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Erica Whyman is still so inextricably linked in my mind with Southwark Playhouse and the Gate in Notting Hill, that I have to keep reminding myself she has been working her magic as Chief Executive with Northern Stage since 2005. She is proud of what she achieved at both previous venues, particularly at Southwark Playhouse. “Both theatres have gone from strength to strength which is lovely. I suppose Southwark, particularly, really wasn’t on the map when I took it over. It was having a bit of a tough time, and we really did get people’s attention.”
Listening to her over the telephone is like breathing in from a helium balloon full of theatrical sense and vision – an inspiring experience. Her enthusiasm for the North East and Northern Stage is palpable. “Northern Stage are going through a kind of renaissance. We went through a period of having a good reputation on tour but with people not necessarily appreciating that we came from the North East. We really feel a part of that and that great writing happens here, great storytelling and that we have got the capacity, the directors and the theatres to really make an impact nationally.”
Erica’s freelance work includes The Importance of Being Earnest at Oxford Playhouse in 2005. She cast her best friend, Sally Phillips, whom she has known since college – “she’s a great lady” – as Gwendolen and the resulting production was greeted with delight by R&V‘s late critic Peter Mottley, who said he could ‘feel the warmth, the constant undercurrent of pleasure, the laughter ready to bubble from our lips’. He described this as the strength of Erica’s production, which let the play ‘speak for itself’ and did not patronise the audience. It was, he wrote, ‘delightfully free from directorial “concepts”.’
Now that Erica is at Northern Stage, her desire is to make the most of the large stage at her disposal and it has given her a great appetite for the big production. She was, she says, “on a bit of a mission to do big epic plays”. She and Peter Flannery met at an opportune time. She had just launched her new regime with Dennis Potter’s Son of Man and wanted to find “something with a connection with the North East”.
While most of us may know Our Friends from the North from its incarnation as a television series in 1996, it actually began as a stage play for the RSC 25 years ago. Although people had wanted to see it revived before now, it was felt in some quarters that the late 90s was an inappropriate time because of the play’s extreme criticism of Labour politics. Come the 21st century and the timing seems perfect, not least because it is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original production. “It hasn’t been revived in all of that time,” says Erica, “so it’s really kind of overdue.”
The play, however, is an extremely different beast, she explains. “It’s a very different experience. I mean, the characters you’ll remember and the story lines, but the television series spanned thirty years and expands all of those relationships into the future, whereas the play is really quite oblique and very moving during its span of fifteen years because of victory in ’64 and the Tory victory in ’79.”
She describes it as a very hard-hitting political drama. “That’s the most important thing to tell people, really. It has been given a new beginning and very new ending, so there is a little prologue which makes concrete its Shakespearean roots and helps the audience through the course of the evening, in that they are watching fourteen actors who are going to play all these parts and that it’s possible to tell the whole story ofOur Friends in the North with what we have. So it’s a wonderful beginning and a very theatrical beginning, and the ending is extremely moving because it’s… without giving it away, you see all of these lives come to a point of transition.”
Again, she remarks on the similarity with Shakespeare and points out that the whole history cycle was also being done in Stratford-upon-Avon in ’81 as well. “People are pretty daunted these days by the idea of a long play, but I have been very impressed, everywhere we have done it, by the audiences’ passion for it; they get so involved but actually stay there for nearly three and a half hours.”
Asked about her path into directing, Erica says she had always wanted to work in the theatre. “For a while I studied a PhD in philosophy, but from a very little girl I wanted to act but at university I found that it wasn’t for me, as a life. Part-way though I went, ‘Ah directing!'”
This decision led to her applying to Bristol and training as a director. “I have been running things, I am astonished to say, for ten years, having started off in ’98, I think. When I look back, that is what I was looking for – to have some influence in programming. That’s what really gets me excited, so I have landed on my feet as Northern Stage is an amazing theatre, and there is such an appetite in the North East for brave and ambitious work in all the art forms and, perhaps at the moment, especially in the theatre.”
