20 Questions With... Nicolas Kent
Date: 29 January 2007
Tricycle Theatre artistic director Nicolas Kent – who this week premieres Tamsin Oglesby's The War Next Door, a verse metaphor for the war in Iraq – explains why he’s following it up by putting Tony Blair on trial.
For the past 23 years, Nicolas Kent has been artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London. Founded in 1980 on the Kilburn High Road, the 240-seat theatre has been a driving force with both its political and its multi-cultural work – in particular black, Irish and South African plays – reflecting and attracting the local community.
After the theatre was gutted by a fire in 1987, Kent succeeded in raising the funds to rebuild it in full; in 1998, the complex was expanded with a 300-seat cinema, art gallery, bar and restaurant, care of a £2.8 million National Lottery grant.
Under Kent’s directorship, the Tricycle has had several productions – including Ain’t Misbehavin’, Kat and the Kings, Stones in His Pockets, The Price and, most recently, The 39 Steps - transfer to the West End and/or Broadway, often collecting Laurence Olivier awards along the way.
In 1994, the Tricycle Theatre produced Half the Picture – the Scott Arms to Iraq Inquiry, which was the first play ever staged in the Houses of Parliament. This was the first of a series of plays that have subsequently become known as the Tricycle Tribunal Plays, all conceived and directed by Kent. The second, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1946 War Crimes Tribunal, was Nuremberg, which was followed by Srebrenica – the UN Rule 61 Hearings (later transferred to the National Theatre and the Belfast Festival). In 1999, the Tricycle’s reconstruction of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, The Colour of Justice transferred to the West End before going on a regional tour as well as playing at the National.
2003's Justifying War - Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry was followed by Guantanamo - Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which transferred to the West End and New York and was later performed in San Francisco, Tucson, Stockholm, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan and Italy, not to mention in Washington, DC on Capitol Hill to members of the Congress. After its run at the Tricycle, 2005's Bloody Sunday - Scenes from the Saville Inquiry was performed in Belfast and Dublin and won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement. This past November, the Tricycle was presented with the Evening Standard's Special Award for its "pioneering work in political theatre".
Kent's other directorial credits at the Tricycle have included The Great White Hope, A Love Song for Ulster, Macbeth, Playboy of the West Indies, Wine in the Wilderness, Trouble in Mind, A Free Country, Dreyfus and, most recently How Long Is Never: Darfur, a Response and Walk Hard, Talk Loud, the first play in last winter’s African-American season.
Kent is now directing the world premiere of Tamsin Oglesby’s The War Next Door, which starts performances this week. A metaphor for the war in Iraq, the verse play centres on thoroughly modern British couple Sophie and Max, who are growing suspicious of their neighbours, Hana and Ali. Later this spring, Kent will direct the latest of the Tricycle Tribunal Plays, Called to Account, which puts the Prime Minister on trial for his role in Iraq.
- Nicolas Kent was speaking to Terri Paddock
Date & place of birth
Born 26 January, in London.
Lives now in
Between St John’s Wood and Maida Vale (north-west London).
Why did you want to work in theatre?
When I was at university at Cambridge, I was very good at the business side of theatre, production managing everyone’s shows. Eventually, I thought it would be more fun to direct. I directed a play which has now almost become a drawing room comedy but was then more political, Look Back in Anger, and I got the bug from that. I’ve always wanted to in some way try and throw a pebble in to make a ripple here and there and change the world a bit. Theatre is an amazingly good tool to change things or raise a debate.
First big break
A long time ago I suppose there were two things. George Baker, who had a touring company in Bury St Edmunds, took me on and showed great faith in me. I became an associate director there, that was a very big break. And after that I went to the Traverse in Edinburgh. That was a wonderful break because I began to understand about new work.
How did you come to run the Tricycle?
