Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court

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In Katie Mitchell’s bleak re-centring of Hamlet, Ophelia is sinking from the start. Before we even see her, projected text and a voiceover tell us about the first of five stages of drowning. And when we do see her, she’s dragged under the waters of misogyny, submerged beneath layer upon layer of clothing. Thrash as she might, there’s no way back to the surface.

There’s a brutal inexorability to Ophelias Zimmer. For a start, we know where this is heading. Mitchell’s piece, created in close collaboration with writer Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford, trades heavily on its audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s play. From the moment the house lights go down, we’re anticipating Ophelia’s madness and watery death. More than that, though, inexorability is built into the very structure of Ophelias Zimmer. It plods, slowly, deliberately and relentlessly, towards its inevitable conclusion.

As the title suggests, the entire action (or inaction) of the piece is confined to Ophelia’s bedroom. The events of Hamlet, plotted out meticulously according to the play, all occur around this peripheral point. Most of the time, though, we watch the deadening routine of Ophelia’s life. She gets up, goes for a walk, reads and sews. Flowers arrive every day, every day tossed straight into the bin. Letters – or, as they are reimagined here, cassette tapes – arrive from Hamlet and are listened to, fast-forwarded and rewinded. An occasional cry of “Ophelia” summons her out of the room.

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This is choreographed boredom. Tedium distilled. Each scene change, each jump forwards in time, is signalled with a ping as horrible and relentless as the bells that heralded torture in Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. Through it all, Jenny Konig’s Ophelia stares out with a chilling blankness, movements as controlled as the routine that dictates her quiet, contained life. She seems to be obeying the instructions of the intermittent voiceover we assume to be her dead mother, making herself as invisible and inaudible as possible in this rigidly patriarchal world.

Ophelia might be moved to the centre of the narrative, then, but Mitchell pointedly does not offer her a voice within it. As in Hamlet itself, she barely utters a sound. And when she does speak, her words are more habit than expression. “The flowers again,” she dully intones each morning as the maid brings in a new vase. While Hamlet might be robbed of his soliloquies (in a rare touch of humour, Ophelia cuts off his “to be or not to be” by promptly pressing the fast-forward button on her cassette player), Ophelia gets none of her own. Instead, she is confined to a disturbing silence that speaks deafeningly of the misogynistic world of Shakespeare’s play.

But can Ophelias Zimmer really be thought of as a feminist re-framing of Hamlet? It certainly reveals what Mitchell sees as the horrific treatment of Ophelia, including by Hamlet, exposing the careless misogyny of a character who is enshrined at the heart of the dramatic canon and with whom we are so often asked to sympathise. Yet still it restricts Ophelia to quiet, helpless misery, giving her no more agency than she has in Shakespeare’s telling. The whole narrative of the show, meanwhile, is structured around Hamlet and its controlling cast of men. Shakespeare’s play is the scaffolding holding up this piece, its male characters dominating from offstage with their comings and goings and shouted demands.

Hamlet himself is imagined by Mitchell and co as a brooding, moody narcissist, clad in black and wrapped up in his own worries. His messages to Ophelia, progressing from romantic cliché to sexually explicit plea to expletive-filled abuse, are all ultimately about him – his desire, his pain. On one of the few occasions when we actually see him, he bursts into Ophelia’s room brandishing a Joy Division record. He then goes on to play and dance to the soundtrack of his own suffering, wilfully ignorant of Ophelia’s.

Wildly thrashing his limbs to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Renato Schuch’s Hamlet invites an immediate comparison with Ian Curtis, a man tragically obsessed with death and determined to inhabit his own myth, even to the extent of his own destruction. But every act of destruction has its accidental victims, its civilian casualties, of which Ophelia is one. This is Hamlet as careless egotist, focused on his own meandering path to revenge at the expense of all others around him. While he dances, lost in indulging his own emotions, Ophelia sits in a chair and sobs.

This is one of a series of characteristically stunning theatrical moments that break up the monotony of Ophelia’s daily existence. Just as my attention threatens to drift away entirely, I find myself dragged back by a brilliant sound effect or by the slow, terrible seeping of water into the space. As ever with Mitchell’s work, there is an austere precision that can be disengaging, but as soon as one of those moments interjects I’m brought back on board, that knot in my stomach tightening again.