One of the biggest influences on her work has been Richard Eyre, although she qualifies this by saying she’s not sure that all her productions are actually like Eyre’s. “When he ran the National, I went a great deal, and many years later I was very fortunate that he agreed to be my mentor. So I got to know him a little bit.”
What really inspires her is Eyre’s attitude towards acting and it is central to what she herself does in the rehearsal room. “He is very respectful of actors and he is very interested in what they bring and their instincts and their detail. You know, he is known as the great director of text and I think it’s because he is great director of actors.”
It is heartening hear how much she likes working with actors, who she thinks are still under-valued. “I am the first to say I find out as much as I can about the play but I think that if that doesn’t translate to a process that’s really crucial to what actors can bring to a piece of work, it’s not alive – it might be very clever but it’s not alive.”
It is the skills of weekly rep, she points out, that actors require for an ensemble piece like Our Friends in the North “because you need to come off one scene with one character with one accent and outfit and be back seconds later as another one”. These kind of skills are in short supply with weekly rep a thing of the past and Erica is the first to concede that “lots of interesting things” have been lost as a result. Not that this is evident with the cast she has built up around her for Our Friends.
“One thing I have loved about this company is the huge range of ages; there are fourteen of them and I think they range from thirty-two to fifty-eight, and so you have got all that experience in the room, every level. The younger bring a sort of televisual instinct which is quite helpful for this play as there are a lot of duologues. It’s very, very truthful and that’s really rooted a lot of the work on stage.”
Improbable Theatre’s Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch have also contributed much to her way of working. “I knew them in the mid-nineties and toured with one of their shows. They are obviously very, very different as artists and very, very free and work from improvisation and put the actors at the centre of the process and they are very inventive visually and physically.”
McDermott and Crouch’s visual approach has also had a huge influence on the way she works, particularly with design, which is why she regards designer Soutra Gilmour – who is responsible for the set of Our Friends – as her “great collaborator”. “Her designing is the sole purpose for the next project I am doing. We have worked together now for about eight years. She is very exciting in the way she thinks about space; it’s very architectural, which frees the actors and frames them brilliantly. You couldn’t possibly do Our Friends in the North without ingenious design. To do countless locations – there are forty two scenes – you have to move very, very quickly between scenes. She is as much of an influence as anyone I have worked with.”
I wonder what her thoughts are on the debate about young actors who can’t be heard on stage, a subject constantly broached by writers on R&V and recently brought to the fore by such as director Peter Hall, actor Edward Fox and playwright Arnold Wesker. Her reaction is unexpected. “I think some people are unfair to actors. “I think that’s a director’s responsibility to take them through a process where they understand the space they are working in and it’s also about respecting where that comes from. It’s true that actors under about forty have had most of their experience in television and film, or in studio work on stage; all they are really doing is looking for the truth. It’s quite easy to free them up to be as big as they need to be to fill the stage.”
She goes on to heap praise on her own cast. “I have got some tremendous actors in Our Friends. Craig Conway springs to mind, who plays Georgie; he has got an incredible voice, and he has done some big stage work, though not an enormous amount, and he has found the flamboyance in it. Part of the truth about playing a character in a big play is to speak loud in a projected voice, and unless you can find that, the audience are not going to go with you because they feel cheated. But if you find out who is that person, who he is and what he has to perform for someone in the play or in the scene, if you can find that truth, they will get there.”
Her next production in collaboration with Soutra Gilmour is a version of A Doll’s House by Frank McGuinness that she has set in the 1950s Britain, an appropriate decade in which to relocate Ibsen’s dissection of life for a woman expected to be the perfect home-maker. “It’s got a great cast: Tilly Gaunt is playing Nora, John Kirk is playing Helmer, and I am really interested in doing that play because again the North East hasn’t produced classics for a long time. It’s lovely to revisit a play and find the truth in a new version. It’s in April and tours in May around the country.”
Erica Whyman’s approach to directing and to actors is exhilarating and I have no doubt that she will continue to produce absorbing work at Northern Stage and wherever else she happens to lay her hat.
Sarah Vernon © 2008
Originally published on R&V 24-03-08
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