Brief Encounter With … David Farr

Writer and director David Farr recently stepped down as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith after moving there from the Bristol Old Vic in 2005. His productions at the Lyric include Metamorphosis, Angels in America, The Bacchae and The Birthday Party, with other credits including The UN Inspector at the National and Night of the Soul, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar for the RSC, where he has recently been appointed an Associate Director. His production of The Winter’s Tale starring Greg Hicks as Leontes, opens at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on 9 April 2009 (previews from 31 March).

Why did you feel it was the right time to leave the Lyric Hammersmith?
I had three gorgeous years at the Lyric and I think I was successful at producing the sort of work I thought we should be making. It was wonderfully ahead of our expectations in every way, financially and artistically. But as anyone knows, running a big theatre is a hugely time consuming thing, and I’d done three years in Bristol before that and I have a family to think about. So when I programmed Spring Awakening I felt that it was a great climax to the work we’d been doing, which was all about trying to find new young audiences and speaking directly to them. Plus the Lyric continues to prove that you can fill a 500 seat house in London by programming new work without using a celebrity name – I’m very proud that we managed to achieve that.

It seems quite a big leap going to a more traditional company like the RSC

There are more similarities between the Lyric and the RSC than many people imagine. The RSC is constantly reaching out to new audiences and proving that it’s not an organisation resting on its laurels. Collaborations with groundbreaking companies like Filter and Kneehigh and young writers like Tarell Alvin McCraney show the extent to which the organisation is constantly reinventing itself – it’s got a very exciting few years ahead. As a company, it’s actually very democratic and bohemian, even though it’s saddled with a name that has so much glory to it.

Do you see The Winter’s Tale as a ‘problem play’?

I don’t see it as a problem, I see it as a very particular play. And I think it requires a different approach to almost all Shakespeare’s other plays. As a tyrant, Leontes is neither a Machiavellian driving force like Macbeth or Iago nor quite the passionate lover of Othello. He is a more modern creation, and it’s a much more psychological play in that it’s very subtle and nuanced. He’s a family man who suffers a terrible illness – it’s called a disease in the play – and it’s a heartbreaking play about redemption after doing terrible things to another human being, which we’ve all done. In a way it’s extremely simple – it’s about a man who suddenly believes his wife is having an affair with his best friend and does terrible things and as a result loses everything. But there’s a wonderful layer of magic – and through the magic of fairytales he finds he may be able to redeem himself and retrieve some of what he has lost. So it’s a real treat to work on, and like I say it’s a play very much for our times.

Does it have added resonance in the current recession?

Certainly, in that it’s very much about someone who starts out with a kind of hollow affluence and has to learn about what he really values – that’s very much the way we’ve approached it. I’ve tried to find a very simple and pure clarity for the production in that sense, and try not to work too hard in over-symbolizing the piece. It has a remarkable heart beating inside of it. The great and difficult task is to reveal that heart in a sensitive way – that’s much harder than it might sound.

Any clues as to how you’re handling that stage direction?

All I’ll say is that it will probably be larger than most such phenomenon, and definitely owes something to my time at the Lyric and my work with visual theatre companies…

You’ve worked with Greg Hicks several times previously

It’s wonderful to collaborate with him. We just click in the way that some directors and actors do. And actually this is particularly interesting because it’s very different to what we’ve done before. The other two heroes we’ve done, Coriolanus and Tamburlaine, are totally active male figures, whereas Leontes is an almost a passive character, someone to whom things happen. Lear, which I’m directing next year, is somewhere in-between the two, having a strong male intention and ego, but also that real element of suffering. It’s a good pair of plays to put together for us, because they’re late-ish and they’re more mature. Shakespeare is unique as a playwright of that time for his simple ability to write about the family in such a deeply human way, which I only really appreciate now I have a family of my own.

It’s good to see the Bristol Old Vic back in action

It’s absolutely fantastic – Tom (Morris) and Emma (Stenning) are great appointments. During my tenure there, I felt that with a couple of exceptions the board behaved appallingly, so I’m glad that the wonderful Dick Penny is now in the executive chair role. He’s deeply involved in the Bristol theatrical community and will be wholly supportive of Tom and Emma, which is something myself and Simon (Reade) never enjoyed. That said, I had a wonderful time in Bristol – the theatre has a wonderful vibe about it and a lot of the shows we put on did extremely well. It’s a very different challenge working in a regional venue where the audiences have more of a sense of ownership – it’s their council tax that’s being spent and they rightly have certain expectations. In London if an audience isn’t happy they can always go somewhere else – but of course that in itself brings a huge pressure. I’m really enjoying my new-found lack of responsibilities!

David Farr was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

The Winter’s Tale opens at the Courtyard Theatre on 9 April (previews from 31 March), where it runs in rep until 3 October 2009.