Immediately after the show, Tom Cornford tweeted that Ophelias Zimmer is “about the katiemitchellest thing you can imagine”. I know what he means: the horrible beauty, the compelling boredom, the pin-point precision, the intellectual rigour, the underlying queasiness, even the foley booth at one side of the stage producing the sounds that underscore Ophelia’s existence. While watching, I was reminded in particular of two other Mitchell pieces: her Schaubühne production of The Yellow Wallpaper – the claustrophobia, the mounting unease, the strange combination of boredom and nauseous tension – and the haunting video installation Five Truths.

The latter was Mitchell’s first take on Ophelia, whose madness was seen through the lenses of five twentieth century theatre practitioners: Constantin Stanislavski, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. Here, Mitchell adds her own interpretation, and it is utterly uncompromising in its starkness and tedium. I struggle with it in the moment of watching, but I am also completely convinced that this oscillation between detachment and uneasiness is exactly what I’m supposed to be feeling. This is a life and death that Mitchell is determined not to prettify or over-dramatise.

As in Five Truths, the climax of Ophelias Zimmer offers an echo of John Everett Millais’s famous painting, but with a bloody twist. In Mitchell’s version, death is not beautiful or romantic or even straightforwardly tragic; it is brutal and ugly, a violent and sudden last resort. No wonder it’s usually kept offstage.

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Cleansed, National Theatre

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There’s a moment in Greg Wohead’s show The Ted Bundy Project when the whole audience holds its breath. We’re watching a video – a video that Wohead has already described at (horrifying) length – and we’re wondering if Wohead – lovely, affable, smiling Wohead – is really about to show us this. He wouldn’t, would he? I stare at the screen, feeling slightly sick, yet unable to wrench my gaze away. I can’t stop watching.

“It’s hard to watch,” writes Natasha Tripney of Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. “Yet here we are, watching.” There’s a similar sense of suspended breath in the Dorfman auditorium. I suspect that many of us know, or at least half know, what to expect from Sarah Kane’s play, first staged at the Royal Court in 1998. We have chosen to be here. And we choose to remain in our seats, looking on as horrible things happen to the bodies on stage. What makes us watch? And how, as we watch, do we make sense of what we see?

The first question, perhaps, is what are we seeing? Both Kane’s play and Mitchell’s production make that a difficult question to answer. In both, very specific scenes of torture and tenderness sit within a strange, abstract world. Tom Mothersdale’s Tinker, sadistic and self-loathing, rules over an institution of some kind, where he torments and experiments on a series of subjects: siblings Graham (Graham Butler) and Grace (Michelle Terry), lovers Carl (Peter Hobday) and Rod (George Taylor), and an illiterate boy named Robin (Matthew Tennyson, bringing extraordinary gentleness to this cruel world). What we as an audience experience is more a series of brutal and beautiful impressions than a linear, coherent narrative.

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Several reviews of Cleansed (both negative and positive) have listed the violence: litanies of horrors laid out for the reader like a catalogue of cruelty. Quentin Letts even offers the exact timings of each instance of torture. But violence is more than just the blows of a fight or the blast of a gun. It’s more than the blood and gore which have dominated press coverage of this revival (along with the depressingly predictable headlines reporting audience members fainting and walking out – presumably not at the same time) – and which, in any case, I was braced for as I tentatively took my seat.

Yes, it’s often difficult to watch. Yes, certain scenes of torture and mutilation – described in (sometimes problematic) detail elsewhere, so I won’t repeat the fetishisation of that represented violence again here – make me curl my hands into fists or send them flying to my mouth. But there’s also violence in the constant ringing of bells and the smooth wheeling in of gurneys. It’s the casual, precise, institutionalised horror of it all that strikes me as most violent. It’s the plastic sheets and pristine black suits.

Perhaps the cruelest moment of the production is when, having force-fed Robin a box of chocolates, Tinker gleefully peels away a sheet of cardboard to reveal another sickly layer beneath. He picks up each individual chocolate with a long pair of tongs, careful not to get his hands dirty. Rooted to my seat – eyes held open, muscles clenched – I shiver.