I had done Playboy of the West Indies for the Oxford Stage Company and we wanted a London home for it after it had been on tour. This seemed a good place so we brought it here. At that time Ken Chubb was being embattled by the Arts Council to cut the Tricycle’s grant. They made it very clear they wanted a change of artistic director. Ken was very keen I applied so I did. The board asked what I would do if the grant got cut. And I said, I’ll fight very hard to get it back, and if I don’t get it back I’ll stay and we’ll find some other way of running the theatre. I warned them I was the least good person to get the grant back because I was on the Arts Council when the grants to 20 organisations were cut, and I resigned in protest so I wasn’t very popular with the Arts Council. But I was the only one who said I’d stay on, all of the others said they’d leave when the theatre shut. I think the board thought, well, if someone’s feisty enough to want to make a fight of it we should hire him. And it’s been a fight ever since to be honest. We got the grant back and then Brent cut our local grant and we had to fight to get that back and then the GLC went down so we lost a huge amount of funding there. Then after 1987, when we finally got ourselves onto a decent keel, the theatre burned down and Brent had forgotten to insure it, so we had to get it rebuilt. Surprisingly, the Tory government helped us rebuild it. And then Brent cut our grant again and we had to deal with that and then we had the project with the cinema. We’re now on a reasonably even keel, though I’m still looking for money. We’ve got this Front Wheel project where we’re asking 200 people to give us £1,000 a year for the next three years. That will make a huge difference to us. If any Whatsonstage.com readers who’d like to help, my telephone number is 020 7372 6611.
What have been your proudest achievements at the Tricycle?
I’m very proud of our education programme. We get to 38,000 children a year, of which at least 12,000 are socially excluded, either through learning difficulties or having problems with mainstream schooling or because they’re refugee children or asylum seekers and have language difficulties. We have one of the largest primary school programmes outside the Unicorn and Polka, which are dedicated only to that, and probably one of the largest education programmes outside the National. Building an art studio for the children and building the cinema have also been terrific highlights. And I suppose the fact that these Tribunal Plays have been seen by 25 million people all over the world, with most of them televised by the BBC. They have made a real difference. There are a number of police forces in the country that still use the Stephen Lawrence play for training purposes against institutional racism. And there was a guy I met the other day who’d seen the Nuremburg one. He went on become the PM’s advisor on genocide entirely because he had read Primo Levi’s book on the Holocaust and seen Nuremburg all in one week. He said that it was a completely life-changing experience. There are quite a few cases of things that have happened like that.
How did you feel about receiving the Evening Standard’s Special Award for the Tricycle’s political theatre work?
It was incredibly special. I just had to look at the people who’d received it in the last 25 years - Olivier received it, the National received it, Pinter’s received it, Judi Dench, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson. To be in that company was phenomenal, I think it’s possibly the highest accolade we’ve ever had here. We’ve always been political. Before the Tribunal Plays, we did a lot of work about the three wars going on: the Cold War and two hot wars, one in South Africa and one in Ireland. We had a big link with Johannesburg. We were even picketed by the anti-apartheid movement at one point because we were putting on South African work. I had to cross the picket line with the knowledge - that I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone - that I had arranged with the ANC that we would do this play, Black Dog. They wanted it to be seen in England. And then we did Born in the RSA under similar circumstances. It was very difficult to look as though we were breaching this boycott but knowing that we had the support of the government in waiting in South Africa at the highest level. When the Berlin Wall came down and there was a peace settlement in Ireland and Nelson Mandela was released from jail, suddenly we didn’t have a role in that way. We reinvented our role by coming on the whole closer to home with the Tribunal Plays, although many of those have involved Iraq in some way.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I’ve got a soft-spot for Playboy of the West Indies, which I’ve done three times now, Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope, and Bill Morrison’s six-hour trilogy Love Song for Ulster. That was a terrific, wonderful and extraordinary thing to do. I’ve also had quite a lot of fun doing the black plays, especially Alice Childress.
