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‘Addiction hasn’t gone away’: Director Jeremy Herrin on his new production at the National Theatre

21 August 2015 Natasha Sutton-Williams

From beheading Tudors in Wolf Hall to Internet paedophilia in The Nether, Jeremy Herrin’s productions never fail to challenge and entertain. He has directed at the Royal Court, in the West End and on Broadway. This time he is tackling drug addiction in People, Places and Things which premiers at the National Theatre this August, and London Calling caught up with him to find out more.

London Calling: What attracted you to this script in the first place?

Jeremy Herrin: I love Duncan Macmillan’s writing, I always have. He’s a brilliant writer because he’s got a contemporary sensibility but he’s not frightened of his own vulnerability to talk emotionally as an artist, to make the audience feel. He’s not modish, self-regarding or cynical in his writing, yet there is a rigorous intellectual edge to what he does; it’s a perfect collection of attributes for a writer. He had this idea for a play about drug addiction focusing a strong female protagonist in a contemporary setting. It felt like a no brainer.

LC: The subject matter obviously caught your attention. Why is drug addiction such an important modern story?

JH: It feels like addiction hasn’t gone away. There is a wider version of addiction with sugar and smartphones that we don’t really address. Duncan is writing about addiction but he’s also writing about who we think we are now. When does our past stop holding us back? What does growing up mean? How do we look after each other? All those things feel really important. Duncan is interested in the idea that we are a self involved and solipsistic society. He’s exploring the link between addiction, which is self-consuming, and our contemporary culture, which is all about the self.

LC: Western drama tends to romanticise female characters. You are presenting a female protagonist who seems inherently flawed. Was this intentional?

JH: I’ve never really thought about it like that. Aren’t we all inherently flawed? What we’re trying to do is present her as a real, multi-dimensional person who is conflicted, confusing, attractive, infuriating, inspiring and pathetic. She is carrying the weight of this addiction, and it’s an open question as to how she deals with it. We don’t want to reduce her to be a generalised statement; she’s a specific person. It’s an interesting question though, what we want from women in drama. I think because the character Emma is an actress it gives her a chance to articulate those frustrations.

LC: So there are additional layers, with an actress playing an actress?

JH: There’s a self-conscious aspect to the whole play; it’s talking about performance in the context of performance, so those layers can fold and unfold. It strikes me that not making theatre in that way seems vaguely patronising because your audience is so aware they are at the theatre. It feels like setting up naturalistic conventions and trying to get an audience to believe that we are in ‘early twentieth century Russia’ is missing an opportunity to discuss the nature of performance and the nature of reality as presented within a theatrical space. In this play we’re trying to do everything at once so it’s multi-layered.   

LC: In the play there is a difference between what the protagonist perceives and the reality of her situation. How do you dramatise this?

JH: We’re allowing the audience to see the world through the protagonist’s eyes. A lot of the choices are not about what is actually happening in that moment but what Emma is seeing in that moment. Most plays occur when the characters bring their own sense of objective truth, the conflict happens when they don’t match up. The point of view shifts over the course of the evening because Emma shifts. Technically it’s an exercise in how you show an audience what someone is seeing.

LC: You’ve done extensive research for this play. Was that to make the setting of a drug rehabilitation centre as authentic as possible?

JH: When you’re dealing with content particularly in a playful theatrical form and dealing with content that people are actually struggling with on a day to day basis, it would seem incredibly insulting not to take that real experience seriously because it’s a life or death situation for a lot of people. I often imagine what it’s like if someone is thinking about going into recovery and they come see this play. If we take a short cut, cheat or take some emotional pointers from something that isn’t real, it could have a terrible effect. Likewise people’s experiences of recovery are heroic; the real story is more interesting. I always spend the first week of any rehearsal period investigating the world of the play and allowing the actors access to real people who might be doing versions of what they’re supposed to be doing in the show. It gives the actors the confidence that they can back their instincts when they’re performing because they’re not making it up. We’ve met some incredible people. So far that’s been the most inspiring aspect of the production.


People, Places and Things premiers at the National Theatre on 25th August. For more information and tickets please click here.

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