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I could write about Cleansed purely in images. Grace trapped in dreamlike incomprehension on the stairs, her red dress a vivid splash of colour against her grubby, washed-out surroundings. Rod and Carl frozen in a kiss as Grace’s arm slowly snakes between them. A slow-motion mockery of a funeral, as faceless figures glide across the stage clutching lilies and umbrellas. The daffodils that sprout, suddenly, through the floor. A series of embraces: tender, fierce, bodies briefly moving as one. Carl’s silent scream as he’s wheeled backwards on a gurney. Grace dancing to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, at first a mirror image of Graham, later alone and compulsively, limbs animated with a mixture of horror and joy.

My use of the word “dreamlike” feels apt, as Mitchell’s production is more like a dream than anything else. It’s a nightmare, often, with its shadowy figures and soundless howls. But it also has the vivid strangeness of all dreams, that sense of a world slightly off-kilter. Mitchell (supported by Joseph Alford’s brilliantly controlled movement direction) has slowed everything down to a pace that feels almost outside of time, punctuated with moments of frenetic activity. Nothing quite operates as we expect it to here. Bodies slow and quicken. Plants burst through floor tiles. The seamless combination of Paul Clark’s music and Melanie Wilson’s sound design, meanwhile, generates a constant, queasy anxiety.

Dan Rebellato is one of the few writers to have commented on the theatricality of Cleansed as much as on its naturalism. Many have argued that this version of Cleansed is too realistic, its rendering of violence too convincing. But it’s the hyper-naturalism of Mitchell’s approach to certain moments that creates the production’s uncanniness, its nightmarish blend of (literally) razor-sharp precision and blurry abstraction. As Rebellato puts it, “This production is both fiercely real and achingly theatrical. It’s what it is and it’s humming with metaphor.” It’s haunted by an uneasy doubleness, common to both theatre and dreams. Everything is two things at once. Dreaming and waking. Real and not real. What are we watching?

Mitchell’s production foregrounds the act of watching, of bearing witness. Throughout, we watch Grace watching; she is a constant presence, hovering on the edges of every scene. While the performances are uniformly excellent, it’s Terry as Grace who is utterly unforgettable. Perhaps it’s because we repeatedly see her, rooted to the spot, watching as we watch. In the very first scene she appears frozen to the staircase in the centre of the stage, unable to wrench her feet from where they’re planted, paralysed as if in a nightmare. And it makes you wonder – this constant, almost invisible presence – whether we should indeed read it all as a horrific dream.

There’s more to Grace’s watchful presence, though, than a straightforward framing of the events as a nightmare. By adding an observer, Mitchell throws light on the process of observing. Tinker, too, is often looking on, but his is a different kind of watching. He’s the sinister voyeur – never more so than when watching a peep show, whose performer seems to both attract and repel him. Terry’s Grace, meanwhile, often looks on with tormented compassion, yet able only to helplessly witness. These are our models for watching, making us aware of our own, far from passive involvement as audience members.

“Picture this,” sings a child’s voice in an unsettling rendition of Blondie’s song (just one in a series of inspired musical choices). It’s an invitation to our imaginations, as is Mitchell’s production, even with all its naturalistic touches. There is still, for all the realistic gore, a mental leap. There’s also a choice: a choice to keep watching, like Grace, or to avert our eyes. Why can’t we look away?

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At home I have a book full of photographs of abandoned spaces. Barren post-industrial landscapes. Forsaken monuments to forgotten powers. Paint peeling from walls and weeds nudging through cracks. The beauty of their decay is breathtaking. I feel uncomfortably drawn to these ruins, perhaps in the same way I feel drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s something morbidly fascinating about visions of a world that has left us behind. I also think, as I devour image after crumbling image, how brilliant these would be as stage designs.

Alex Eales’ design for Cleansed could be right out of that book. Kane’s script famously specifies a university – a place of learning become a place of torture – but Mitchell and Eales make this institution much more vague. It could just as easily be a hospital – another ironic reversal that finds its echo in the repeated description of Tinker as a ‘doctor’. There are signs on the walls, but these are the only vestiges of its previous use, relics from another era. Time and nature are gnawing away at this place; the walls are shedding their skin of paint, while bare, spindly trees thrust up through the rotting floor. Dirt and rust and mould are creeping in.

