The Octagon Theatre Bolton will open its new 2013–2014 Season with An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley, directed by David Thacker. We caught up with him to find out about the play, the venue and the new season.
What attracted you to the play?
There are lots of reasons why I wanted to open our season with An Inspector Calls, but mainly because I'm confident that our audience will enjoy the play and be stimulated by it. And I believe that the play is more substantial than it might appear on the surface. J.B. Priestley wrote it during the Second World War and it was first performed in the Soviet Union before being performed in the UK in 1946 and since then it's been a very popular play with audiences.
For most of its life the play has often been seen as a conventional drawing room play and perhaps, because of the way proscenium arch productions have tended to present it, may have seemed to ‘creak' a bit as a play. Until 1992. More than any other play, critics' and scholars' perception of An Inspector Calls was transformed by a very significant and brilliant production - by Stephen Daldry for the National Theatre. It was a remarkable transformative production - stimulating and imaginative in a number of ways.
Do you think Stephen raised the bar, given the praise his production received?
Without a doubt. He made everyone see the play in a new light. I think it would be silly for any director to copy or dilute Stephen's expressionist approach because such a production could never be done better than he did it. Generations of young people have been to see An Inspector Calls presented in that wonderful way. And theatre-goers have been thrilled by Stephen's imaginative response to the play.
On the other hand, I think there is a very different way of presenting the play which suits the Octagon's Theatre-in-the-Round perfectly. I hope that by doing the play in almost the opposite way to Stephen's wonderful production, the play can again be revealed as new-minted, to reveal its relevance for the world today. Both for people who know the play and for those who have never seen it and have no pre-conceptions.
For anyone not familiar with the text, what is about?
An Inspector Calls centres on the Birling family, who are interrupted when celebrating the engagement of their daughter by the arrival of Inspector Goole who tells them he is investigating the tragic death of a young woman – a suicide.
As he speaks to each member of this affluent family he uncovers their connections to this tragic young woman's death. Stripping away layer upon layer of deceit he exposes the lies that infect this seemingly respectable family, reveals the deeply entrenched hypocrisy at the heart of Edwardian society and urges every member of the family to take responsibility for their part in the girl's tragic death.
Are there any themes which can be applied to the landscape we are in now?
I think An Inspector Calls has an even greater importance now than at any time since it was written. Priestley is often criticised by people who are unsympathetic to his politics as being too ‘socialist' in this play. Clearly his socialism and playwriting are inextricably linked, as the politics of any playwright are inseparable from their work. And Priestley's commitment to socialism is very clear. But it would seem to me too narrow an assessment of what this play is revealing to say it is only driven by a wish to assert socialist ideology.
Why have you paired the play with Long Day's Journey into Night?
I feel it will be interesting for the Octagon audience to see the two plays together. Both were written in the early nineteen forties and set in 1912. Both involve disintegrating families who need to understand the implications of their actions and accept their responsibilities. And there are many thematic connections even though the plays are very different. I hope that I can encourage all the people who come to see An Inspector Calls to come back to see five of the actors play very different people in another brilliant gripping play about a family.
You are clearly a fan of the classics. Does you equally find yourself annoyed that very few producers can gamble with new plays because of the need to have a hit?
I only want to present a classic or a contemporary classic if I believe that the play can have a huge impact on a wide range of people. The same is true for any new play that we choose to programme. And it's not necessarily the case that new plays are more ‘risky'.
We try to present a wide ranging programme in our season ticket season and expect some productions to play to more people than others. The truth is that every play is a risk. As every year passes we need to make bigger surpluses on our productions to compensate for funding cuts.
How is the fundraising going for the Octagon?
This year the generosity of our supporters has enabled us to carry out major refurbishment work on several areas of the Octagon. We want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy theatre. The Octagon is a registered charity and relies on the support of our funders, sponsors and donors. There are still more improvements to be made and the work is ongoing - we're almost there.
Bolton has welcomed you with open arms, but how do you continue to get first timers to the theatre?
