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Blanche McIntyre and Nicola Seed on restaging 'red hot' Accolade

The director and producer of the acclaimed 2011 Finborough Theatre revival have remounted the production at the St James as part of the One Stage season

'There's a lot of subtext' - Blanche McIntyre with Alexander Hanson in rehearsals for Accolade
© Ben Broomfield

A famous novelist, a hidden double life, accusations of abuse and a debate around the public's right to know about the private lives of their stars. The twisting and turning plot of Emlyn Williams' play Accolade almost sounds like a 21st-century response to celebrity culture and media corruption. Astonishingly, it was first performed in 1950 and gathered dust for decades until director Blanche McIntyre - who is about to remount her award-winning production at the St James Theatre - injected it with new life.

McIntyre was introduced to the play by the Finborough Theatre's artistic director Neil McPherson, who also paired her up with producer Nicola Seed - "he's a matchmaker of directors and producers," Seed chips in. The pair were ploughing through scripts on the hunt for a new project when Accolade, which had not been performed since its 1950 premiere, caught McIntyre's attention.

"I read it and thought 'this is extraordinary'," she remembers. "It's so theatrical but what it's talking about is so modern, you could never believe that it was written at the beginning of the 50s. The subject is so completely fearless. Also the way that the language is done is so naturalistic that you don't quite see the punches coming. So I thought this is formally exciting, the subject is terrifying, it's red hot, and it's just a very, very good play."

Discussing Accolade's narrative, Seed adds that it "seems so current with what goes on in the world; society's obsession with celebrities and their private lives". Even more so than when Williams wrote the play, the exploits of celebrities are never far from the headlines. "It's an important question that's raised: to what extent are you allowed to look into somebody's life, what is public interest?" says McIntyre.

The questions asked by the play have been given new resonance since it was produced at the Finborough in 2011. "The context has changed so radically," McIntyre points out, naming both Operation Yewtree and the Leveson Inquiry. As Seed puts it, the personal privacy of celebrities and what is considered to be in the public interest is "up for negotiation" in a way it wasn't three years ago, making Accolade perfect for the One Stage season for emerging producers that she was invited to be part of.

"It seemed like a good time to bring it back," agrees McIntyre, although she later adds that there was "absolutely a wrong time" at the height of the Jimmy Saville revelations and the investigations of the Leveson Inquiry. "It would not have been possible to see the play for what it was because of current events, whereas now that's all slightly died down, it's possible to bring it back and show it as a piece which comments as opposed to as an invitation to judge."

'You get a sense that there's a ghost play underneath it'

Interestingly, what has become most shocking about Accolade in the current media climate - its accusations of sex with a minor - was employed by Williams as a metaphor for the bisexuality that could not be openly discussed on stage at the time. "It got past censorship without the changing of a single word, which is unheard of," Seed tells me. "However, I think that's partly because it's masking that Emlyn Williams probably wanted to write about something else and couldn't. There's a lot of subtext."

"It's ironic that something that was making it safe has actually made it more inflammatory in the long term," McIntyre reflects, explaining that "you do get a sense that there's a ghost play underneath it".

However, both director and producer are keen to stress that this is not a modern or revisionist take on Williams' text. "It has been important for me to take the play as it's written," McIntyre insists. "If I raised the ghost, so to speak, that would be unfair to some of the characters and the writing in them. It would look like a directorial intervention rather than honouring the text."

The same approach has carried through to the new production, as McIntyre returns to the play after almost four years away. Other aspects, however, have changed. "It feels very different," McIntyre tells me. "I think not a single choice made here is the same as the one made before." She elaborates: previously, the relationships between the characters were at the core of the drama, whereas this time round the rehearsal room conversations "have been much more about taking responsibility, about emotional cost, about blindness - wilful or otherwise - and about lying to oneself or lying to other people".

On a basic staging level, the layout of the show - which was previously played in the round - has had to be reconfigured for the St James Theatre's thrust stage. "The play feels more presented, which means that the audience are put into a position automatically where they are better able to judge," McIntyre says. In contrast, "when we first staged it, I thought it was important that the audience felt like guests of the family, they felt like they really knew them, so that when the various shocking pieces of news broke they felt like it was happening to friends".

Although the space might be bigger, what McIntyre hopes to preserve is the intimacy of the production and the way in which that intimacy blurs the judgements that we might usually feel justified in making, particularly of the play's central character. This, she argues, is truest to the play that Williams wrote back in 1950. "It's messy, it's open-ended, he doesn't come down on anyone's side."

"It's not a didactic piece," Seed adds. "It's not judging, it's not telling - it's telling a story, and things happen in that story. It's not a lesson to be learnt."

Accolade continues at the St James Theatre until 13 December 2014

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