Yet it’s beautiful. And as with those photographs, that’s where the difficulty lies. I’m troubled less by the violence in Cleansed (though it is troubling) than by the extreme beauty I find in it. To what end do we aestheticise acts of cruelty and sites of decay? The question of violence on stage is one that persistently nags at me, and one to which I have no easy answer. Even when cloaked in metaphor, the problem doesn’t disappear. Because those metaphors – Ellen McDougall’s bursting balloons in Henry the Fifth, or the oozing bags of ink in Dan Hutton’s take on The Spanish Tragedy – are beautiful too.

As a challenge, though, Cleansed is vivid and confronting and hauntingly memorable. Kane’s play is known for its series of audacious images – flowers bursting from nowhere, rats carrying off severed body parts – that throw down a gauntlet for any director. It seems to me that Mitchell picks up that gauntlet and then chucks it right at us as an audience. Her images leave us feeling deeply, almost painfully, and they leave us asking the questions that keep punctuating my writing. What are we seeing? What makes us watch? Why can’t we look away? And what is it about what we are seeing that is still, in spite of everything, disturbingly beautiful?

Main photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

 

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.

Duncan Macmillan

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Originally written for The Guardian.

“There’s nothing I can do in my life to compensate for the fact that the world would be better without me in it,” says Duncan Macmillan, smiling over his coffee. It’s a bleak statement, but one that the writer and director explains is grounded in climate science. Each of us in the west, with our hefty carbon footprints, is a drain on the planet’s resources.

When we meet, Macmillan is buried deep in research about the worsening state of the environment. This is all in aid of 2071, a new project for the Royal Court that he is co-writing with climate scientistChris Rapley. For the past six months, the two men have been meeting regularly at University College London, trading their respective expertise in an attempt to bring climate change centre stage.

Directed by Katie Mitchell, 2071 follows her 2012 show Ten Billion, in which scientist Stephen Emmott painted a gloomy picture of our planet’s future. Macmillan tells me that Rapley’s outlook is more complex, challenging our understanding of how we affect the environment. “I thought I was concerned and had read well about it,” he says, “but it’s a whole other thing talking to Chris.”

“I sound like a broken record,” Macmillan laughs a moment later, catching himself using the word complicated yet again to describe Rapley’s insights. Conversation with Macmillan is punctuated with these moments of thoughtful, anxious self-awareness. Intense but amiable, he has a tendency to pause mid-thought, picking apart his own statements as soon as he makes them.

It’s a tendency that Macmillan’s plays share. Monster, the play that scooped two awards in the inaugural Bruntwood prize for playwriting, prodded uncomfortably at ideas of responsibility. In Lungs, a conversation about starting a family is folded into concerns about the state of the planet, interlacing the personal and the global. And when approaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke set out to “represent the challenge” of the novel’s ambiguities rather than attempting to solve them.

“I can’t speak for what theatre can or should do, but I know from my perspective I’m interested in complexity,” says Macmillan. “Chris [Rapley] keeps saying, ‘It’s a little bit more complicated than that.’ And I’ve always thought that would be a really good subtitle for any good play.”

The same complexity applies to Macmillan’s career. Increasingly, he has been working in a number of different roles, from co-directing Headlong’s 1984 with Icke to collaborating with Mitchell on her multi-media productions in mainland Europe. One frustration, however, is the pigeonholing impulse of the British theatre industry. “I think there’s a perception that the playwright is someone who writes the spoken text and that everything else is the domain of the director,” says Macmillan, adding that this is not the case with many of his projects.

Not that spoken text doesn’t interest Macmillan any more. He admits that Lungs, for instance, “is essentially just talking”. That play, which is currently on the road with touring company Paines Plough, spans one long conversation over several years. Its agonised back and forth between a couple deciding whether or not to have children was Macmillan’s attempt to wrestle with some of his own anxieties.

“I found myself worrying about these things and I didn’t know the solution,” he says, discussing the “anxiety debt” that his generation has inherited. “Putting characters on stage who talk about those anxieties makes them quite absurd. And they are. It is absurd that you can have a conversation now about whether or not you want to start a family and at the same time you can be talking about the industrial revolution.”

