WhatsOnStage Logo

Brief Encounter with ... Beautiful Thing director Nikolai Foster

WhatsOnStage logo
Jonathan Harvey's popular play Beautiful Thing is 20 years old and to celebrate - it's currently at the Arts Theatre, London - followed by a small tour. We caught up with the director Nikolai Foster to find out why the play is worth revisiting two decades on.

What attracted you to Beautiful Thing and had you seen it before?

I saw the film when I was a teenager; it was released when I was about 13. I can't remember where I first saw the it, however, it feels like the story and characters have always been part of my cultural consciousness. Coincidentally, Hettie Macdonald was responsible for me securing my first professional theatre job, so I am grateful to her for not only for an astonishing, life-affirming film, but also helping me to secure my first big break.

Jonathan Harvey says you are an actor's director. How do you get the to lead actors' to convince the audience that this is a tale of first love - against a backdrop of repression in terms of gay representation?
We are blessed with two astonishingly talented actors in Jake and Danny-Boy. Their commitment to finding the most truthful and interesting ways in which to inhabit these characters and the scenes has always been paramount in their approach. Therefore, there was little need to convince. The scenes between the two boys are perfectly constructed, and with such fine young actors, the work was all about making choices, and ensuring our choices told the story clearly and most effectively. It was very easy for us all to trust Jonathan's beautiful words, and trust each other. We also trusted our audience, and let them come to us, rather than imposing anything on the play, relationship or characters. They are invited to be an active participant in the world of our play.

The fight scene between Jamie and Sandra is really about respect and the bond between mother and son. How do you make the scene moving?
A moment like the fight between Sandra and Jamie can only ever be moving if what's come before is painfully truthful and packs a naturalistic punch. The genesis of the argument between the two characters starts with a bit of harmless banter, and steadily escalates to something which truly reveals what is going on underneath. Suddenly it breaks into a fight, and it is only after this explosive revelation of what's going on beneath the surface, one can really see the pain and deep love the two characters feel for each other.  It is the lines the characters speak after the fight which are so profoundly moving (Jamie asks Sandra if he's like his dad, who we know was a violent and destructive personality). Therefore, it is the build up to this moment,  and how we prepare for it, which means the actors have to do very little except be in the moment and listen to the words and each other, after the fight. This is how we help ensure the scene is moving. We think of love being expressed in a very specific way, however, I think it can also be expressed through violence and indeed, in many different emotional forms. This moment in the play explores these complex emotions.

Life for a gay teenager is very different in 2013. So, what makes the play relevant for today's audiences? Is it purely nostalgic for older audience members, as opposed to people Jamie and Ste's age?  
Two things make the play extremely relevant : Being gay is not the central theme of the play. Being gay is not the story. Jamie and Ste fall in love and in many ways, it is a beautiful coming-of-age story and of first love. Being gay isn't so much an issue, it is merely a fact. The writing isn't didactic. It is much more subtle and sophisticated. The reality of the characters and truth in the situation is Jonathan's central motor, and everything else (gay rights, politics, et al), is born out of these truths. When you look at how gay people are depicted in so many other mediums today, be it on television, film, in print media, etc, it is often being gay that is the story.

So many young gay people have little regard for the struggles that have gone before them, and indeed, the struggles which continue in many places around the world. Therefore, remembering it hasn't always been an easy path and that there are many battles left to fight, means it is relevant and political still. Jonathan's voice speaks with a quiet anger and is a subtle call to arms. It was written when Section 28 was still doing untold damage in schools across the UK and when the age of consent wasn't equal. It couldn't be more relevant, as we look back and see what we've achieved and what there is still left to do.

What is Suranne Jones like to work with and what does she bring to the role of Sandra?

It was a real pleasure to work with Suranne. She's my kind of actor : highly intelligent, hard working, no nonsense, highly imaginative and with a real sense of play. It's all about the work with Suranne and that's what I like. There's no ego and she has a plethora of choices available to her. She would constantly ask : "what do you want?... This (great choice) or this (equally great choice)...", offering endless choices, all valid, varied and exciting. When we first met to discuss working together, we both agreed Sandra should be approached absolutely as written on the page - very tough, unsympathetic. Leading actors often say this, however, then dilute the performance in order to be liked by the audience. Suranne never once questioned the initial shared objective we set off with and I think this has paid dividends, making the relationship with Jamie and the other characters in the play, all the more moving.

Suranne Jones & Jake Davies (photo: Francis Loney)

Did you work with Jonathan on the play, as this is the 20th anniversary?
Jonathan was involved in the early stages of the process and towards the end of rehearsal and in previews. His passion for the play remains strong, and Jonathan was extremely generous in letting us find our own way through the play and gently guiding us when appropriate. We know the play works and there was never a thought to re-write scenes or adapt the script for our production. The only word changed was "Tescos" in place of "Gateways" when Tony describes where he met Sandra; we felt too few people had heard of Gateways today!

How did you cast Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard?
Through good, old fashioned graft! Normally the casting director sends me a huge pile of CVs and we work through the submissions, selecting people we'd like to meet. Having worked with Kay on plays which demand young, often inexperienced actors carry the piece, I knew it was best to meet as many actors as possible. If actors submitted were the right age, we met them, as I knew this production would only work if the casting of the boys was pukka and the chemistry between them as potent as it could be. This lead to a lengthy and exhausting process, where we met hundreds of young actors. Jake auditioned and the moment we started discussing Jamie, I knew we had found our Jamie.

Danny-Boy came through a more complex route, and it very nearly didn't work out. I was working with Danny- Boy on Kiss of the Spider Woman at Arts Ed, where he is still (officially) a student. We were auditioning for Beautiful Thing in the evenings after rehearsals and I asked Danny-Boy if he would read in with the actors auditioning, as it's always helpful for the actors to have a good reader. The moment Danny-Boy started reading, we knew our Ste was sitting on the wrong side of the table.

Leah is as repressed as Jamie and Ste. How do you see her?
I think Leah is the wisest character in the play and she certainly speaks a lot of truth. I think she represents a lot of young people, throughout history, who are dismissed as being disruptive, but actually speak a great deal of sense. Leah clearly sees all that is wrong with schools which prize league tables over the individual, local government and things going on around her and she isn't afraid to challenge "the system". She is a very clear, articulate and impressive voice of dissent, I think.

Whose idea was it to revive the play and how did it come about?
It was Tom O'Connell's idea to revive the play. Tom is a young producer, who had the confidence to approach Jonathan and convinced him to give him the rights. Once this had been agreed, everything happened very quickly and this production is a good example of having an idea, acting upon it decisively and not letting boring people get in the way of getting the production mounted.

What have you enjoyed most about directing the play?
Many things : I enjoyed the challenge of casting the play, working alongside Kay Magson and meeting so many talented young actors. As always, I found working with Colin Richmond inspirational and discovering the language of our production/physical life of this play, extremely satisfying. Rehearsals were a joy, as the play slowly revealed itself to us and we found the characters and rhythms in the writing.

Why should audiences come to see it on tour?
Quite simply, because the play remains relevant and is a terrific example of a playwright at the top of their game, writing in an hugely original, visceral and entertaining voice. Whatever your background, the play is essentially about first-love, and that's something we can all relate to. It's also very, very funny and in these gloomy times, who could ask for anything more?

Nikolai Foster was speaking to Glenn Meads

Beautiful Thing is at the Arts Theatre in London until 25 May before touring to Liverpool Playhouse (28 May-1 June), Theatre Royal Brighton (10-15 June) and West Yorkshire Playhouse (3-8 June)


Tagged in this Story