5 Minutes with: Polly Findlay – 'Directing Svengali was a lesson in complete economy'

The director of ”The Alchemist” on the RSC, Derren Brown and the show that was a turning point

Director Polly Findlay
Director Polly Findlay
© Manuel Harlan

I’ve had some of my happiest working experiences with the RSC. There are a number of factors which add up to it being such a positive environment to work in. One is the company element of it. The fact that you work so closely with other directors is very unusual. It really transforms the experience of the rehearsal room and you have an immediate community of people that you can talk to about things. I was very lucky with The Alchemist because I was the third director in the season. I got to walk into a room where everybody already knew each other.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the celebration of the life and work of Shakespeare is the governing narrative of Stratford-upon-Avon. At the moment you can’t walk down the street without being reminded of it. Before I came to work at the RSC, everyone told me that the company functions like a family. And in my experience that’s absolutely true. I think creating something within the context of a community which understand the work that you’re doing is unique.

Setting The Alchemist in 1610 afforded us a cleaner line to what was at the centre of the play. I felt like a lot of energy would have been spent on trying to coin the contemporary parallels, which ultimately wouldn’t be enlightening. It’s a society comedy and because its satire is so precise, and the social detail is so well observed, I felt that putting it in modern dress would be much harder than usual.

The process of directing a show for Derren Brown has changed the way I approach a rehearsal room. Directing Svengali put me in a position where I was thinking about what a particular gesture felt like to the audience, rather than what I thought the gesture meant. You can’t have any fat on a Derren Brown show because it would make the trick less impressive. It was a lesson in complete economy. I would say I carry that show with me more consciously than anything else I’ve ever worked on.

It was doing The Arden of Faversham in 2014 at the RSC that felt like a turning point for me. It was the first show I did with Zoe Svensden, who is a dramaturg I have been working a lot with since. It’s a wonderful play with a deeply flawed structure and it was the first play I felt I had the confidence to try and meet head on.

The Alchemist runs at the RSC from 26 May to 6 August.

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