At the same time as travelling the UK, Lungs is also part of the repertoire at the Schaubühne in Berlin, in a German production directed by Mitchell. While the form that Macmillan initially imagined for the play – no sound, no lights, no props – was an attempt to “break out of a certain kind of formal cul-de-sac”, Mitchell’s production finds a new visual metaphor to communicate the narrative. In her version, the two actors are poised throughout on static bikes, powering the stage lights as they pedal.

“What I enjoy most as a theatre-maker and as an audience member is getting my brain to do more than one thing at once,” says Macmillan, pointing to Mitchell’s production of Lungs as one example. Another isEvery Brilliant Thing, which tours alongside Lungs this autumn. In this interactive monologue, misery and ecstasy are two sides of the same coin. The subject might be suicidal depression, but the show itself manages to be joyously life-affirming.

“It’s the least cool piece of theatre ever, in some ways,” says Macmillan. Staged in the round in Paines Plough’s portable Roundabout auditorium, the formal gesture of the show is deliberately democratic, while its message for those struggling with depression is unashamedly heartfelt. “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it.”

Like so much of Macmillan’s work, Every Brilliant Thing came out of a desire to say something that wasn’t being said. “I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way,” he says. Similarly, at the time of writing Lungs, he felt that he “wasn’t seeing enough about what it’s like to be alive now”. He positions both of these plays as interventions of a kind, adding with an apologetic smile, “that sounds really grand”.

Theatre at its best is, he says, “incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist”. He talks about Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, which the actor and playwright took into people’s homes to shock them into a crisis of conscience. “I find that really inspiring.”

So is 2071 an intervention? The questions it poses – “What is happening to our planet, and what is our role in that?” – would suggest so. Still, Macmillan insists, it is not quite as simple as issuing a manifesto for saving the planet. As Rapley might say, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Photo: Geraint Lewis.

Embrace the Problem: Duncan Macmillan

1984

Originally written for Exeunt.

Duncan Macmillan is remembering a piece of advice from Edward Bond that has stayed with him. “He said this brilliant thing,” the writer and director recalls, “which is that there’s a tendency in some directors to solve the problem. You identify the formal problem or the staging problem or something, and then solve it somehow. And he says good dramatists instinctively know that the problem is all you’ve got, that you should never solve the problem.”

This insight – don’t solve the problem – was something of a starting point for Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke’s acclaimed stage version of 1984 for Headlong. George Orwell’s culturally ubiquitous novel is a tangle of contradictions, none of which the pair wanted to unravel. “It seems absurd and a real shame to iron out all the creases,” says Macmillan. “I think there’s something really exciting about going, ‘what do these creases do for the novel, and how do we find a theatrical form in which to communicate those logic bumps?’”

The answer to that question was found in a structure that could simultaneously hold all possible readings of Orwell’s novel – an exemplary instance of doublethink. “There’s a lot in the book that quite deliberately complicates the narrative, and we didn’t want to solve that by undermining it and just opting for one particular reading of it,” Macmillan explains. Every possible interpretation is allowed for.

Central to their complex, cerebral version of the novel is the oft-neglected Appendix, which no previous adaptation has attempted to tackle. Macmillan is adamant about the importance of this seemingly dry, academic postscript, which Orwell himself insisted was integral to the tale. “It’s like telling a really long, convoluted joke and then missing out the punchline and feeling like you understand the joke even though you’ve not heard the punchline yet,” he argues.

What Macmillan and Icke found frustrating about previous adaptations – and what they have studiously avoided – was the tendency to hone the novel down to the narrative of protagonist Winston Smith’s experience, stripping away its philosophical and political content. “There’s a tendency to over-simplify,” Macmillan suggests, going on to insist that “if you present a literal universe on stage, it’s not accurate to the book”.

Instead of opting for a literal narrative, Macmillan and Icke have held onto the subjectivity of the novel, which offers readers intimate access to Winston’s unreliable mind. In doing so, their main reference points have been cinematic – “film can do subjectivity in a way that theatre sometimes struggles with,” Macmillan suggests. He names the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindMulholland Drive (“it’s a deliberate puzzle”) and The Shining.
These pop cultural influences are also apt for one of their target audiences. Macmillan relates how both he and Icke remember a moment in their teenage years when their minds were opened to the possibility that theatre might be just as exciting as films and computer games; one of their ambitions in creating this adaptation was to offer the same revelatory experience to a new generation of youngsters. “We really wanted to blow those kids’ minds.”

