It is a sweltering New York summer, in 1952 and publishing executive Richard Sherman roams his Manhattan apartment. While his wife of seven years spends the summer at the beach, Richard is left to work and sweat in the city. An unexpected encounter with the young woman staying on the floor above sets in motion a re-evaluation of married life. Fantasy and reality collide as Richard attempts to balance conscience and guilt with the need to scratch his seven year itch.
Blanche recently won the Critics’ Circle 2012 Award for Most Promising Newcomer for her productions of Accolade, and Foxfinder at the Finborough Theatre. She was also awarded Best Director and Best Production for Accolade at the recent Off West End Theatre Awards, and was the inaugural winner of the Leverhulme Directing Award run by the National Theatre and Finborough Theatre. She takes time out from rehearsals to tell us a little more about the play and her work:
So what is the play about?
Well, it is a play about a man who is torn between his beloved wife and the woman of his dreams. I think that you could say it is about how love can be messy, but in a really lovely way. It’s one of the best comedies I have read in a long long time. It is so absurd and humane, and it is so smart about how people actually work. There is a great generosity about it, which I really like - it is generous about people. In a way the moral is that you can mess up terribly and it can still be okay in the end, which is really rather nice. Although life is not always like that, the fact that it can be is really rather lovely.
Does the play differ from the film version?
Yes it does, in a very important way. The play was written first of course, and it was a big hit on Broadway long before they made it into a film, and there is something very extra-ordinary that seems to have happened in between. The women in the play are much much stronger, are more confident and more assured in themselves than in the film. They know who they are, and they know what they want. They’re very strong and fun and funky people, although funky is perhaps not the right word for that period. They are intelligent and go-getting and independently minded. It was written in 1952 at a time when the ideas of what women were like were and how they behaved hung over from the war, when you had women doing the same jobs as the men, and doing them just as well. The idea of independence was a given. Whereas, by the time you get to the end of the 1950s this is being forgotten, and the measure of one’s success as a woman is the kind of man that you have, and how well one keeps him – having kids at 18 and not being allowed to have a brain. Marilyn Monroe, who stars in the film as the girl, is brilliant of course, but is very much in that later mould. If the characters in the play had been that kind of thing, I would have found it difficult. I think there is something a bit sexist about that. But the fact that there is something really modern about these women, made a huge difference for me.
Is that what persuaded you to revive this show now?
Well I was really lucky. I had never seen the film, but, by chance, I picked the play up in a second hand book shop. I read it and thought it was such wonderful fresh funny writing. It’s beautifully observed. Its one of those ones that you just pick up and read the first page, and think this is really good, and you get ten pages in and think you’ve really got to buy it. By the end of the play I was saying ‘I really have to pitch this to somebody. Someone’s got to do this play’. So, it was just by sheer lucky chance the book happened to be there and I happened to find it, and I’ve been looking for somebody to put it on ever since. And it was amazing that Gareth (Machin – Salisbury Playhouse’s new Artistic Director) took the chance.
This is your debut at Salisbury, how are you finding it?
Yes it is, although I have family that live just outside Salisbury so I have been hearing about the place for years and I know Philip (Wilson, previous AD at the Playhouse) very slightly, but had never been lucky enough until now to be taken on here. So I’m hugely excited!
I love it here, everyone is so brilliant and they’re all so nice. I’ve been up here now for three weeks, so am finding out a lot about the area, and getting to know the city. It’s got such a different feel to London so you can allow yourself to get lost in it and soak up the atmosphere in a really nice way.
The audiences are very switched on here I have been told; they know what they like and are very smart, so will be brilliant to play to. You can’t get away with anything.
How are rehearsals going?
I have a fantastic cast who I love to bits. I am very lucky also, because this is my first time on a big stage, the man playing my lead, Gyurri Sarossy, was also in Design for Living here at the beginning of this season, I have worked with twice before, so we already have a sort of shared way of working on the text. That’s been a huge relief for me because it is a huge part, and it has made me feel very safe, knowing that there are people there that I can count on to do fantastic acting.