First we have to present productions that will have a real impact on people. Then we have to hope that the people who come will spread the word. Some people think that theatre is alienating, difficult and inaccessible; we work hard to overcome those preconceptions. If we can get people to buy a ticket the rest is down to us – to make sure they are moved, inspired, entertained and stimulated. If they are they will come again – and hopefully tell their friends to come.
What drew you to your role?
I've never planned my career. My first major job in theatre was as Artistic Director of the Duke's Playhouse, Lancaster. I loved it and am very proud of what we achieved and the impact we had on our audience.
Then I was fortunate to be appointed Director of the Young Vic. I spent ten very happy and challenging years there being privileged to work with major figures like Arthur Miller and numerous brilliant actors. That led me to becoming Director-in-Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company where I directed 9 productions.
I then began directing television dramas and fell in love with filming. So I had ten years as a freelance director, directing a couple of productions for the National Theatre, a couple abroad, but mainly directing over 30 television dramas. Towards the end of that time I began to yearn for the deep sense of purpose of running a regional theatre.
I'd always loved the Octagon as an auditorium. I think the auditorium, with its three configurations, suits my style as a director perfectly and it's turned out to be the case that I love directing plays here. I'm extremely grateful to the people of Bolton and the North West for the wholehearted way in which they have embraced our efforts to provide high quality theatre for them.
Is there still a great deal to achieve?
It's extremely difficult to present a consistently high quality programme of productions and we never take for granted our ability to do that. Every production is a new challenge and we're never complacent. We always seek to achieve our own ‘personal best' – as athletes would call it - and it will get harder and harder to present the range of plays to the standards we aspire if funding cuts continue.
Margot Leicester (your wife) works with you at the Octagon and has received some wonderful reviews. But how do you manage to draw a line underneath it and not take your work home?
Margot has spent most of the last 5 years in our family home in London and I've been based in the cottage I rent in Chapeltown. She, and our daughter Elizabeth, visit me as often as possible and I see her when I'm in London for casting or for meetings.
Fortunately we love working together and respect each other enormously. I think I've always learned a lot from Margot and she likes my approach as a director. Most of our time outside the rehearsal room we talk about our family (three grown up boys and Elizabeth) and what's going on in the world. We don't really draw any lines because we both find meaning in our lives through our family and our work. But we very rarely talk about any production that we're working on. We always maintain complete confidentiality.
I simply could not have achieved the quality of work in the productions she's been in had it not been for her. I'm very grateful that she still likes working with me after 30 years and is prepared to make the sacrifices involved in coming to Bolton.
How do you relax?
I'm nearly always working in one way or another. That's mainly because it's a very demanding job – being an Artistic Director and directing a lot of plays. Sky Sports is a must for me and the various news channels.
What are you looking forward to in the new season?
All of it! I just hope we can do justice to the wonderful plays and make the audience happy.
Why should audiences continue to support the Octagon?
It's not for me to say whether or not the quality of our work deserves their support, but I am confident that thousands of people love what we do. I think it's important that their support is not uncritical. I love the Octagon audience being honest about what they think of our work. We are, after all, doing it for them. I want them to trust us - to trust that we are striving to make the Octagon a wonderful theatre for them. I'd love them to trust that it's worth them taking a risk on plays that might not have obvious appeal to them.
On top of our main season of productions, our Learning and Participation Department do wonderful work in the community, especially with young people and in areas of great social need. All this would be lost if ever the Octagon ceased to exist.
Finally, how would you sum up a visit to the Octagon? What do you hope audiences gain?
In my opinion, the people of Bolton have the best theatre auditorium in the country. It's a dynamic, intimate, exciting space. I hope they will be inspired, moved and entertained by the plays they see. Sometimes they will laugh. Sometimes they will cry. Sometimes both! I hope they will always be gripped and stimulated. They will find the Octagon a happy place to be with friendly, courteous staff who will look after them – especially if they've never been before. They'll usually be able to meet the actors in the bar after the show. There's food and drink at reasonable prices and the whole experience will be a great night out.
An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley runs at the Octagon Theatre Bolton from 5 September until 5 October.