Nicolai Foster directs Great Expectations
Indeed, this is my third encounter with Dickens. I've directed a community production of Oliver!, A Christmas CarolL for Birmingham Rep and the West Yorkshire Playhouse and now this beautiful and original version of Great Expectations by Tanika Gupta. Like Shakespeare and the great world religions, Dickens has helped document the human condition and I feel I know more about myself and the world I live in when engaging with the extraordinary worlds and people he paints. On a basic level, his gift for telling stories with such flair and complexity and the rich, detailed characters he creates, really inspires me. What I find most interesting however, is the perception we often have of Dickens and how this is contradicted by his work. His stories are often portrayed as being jolly – a cheery line-up of stereotypes and Cockney folk.
Of course, his characters are theatrical and ripe for big performances; however, those characters and the circumstances they find themselves in, are born out of a deep rooted politic. In his work, Dickens rails against the injustices he saw all about him. Dickens wrote most of his most famous works when he was in his 20s. He was the original angry young man! He was angered by the social deprivation, child poverty and injustice he saw all about him. His stories all have a wonderful moral – whether it might be about the process of self-discovery, redemption, reconciliation, or something else. There is great meaning in these stories. They are not didactic works but, as with all great writing, we are challenged and asked to consider the society we live in without ever knowing the writer is doing this. Dickens asks us to consider our place in a society.
How closely are you working with the novel's adapter Tanika Gupta?
In setting our adaptation in Calcutta, Tanika releases the story for a new generation – the story seems fresh and we seem to be discovering these characters, their stories and the politic of the piece for the first time. Sadly, the themes and ideas – incarceration, the nurture of young people, identity, and so on – Dickens considered when writing Great Expectations in 1860 are equally relevant today. It has been a great honour to work alongside Tanika and for her to be so receptive to my suggestions and ideas. I started working on the project about six months before rehearsals started, so Tanika and I worked on the script in real detail prior to rehearsals starting in January. I have treated this play as an entirely new piece of writing, rather than an adaptation and, throughout rehearsals, we are refining and challenging the text, ensuring the story is clear and the psychological journeys of the characters clear and visceral. I love the creativity of this particular process. Having Tanika with us throughout rehearsals has been invaluable. Scenes are re-written and re-ordered to support the collective vision of the writer, actors and director. It's a very exciting process to be engaged in, as this play and production takes shape and develops on a daily basis.
This is a touring co-production (Watford Palace Theatre and English Touring Theatre). What are the constraints or advantages of this?
I think there are only advantages. What inspires me about Brigid Lamour (artistic director at the Palace) and Rachel Tackley (director of ETT ) is their shared hotspur and tenacity. In an industry faced with funding cuts and trepidation, these producers have commissioned a huge new play, which spans several continents, 30 years and is written for over 20 characters. It is an epic story, which demands a courageous and brave staging and rather than try and cut back and simplify things, having two producers means the costs are shared. Furthermore, the shared skills and the facilities of the two organisations are wonderful to draw on. Ultimately, taking our production out of Watford means that audiences on the road get to experience a first-class regional production and of course it means that the actors and technicians have a longer period of employment. I feel passionately about regional theatre, so to be working in Watford and then to know the work will be seen by a wider audience, is great. Technically one has to work out how our huge number of props, lights, furniture, set, sound equipment and other paraphernalia all fit on to the back of a lorry, but once we've solved this, I can only see positive aspects to touring our work.
How did you become a theatre director?
I grew up in Yorkshire and was very fortunate to live close to both the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and the beautiful Alhambra Theatre in Bradford. From my early teens until I went off to drama school, I must have seen most of the productions at these venues. I was immediately hooked and knew I wanted to work in the theatre. At the time, I assumed this must be as an actor. However, it was only when I made it to the Drama Centre in London), that I realised there was a whole other world backstage. I became obsessed with writing, building sets, designing lighting rigs, cutting sound effects together and the like. My focus switched and I became my own little one-stop theatre-shop – writing, directing and producing. It was at the end of my second year (when the principal Christopher Fettes threatened to kick me off the course as I wasn't focussed enough on my acting) when I announced I would come back to the third year as a director. I had never considered this before and it was blurted out (to doleful looks) without any thought. During my third year I did indeed train as a director, assisting the guest directors at the college.
From there, I was extremely fortunate to be selected by Michael Grandage to work with him at the Crucible, Sheffield as a trainee director on the Channel Four Theatre Director Scheme (as it was then known). It was an extraordinary time to be in Sheffield, with a remarkable array of artists and technicians creating exceptional work on the Crucible stages. I really felt I was learning from the very best. After three years assisting in Sheffield, Michael offered me the opportunity to direct the Broadway musical A Chorus Line on the Crucible stage. From there, I began my career as a freelance director and have been grateful to Michael and Sheffield Theatres ever since.
Of which past productions are you most proud?
I think A Chous Line, as it was my first major piece of work. I'm not entirely sure I knew what I was doing at the time; however, I had a terrific team by my side and the company were the very best actors, dancers and singers of their generation. I will never forget the cheers and standing ovation we received on the first preview. I am also very proud of Animal Farm, which I directed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a few years ago. I felt as if I was really starting to find a confidence and flair in my work. I finally began to accept myself as a director and stopped feeling like a fraud. We took big risks and faced the politic of the piece head-on. The production was highly theatrical and quite startling. It had a profound effect on the audience and I was very proud of everything the actors, creative team and technicians achieved in realising an epic and daring staging.
What's next in your professional pipeline?
This year is filling up nicely with an eclectic mix of plays and musicals. Immediately after Watford, I am going to Singapore to stage a new production of Macbeth, working alongside Morgan Large, who designed Flashdance. We are staging the production in a huge open-air theatre, so it's going to be a massive challenge. I am excited by this project, as we are bringing theatre to an emerging cultural industry and many of the audience will be hearing Shakespeare for the very first time. After this, there's another Shakespeare, this time in Chester. We're doing As You Like It in Grosvenor Park. The Gateway Theatre in Chester closed a few years ago, so I am very proud to be creating theatre in a city which hasn't had theatre for a few years. The autumn is then focussed on musicals, with a tour of my original production of the David Essex musical All the Fun of the Fair. At Christmas, a brand new production of the Broadway musical, Annie, which we are staging at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. We are determined to banish the cobwebs off the piece and introduce it to a new generation of young theatre-goers in a fresh and original production, with a few surprises along the way.