As 1984 moves to the West End to embark on its third run, Macmillan’s enthusiasm for the show is remarkably undimmed. He doubts that he and Icke will ever be truly finished with the piece; despite reading the book dozens of times, they keep returning to pore over each last line, making tweaks to their adaptation as they go. Macmillan offers a neat Orwellian analogy: “Each edition of the Newspeak dictionary is smaller and smaller, because they’re eliminating words from it, and we’ve sort of been doing a similar thing.”

Throughout the process, Macmillan and Icke have worked in tandem, equally doling out the duties of writing and directing. “Quite early on we realised that the usual boundary line between being a playwright and being a director just wasn’t helpful and that we’d automatically started parking tanks on each other’s lawns,” says Macmillan. Reflecting on his metaphor, he is quick to add, with a laugh, “that makes it sound more oppositional and more aggressive than it actually was”. In fact, the partnership has been amicable and creatively fruitful, directing both theatremakers towards bolder, sharper ideas. “It’s been a huge amount of work,” Macmillan admits, “but two heads – in this case – have been better than one, and it hasn’t been a messy, grey compromise. We’ve always pushed each other to make the idea better.”

Another great collaborator of Macmillan’s is director Katie Mitchell, with whom he is currently working on a new project for the Saltzburg Festival. Macmillan finds Mitchell “really trusting and empowering”, praising the passion of her involvement with every element of a production. “She has such artistic integrity as a theatremaker,” he says, “and political integrity as well. I found that really, really galvanising.”

Thanks to working with Mitchell, Macmillan is now much more confident about making work with political intent, something that he suggests “we can find very hard to do in Britain”. The pair’s latest show, The Forbidden Zone, has an explicitly feminist agenda, setting out to “reposition our understanding of certain women and women’s roles in the First World War”. The project has involved extensive research, highlighting for Macmillan just how difficult it is to unearth female perspectives in a history written by men. “One of the things we wanted to do was rehabilitate the writing from that period, this fascinating writing done by so many women, and also these really extraordinary female figures who haven’t been given the right kind of attention,” Macmillan says.

He and Mitchell also recently worked together on the German premiere of Macmillan’s playLungs, or Atmen, which continues to play in rep at the Schaubuhne in Berlin. Despite the script’s strict instructions that the play should be staged with no set and no lighting or sound changes, Mitchell has placed the two performers in her production on bicycles, powering the lights throughout the show. This simple, eco-friendly concept acts as a constant visual reminder of the high environmental stakes that provide the backdrop for Macmillan’s two-hander, in which a couple agonise at length over whether or not to have a child.

“She’d understood the gesture of what I was trying to communicate and I think she added something really interesting to it,” Macmillan reflects on Mitchell’s directorial interventions. “In Katie’s production you really get a sense of the time pressure and the physical pressure, and you also get a sense of the environmental pressure because the carbon neutrality of that production is so visible and audible at all times.”

Macmillan has worked in yet another way on Every Brilliant Thing, a project with Paines Plough and Pentabus which goes on tour in its latest incarnation next month. The piece began as a story written by Macmillan, in which a child starts a list of everything that is wonderful in the world as a way of coping with their mother’s suicide attempt. As in the story, the list soon took on a life of its own, welcoming contributions from the public and transforming into an installation created by Paul Burgess and Simon Daw. Now, the story and the installation have been incorporated into a show, performed by Jonny Donahoe of Jonny and the Baptists and involving members of the audience each night.

“That began as sort of a necessity of the time pressure and the formal constraints we set ourselves, and has now become an inherent part of the project,” Macmillan explains the audience involvement. “There’s something about seeing real people responding live in the moment rather than actors pretending to be other people that feels very true to the project. It cuts out all the pretending of it and it just becomes very honest and open and responsive.”

Although Macmillan is looking forward to getting back behind his desk and focusing on his own work again, he anticipates that the various collaborations he has been involved with in recent years will continue to have an effect on the way he writes. “I guess I’m bored with certain approaches to making theatre and I’m really looking for people who inspire me and are prepared to work with a writer in different ways,” he says. “I’m not as interested as I once was in just sitting in an office and sending a play away.”