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Brief Encounter With ... Sean Holmes

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Sean Holmes became artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith in spring 2009, since when his directing credits have included Comedians, Ghost Stories and Blasted (for which he won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre).

He is currently directing the first major London revival in 27 years of Edward Bond's seminal and controversial 1965 play Saved, which opens on Thursday (13 October 2011, previews from 6 October) as part of a season of Bond's work.

How have you found your first few seasons at the Lyric?

Well it seems an awfully long time since I started. I think you can only understand a theatre once you start running it – I don’t think that necessarily means you know what will work, but you certainly develop more of a sense of what won’t work.

I think the overriding realisation has been about our audience, which I’ve realised is a lot younger than your average theatre audience. What’s interesting is that the audiences can be very different – so for Punk Rock they seemed to reflect the age of the cast on stage, whereas for Ghost Stories they were nearer 40 and for Blasted they were a younger audience who were very interested in theatre but had never had a chance to see that play. So we are a theatre in which a younger, more diverse crowd feel at ease.

Saved, like Blasted, is a play that many young people won’t have had the chance to see

Well I’m 42 and I’ve never seen it! I think we're the right theatre to do it for several reasons, one of which is the make-up of our audience, who want to see the lives of young people portrayed on stage in provocative ways. And on top of that, it’s just such a famous play that nobody has had a chance to see in London since 1984. So it’s potentially very exciting, if I don’t mess it up.

It’s quite a coup to be allowed to stage it. How did you pull it off?

There are several reasons. I did Edward’s play The Sea at Chichester ten years ago which he liked and we then stayed in touch. Every now and again I’d try and get the rights to Saved and he’d say no, but we had quite a positive relationship and I had the feeling that if he let anyone do it he would let me. And I think he sensed that now the time was right for the play.

Because of the riots?

I think if you asked Edward he’d say it’s more in wake of the election. I think he felt the play seemed to be becoming increasingly more relevant, if indeed it ever stopped being relevant.

The other factor was that we’re not doing Saved in isolation, we’re also doing three more of his plays next year - Chair, The Under Room and Have I None - and I think that was important to Edward that we were showing a longer commitment to his work.

What’s he like to work with?

The basic truth is that it’s been completely invigorating and brilliant having him around. He’s been in rehearsals an awful lot and it’s been incredibly useful because after all, is there a better writer? Is there a better play? As a director I desperately want his insights and opinions and questions when I’m doing a play that’s this wonderful and this difficult.

My experience of working with him has been genuinely a really creative, stimulating and important relationship, for everyone working on the show. His imagination and ability to write in three dimensions is so strong that you want that in the room. You want him feeding into the process, which he’s done. So I couldn’t be happier with Edward’s role in this production.

To a lot of people Saved boils down to a single scene

What are the three most important plays since the war – to me they’re probably Look Back in Anger, Saved and Blasted in terms of changing the landscape of theatre. And the point about this play, which gets obscured because of its associations with that scene, is that it is incredibly humane and concerned with how vulnerable and delicate we are in a society and environment that is anything else.

So the terrible thing about the stoning scene – if we get it right – is that what you’re acutely aware of is the humanity of the people who are killing the baby. It’s not that you forgive them, but you can’t paint them into a corner as a feral underclass.

Does it still have the same power in the 21st century?

Yes, because although we’re saturated with images of violence, we don’t actually engage with the reality of what violence means. And actually, the play is saturated with violence in very odd and unusual ways; they leave the baby crying for 20 minutes in scene four; when Fred hands Pam a box of matches in scene ten it’s an incredibly cruel, awful moment. I think it has the capacity to shock in a profound way and not in a prurient way.

Why do you think Bond’s work is performed more on the Continent than in the UK?

Well, obviously any criticism I make of British theatre is made from the point of view that I’m part of it, but I do think there’s a small ‘c’ conservatism in our theatre culture. I think we muck around with form, but it’s amazing how little work there is that genuinely challenges and provokes. There’s a kind of literalness to it as well.

We’ve just been working on a production for World Stages London of a Simon Stephens play, Three Kingdoms, which is being done by a German director with a international cast, and for all its idiosyncrasies there are moments in that production which you just think ‘you would never see this on an English stage’.

I just wonder if there are certain ways of working here that are not necessarily conducive to producing work that genuinely tries to confront and challenge our culture.

Saved continues at the Lyric Hammersmith until 5 November 2011.


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