In fact I’ve been really really lucky because I also have Gerard Murphy, who was Gareth’s Falstaff, and also in Whos Afriad of Virginia Wolf,, and who is this tremendous ‘name’ actor, come in to do Dr Brubaker, and Verity Rushworth, who was on Emmerdale for 10 years and has been playing leads all over the country, has come in to play the girl. It’s a bit starry and all a bit classy, and I would be a bit daunted if they weren’t such lovely people – they are lovely actors, and just great to work with. And of course Hattie Ladbury is a Salisbury woman, so she’s an old hand here.
You have won a number of awards now – how significant to you is industry recognition of work?
Well it is and it isn’t. I had been directing professionally since 2003, but it was always on the fringe: studio theatres, 40-50 seater houses, etc. - which was wonderful - but it was at quite a low level. There was 8 years of that, learning how to do the job , learning how audiences work, how actors work and the rest of it, often for not very much reward. What was lovely about the awards when they came is that for me they were saying ‘well done for the last 8 years’. They meant a lot to me for that, knowing that all the effort I put in over those years wasn’t for nothing. But the thing about industry recognition is that it hangs on the last play that you’ve done, or perhaps the last handful of plays so you can’t get complacent. I think I’m going to have to keep impressing people. Still, anything good that achieving those awards can do for me, and especially if that attracts people to come and see this play, then I’m delighted.
So what made you decide to become a Director?
The decision was kind of made for me, as I started directing when I was 15 by chance – I kind of fell into it, and then I never really stopped for the next 8 years. When I turned professional, I thought I would give it a go as it seemed to be the thing I loved doing best. There is something different about directing because you are responsible for creating the whole world, putting the thing together, and making the play as a whole. I acted a bit at Uni, but I am a terrible actor, absolutely awful. There’s a huge pleasure in acting but you are just the one person – your responsibility is quite small, because you are just responsible for your one character. Whereas, the director is responsible for the lot, everything the audience sees. During rehearsals you are like a member of the audience – you are their eyes and ears, and there is something I find very exciting about the connection between the audience and the play, so it is very nice to put yourself in that position as well.
There are wonderfully rewarding moments, when you are starting to put a play together, where everyone suddenly goes “oh so that’s what the play is”, when it all drops into place. Also, when you see people grow into the roles, becoming confident in the character they are playing. They start to take risks and make discoveries and to bring their own stuff to it – it is such a pleasure.
How are you finding the current economic climate is affecting your work?
Well from my personal point of view I am only barely at a place where anyone is going to pay me to do any directing anyway so in my career that is a relatively new experience. I’ve been lucky enough in the last couple of years that people with budgets have been prepared to take me on. But I think it’s a huge pity that cuts have been made to funding. There is an economic argument to be made for funding the arts, in that they can bring in so much more than they consume in terms of funding. I know that Salisbury Playhouse recently won an award in recognition of the pull that the Playhouse has from outside the area and the resources that it generates for Salisbury.
I know that in a time of tightened belts you have to choose what is most important but I think it is a great pity that what goes by the wayside is something that makes people look at what life is actually like or how they would like it to be – to examine things that are about being human and about other people. It’s quite rare that you get an art form that focuses the audience on the present moment, what is actually happening in front of them in the here and now. There is something unique in theatre which engages people with what is happening in that exact second and of course you cannot rewind or fast forward it – that I think is quite important, especially in an age where you can sit on Facebook for an hour or you can watch a film on a loop again and again, as though time isn’t passing. There is something about waking you up to the present moment which theatre does so well that is very important not to lose.
But economic shortages can be used as a spur to be creative and not a reason to give up.
You are here with Seven Year Itch until 7th April, and then what’s next?
It’s ‘watch this space really’. Nothing’s nailed down yet, but I’ve got various things that I would love to have happen or to make happen but nothing concrete so I wouldn’t want to jinx anything.
I guess I’m looking for something that is brilliantly observed, about how people actually work, combined with that presentational ‘thing’ that throws it out to the audience and requires them to deal with it live. Difficult to describe, but you know it when you hit it. I’m quite choosy about plays and quite bad about doing plays I don’t love – I’ve done some quite bad jobs where the writing has not been awfully good. I am very much a writing person. If the writing is good, and the characters are well observed then they will have weight. And if the characters have weight then you have a play. But if the writing is cheap, or not thought through, or it prescribes what people ought to do rather than what they actually do, then you have something people can’t engage with emotionally, as they are not seeing something on stage that people actually do.
The Seven Year Itch plays at the Salisbury Playhouse from 15 March to 7 April.