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

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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.

Anya Reiss: Navigating Chekhov

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The moment from Benedict Andrews’ bracing new adaptation of Three Sisters on which many responses seem to have fixated is its glorious, vodka-drenched rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – moody Russian existentialism blasted into contemporary, head-banging anarchy. But there is just as much contemporary resonance in Vershinin’s fading optimism for the future, an act of looking forward that feels tainted by the creeping threats of environmental crisis, or in Andrey’s disillusioned, shell suit-clad lethargy. The times are yet to outpace Chekhov.

As if to prove this continuing relevance, a sudden rash of new productions is rapidly spreading across London, including two contrasting Uncle Vanyas about to lock horns on the West End. If British theatre is currently intoxicated by Chekhov, however, his latest adaptor is remarkably immune. Speaking about the origins of the modernised version ofThe Seagull that opens at the Southwark Playhouse later this month, adding to this mounting wave of revivals, writer Anya Reiss bluntly confesses, “I’d never been particularly grabbed by Chekhov”. Approached by director Russell Bolam to update the classic play, her first reaction was to remember her lack of engagement when forced to study the text at school, and only when reading again with an eye to adapt could she begin to tease out some of the play’s enduring appeal.

“I understood what there was within that story and the characters and I saw that I’d been held back by its context,” Reiss says of her re-reading of the play. “We were always made to read things with a very reverential eye and it was quite hard, so reading it again and knowing I had permission to tear it up a little made me see what it was worth.”

Despite speaking of tearing up the text, Reiss is quick to correct herself when I press her on that phrase, clarifying that the approach she and Bolam have taken is one of respect mingled with reinterpretation. “We’ve deliberately not taken a sledgehammer to it,” she is keen to emphasise, characterising their production as one that treads the middle ground between faithful adaptation and radical revision. “I feel like I’ve tried to be true to the stories and the characters and the themes, and once you do that you’ve got more permission to play with the language.”

Reiss also feels that there is inherently more flexibility when working with plays in translation, as it’s impossible to be entirely faithful to the original. “Everything you read is always someone’s slant on it, so I felt freer to do my own thing – it’s what you have to do,” she says. “If I was trying to update Shakespeare by putting it in modern language I’d feel like a twat, but when it’s already not Chekhov’s phrases you’ve got more freedom with it.”

One of the integral elements of Chekhov’s play is its remote farmland setting, a space distinctly removed from Moscow and its seductive promises of fame and fortune. To replicate this “real sense of isolation”, Reiss and Bolam have relocated the scenes to modern day Isle of Man, a location at a definite remove from the lure of urban excitement. Reiss explains that she began by tackling these crucial points of contextual tension, working out their contemporary equivalents. “It was those questions and the new setting that did it all; they’re the key pinpoints, so once you change those everything else follows along with it.”

Although there are some elements of Chekhov’s nineteenth-century Russian setting that don’t have an obvious modern counterpart – “there was a lot of stuff about horses, that was the main problem,” Reiss laughs – on the whole she says that the play translated quite smoothly. “Compared to other Chekhovs I think it’s quite easy to update, because it’s all about fame and love and art, and those are kind of eternal things,” Reiss explains, contrasting this with the immobility of the Prozorov sisters, a predicament that is harder to explain in a world of international travel. “The crux problems they have are very personal,” she goes on, “they’re not time-specific.”

As timeless as the characters’ situation may be, I wonder how the playwright is handling the wider implications of playing with a classic text. Discussions about Reiss inevitably veer towards her precocity and the astonishment that attended her debut play Spur of the Moment, written when she was just 17. Our conversation actively eschews this typical focus on her youth – Reiss is still shy of her 21st birthday, with two Royal Court productions already under her belt – but my question about the level of pressure attached to this new production is implicitly coloured by the expectations that have settled on Reiss’ shoulders at such an early stage in her career. This is greeted, however, with a surprising lack of concern.

“It’s had the opposite effect,” says Reiss in response to my suggestion that taking on such a famous text might carry with it a certain level of trepidation. “It’s made me more relaxed because a lot of it isn’t really my problem. If you don’t like it then a lot of that’s Chekhov, it’s not really me.” With the same casual frankness that characterises the playwright’s tone throughout our conversation, Reiss goes on to admit that there was something lazily enjoyable about writing a play in which plot and characters were already taken care of, removing a layer of anxiety from the writing process.

While apparently unflustered by the possible pressures of tackling Chekhov, however, Reiss is at pains to deflect any suspicions that her version will be pointedly wedded to the present. “You do a modern adaptation, but you don’t want it to be too smug and wink-wink, with lots of references to Twitter and X Factor,” she says, deliberately naming modern touchstones that might easily be applied to the desire for fame that is explored in the play. “The reason you’re updating it is to demonstrate that what it’s about is eternal, so to then make it very much about issues we have now doesn’t serve the play in the same way.”

In the midst of these negotiations of adaptation, I mention Lyn Gardner’s recent piece about the timidity that often goes hand in hand with the approach taken to classic plays by British directors – a fitting reference point, given that Gardner’s comparison is Australian director Andrews’ version of Three Sisters. The same criticism might arguably be levelled at writers working with these classic texts in translation, all earnestly trying to stay true to the author’s intention, that enshrined tenet of British theatre. Do we need to be more open to interpretation?

“That idea that it has to be either one or the other can be quite alienating,” Reiss suggests, recoiling slightly from both the reverential and the radical. It need not necessarily be a basic choice between Nirvana and museum piece, as much as the commentary surrounding these plays might have us believe. The tactic chosen by Reiss and Bolam is to navigate a path somewhere between the two extremes. “You feel like you either have to love it in this very faithful way or you have to take a hammer to it, and I think there’s a middle ground that isn’t explored as much as it could be. That’s what we’re trying to explore.”