Jenny Jules has to be an amazing favourite. She started in our youth theatre here and she’s been absolutely great. And then Michael Cochrane, Jeremy Clyde and Thomas Wheatley - all those old favourites in the Tribunal Plays. It’s invidious to pick people out because I’ve enjoyed working with 99 percent of the actors who’ve come through this building, they’ve been terrific fun. Lorraine Boroughs, who I’m working with now on The War Next Door, is just an enormous young talent.
James Baldwin, he’s a tremendous favourite, and August Wilson. I haven’t done plays by either of them myself, they’ve always been done by other directors here. Also Alice Childress, Carlo Gebler, the French writer Jean-Claude Grumberg and Tamsin, whose work I’ve admired for a long time.
What other directors do you most admire?
I’ve always admired Max Stafford-Clark enormously for the integrity and thruth of his work. I admire Trevor Nunn. Someone said to me once that Trevor always lets an actor know whether he’s walking on grass or concrete, and that’s absolutely the detail of his work. I loved Nicholas Nickleby ages ago and I was rather knocked out by Porgy and Bess. Then there are lots of foreign directors like the Georgian, Sturna, whose work is absolutely extraordinary. And as a child I remember seeing the work of Joan Littlewood, which was just mind-blowing, and Peter Brook. Brook’s King Lear was another reason for me getting into theatre - I saw it four times and thought it was the most profound and moving experience.
What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I really enjoyed Porgy and Bess. And the plays I have enjoyed most recently were the three parts of Henry VI in the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre in Stratford.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d swap with Tony Blair. I’d get out of Iraq and make Britain a neutral country, and I’d spend more money on education and the Health Service, and scrap Trident. I’d also change to British summer time all year round to give me a slightly longer day.
You’ll be quite amazed by this, Pride and Prejudice is one of my definite favourites. And as for modern novels, I tremendously enjoyed Zadie Smith’s On Beauty recently. I would love her to write a play for us. I keep writing to her and I don’t get any reply. But I don’t bear grudges - she can get in touch any time. Anna Karenina is also a favourite.
Favourite after-show haunts
Oh yes, the Tricycle bar - not enough people use it after the show. Otherwise, the Shamrock restaurant opposite which serves some of the best Indian food on offer, or Small and Beautiful up the road from here. Or you could even go across to our rival, the Black Lion, and admire their ceiling – it’s one of the best Victorian ceilings in London.
Why did you want to premiere The War Next Door at the Tricycle?
I read it about nine months ago and thought it was extraordinary. It’s about cultural diversity and the way we live in London now, but it’s also an allegory for the war in Iraq, and it’s written in verse. I’ve admired Tamsin’s work for a long time and really wanted to commission a play of hers. I was under the impression that this play had been done somewhere else, which made me less interested because it wouldn’t be a premiere, but then I rang Tamsin up and she said no it hadn’t been done anywhere. It was actually commissioned by the National and then they got cold feet about doing it. So I reread it and fell in love with it. It’s kind of a dangerous play because you could be accused of political incorrectness with it. But I think the Tricycle has such a record and such a commitment to multicultural work and cultural diversity that we had to do it.
How do you decide which of the plays from your programme you’ll direct yourself?
I do things that I think I would be best at, so I tend to do work that is the most political or quite often I do things that have a racial content. Neglected black American plays have always been a specialty. We’ve done more African-American plays at the Tricycle than any other theatre. The Almeida’s upcoming production of Big White Fog was a play that was found by us - we’ve done about 20 of those plays.
What’s your favourite line from The War Next Door?
“Let's say they agreed on a blow job
right, so out comes the old knob
suddenly he decides he'd rather take her from behind
she says no, runs to the window
shouts for help from a passing taxi
- too late, he throws her down and takes her up the
The next play you’re directing at the Tricycle also tackles the war in Iraq. How did Called to Account - The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the Crime of Aggression Against Iraq - A Hearing come about?
