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Jeremy Herrin: Theatre's BFG

As his new show tours the UK, Headlong Theatre's artistic director talks West End transfers, running a building and the importance of an artistically-run touring company

Director Jeremy Herrin

When I tell a colleague I'm interviewing director Jeremy Herrin, he says ‘Oh! The BFG!' It's an apt description, not just because the man is a human tower (the top of my head only reaches his shoulders). Nor is it just because the artistic director of Headlong Theatre company is expansive, open hearted and generous. The description is mainly apt because Herrin is proving to be a giant of today's theatre world. This year alone he's touring Headlong's latest production Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, bringing the company's 1984 back to the West End, his production of People Places and Things has had a successful transfer in London and his lauded production of political thriller This House will finally get its West End debut. There's also a new Headlong show Boys Will Be Boys opening at the Bush very soon. Oh and did we mention the company's American Psycho was on Broadway? No? Well, it was.

That doesn't even touch on Herrin's previous successes. Remember Wolf Hall? The Nether? That Face? All work by theatre's BFG. Herrin is one of Britain's most important directors today, taking no prisoners in the work he stages with Headlong and beyond. He creates dynamic, divisive, brilliantly entertaining nights at the theatre. I talked to him in Glasgow, when his revival of Frank McGuinness' 1985 play was about to open.

Looking back over the work that you've done, I always find it amazing that you managed to get a show about virtual paedophilia - The Nether - into the West End...
I know. Unbelivable. But people thought it was mind blowing and Sonia Friedman backed it because she thought it was great. Producers like Sonia are just amazing because she will back her tastes. And if she thinks something is important then she will raise some money and shove it on. I don't think anyone is going to get rich from a show like The Nether. But it's important that the theatre community get to see cutting edge work that really pushes boundaries. Part of what we are about at Headlong is making sure that quality work, which is accessible, contemporary and energetic gets into the West End.

Great that 1984 is coming back as well...
I know! There's an audience for it. People want to see it, and we're not going to get in the way of that. 1984 is quite gruelling, it's a dark take on contemporary society and clearly people are drawn to it because it speaks to our culture directly. It looks at what we're experiencing now in terms of surveillance, in terms of the way our democracy works, in terms of how we think we are empowered but how we are possibly enslaved. I think there's a deep need for people to understand the world that we are living in and I'd argue that theatre is the best medium for that.

Is it long overdue that This House is coming to the West End?
Yes, it is. We were going to transfer when it first ran in 2013, but we got pipped by Stephen Ward. This House is one of the most popular shows I've ever done and people ask me on a weekly basis when it's returning. God bless Jonathan Church in Chichester for really supporting it. And Nica Burns for making it happen. It's really exciting.

What's it like having to come back to a show like that?
I think it will be fun. We have lots of the original team involved and some new cast members that we'll announce in due course but it's exciting to go back to such a fun bit of work.

Are you having the best few years ever?
I don't know. It was a company I inherited [from Rupert Goold] in very, very good shape and it's just a perfect theatre compay, it's a perfect size, we've got a good track record, people want to work with us. It's an artistically run theatre company, which I think is increasingly important in a regional context.

Why's that?
Government resources are falling away, so it means that other regional venues have to co-produce and the danger is we'll get a whole load of bland, non-artistically progressive work which is compromised between co-producers. It's really important, in that ecology, that something like Headlong is risk taking, has high production values and travels round the country.

Why revive Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme now?
This year is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the play is about Ulstermen who were sent to the Somme and sustained unbelievably heavy casualties on the first day. The play is about what led to that sacrifice. It gets into what Ulster Protestantism is and how that resonates today.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
(© © Johan Persson)

How are you staging it?
It's not a particularly radical production because there's so much playing with form which happens in the play anyway, so there's a poetic realism. Frank [McGuiness] says it's different to any other production he's seen of it, but I can't really work out why. I've never seen another production before.

How did you come across it then?
Abbey Theatre had the rights to it and wondered whether we wanted to work on it. I thought that it would be a really good thing for Headlong to do work that included Northern Ireland because it feels slightly neglected, in terms of touring theatre, from the mainland.

How do you think audiences will respond to it?
The play talks about Protestantism, but in such an even handed and deep way. It's not prejudiced, the play isn't trying to drive a point. People say that it's the single most effective work of art that contributed to the Good Friday Agreement. Up until The Sons of Ulster, audiences wouldn't mix. It's a really powerful totemic bit of work. You really get to feel what those young men were fighting for and the question remains "is it worth it?".

Should theatre always pose questions?
I think whether it wants to or not it always will. A decent bit of theatre puts audiences into an inquisitive, inquiring space. When I go to the theatre it needs to have some brain food, it needs to engage all the senses.

Headlong has pledged to commission 50:50 female-male playwrights, is that from now on?
You could say it's over the course of my artistic directorship. I think it's an entirely sensible and reasonable thing to do. The commissioning we have control over: I hope that we'll be able to produce 50:50 as well, but we haven't made that commitment, because we can't look at the future in that way. I think female writers are slightly over commissioned at the moment because suddenly institutions that haven't paid attention to female writers are in a panic so it might well turn out that those new plays by those women take a lot longer to deliver.

Is running a building something you'd consider?
I don't know, I really enjoy running Headlong and I really enjoy that level of programming and raising money, but I don't have any plans in the short term to leave Headlong. I've been asked to consider a few things, but I've always felt too happy at Headlong. It also feels as though when you run a building you have to worry about a lot more staff and boring things like toilets. Headlong is such a great company and we've got a load of really interesting plays coming in, the future is exciting.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme runs at Liverpool Playhouse from 8 to 25 June and then continues touring the country.