist pulls the First Folio out and you’re looking at those pages – there’s something very special there,” she says. “Admittedly having a digitised First Folio would be wonderful, but I think it would be a different and a new experience rather than one that would replace physical archives.”

Photo: RSC Archive. From the 1981 production of All’s Well That Ends Well.

Taking Wing: Headlong’s Emerging Director Scheme

Seagull Reh Shots - Tristram Kenton - Blanche McIntyre-XL

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

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

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.