I was watching Tom Stoppard’s Rock 'n' Roll and thinking about the way that no one had really been called to account about the removal of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, which was a very evil deed on the part of the Soviet Union at the time. And so I started thinking, well, no one has called our Prime Minister to account for what he’s done over the invasion of Iraq either. Initially, we did these Tribunal Plays on enquiries which already existed, like the Hutton Enquiry. Then we branched out by forming a rather informal enquiry, a journalistic enquiry, with Guantanamo. I thought we could move this one step forward by having a formal enquiry or indictment that we set up ourselves rather than waiting for the Government to do it. I talked to Richard Norton-Taylor about it and he recommended Phillippe Sands, who’s a QC and has written a book called The Lawless World and was involved in the prosecution of Pinochet. I’d heard Philippe on the radio talking about the legality of the war. He agreed to a meeting and we thrashed out the ground rules to prove whether or not there’s a case to indict Blair.
How’s it developing so far?
We started in early January and we’re half-way through. We’re interviewing witnesses for an hour-and-a-half each with four barristers - we’re setting it out like a court process and recording everything. So far we’ve had Clare Short, and we’re about to do Scott Ritter, the weapons inspector. It was very difficult at first, but now because some of the people we’ve got are so well known, that’s brought others on board. We now have 80 or 90 witnesses, many of whom are international figures and quite a few of whom are not British. We’re dealing primarily with three issues: the use or abuse of intelligence, the need or not for a second UN resolution, and the Attorney General’s advice and whether that was tailored to fit the case for war or whether it was changed. Those three issues are the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. The defence is having to find the case to prove that an indictment is not necessary. We’re trying not to load the result, we want to give both sides their own witnesses. It has been tougher now to find people who support the war and support the actions of the Prime Minister. But witnesses for the prosecution are also being very severely cross-examined. So both sides of the argument are being put and it’ll be as fair and balanced as we can make it. We’ll probably have about 26 hours of testimony which will be whittled down into a two-hour play. That’s not particularly difficult when you look at the six years of testimony we had to condense for Bloody Sunday, or the nine months for Stephen Lawrence or two years for Nuremberg. And in this case, it’s less rigid because, although we’ll use the testimony absolutely accurately and edit it as impartially and fairly as we can, we’re not stuck with the chronology of a real enquiry or trial. We can put witnesses in any order we want to put them in.
When you staged your first Tribunal Play, did you imagine that it would become such a huge series?
No, we never even conceived. I remember, when I announced we were doing the Arms to Iraq enquiry, the box office manager said, well, we can all book our holidays for then because only two men and a dog are going to come and see that. But it sold out. Now, with months to go, the bookings for Called to Account are already phenomenal. I think we’ll be sold out before we go up.
What do you have planned for your next Tribunal Play?
We never plan. These things seem to come because there is a moment for them. After Bloody Sunday, we thought we would never do another Tribunal Play, but then Hutton came in in the middle of Bloody Sunday. When I found out that enquiry wasn’t being televised, I knew we had to do it. In fact, the final one of nine reasons that Jeffrey Robertson, who is QC for ITV and Sky Television, put forward to Lord Hutton as to why it should be televised was to do with us. He said, and my lord, if you don’t televise this, it will land up on television anyway because there’s a certain theatre in north-west London that will almost certainly do a play and you will find famous actresses like Sylvia Syms playing the witnesses and someone playing Tony Blair and someone playing your lordship and I would suggest it would be better if the public saw the actual people.
What other plans do you have for the future?
We’ve got The Caretaker coming this spring, which I’m very pleased about. And I’m doing a project on global warming with Simon Beaufoy (who wrote The Full Monty film) which I have high hopes for. I would also really love to do a trilogy of contemporary black English plays to follow last year’s season of three African-American plays and use the same ensemble of actors. It’s been 23 years at the Tricycle for me so far - as long as I don’t run out of energy and the board want me to stay, then I’ll stay.
The War Next Door runs from 6 February to 3 March 2007 (previews from 1 February). Called to Account runs from 19 April to 19 May. In between those two productions at the Tricycle, Sheffield Crucible’s revival of Pinter’s The Caretaker is on from 13 March to 14 April.