Intimate space

AMERICAN CLASSIC: Matthew Kelly who is appearing in the Eugene ONeill classic Desire Under the Elms at Sheffield Theatres.  Picture: Marc Brenner
AMERICAN CLASSIC: Matthew Kelly who is appearing in the Eugene ONeill classic Desire Under the Elms at Sheffield Theatres. Picture: Marc Brenner
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Sheffield Theatres’ Robert Hastie directs in the studio for his new production. He spoke to Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad.

I really do like the man in charge at Sheffield Theatres. Robert Hastie, just over a year in the job, is very obviously a man of his word. We’ve communicated back and forth since his appointment, but the first time we were able to sit and talk properly was when he was directing Julius Caesar at the Crucible, one of three theatres for which he has had responsibility since becoming artistic director at Sheffield theatres.

Getting to sit with him and watch him in the rehearsal room, I saw in Hastie a man who genuinely cares about the theatre of which he has taken charge.

The funny thing about Sheffield is that when you become the artistic director of the city’s producing theatre complex, you’re not just taking on a job. You are taking on the mantle of one of British theatre’s best and most important roles. You’re inheriting the job of leading one of the most successful collection of theatres of the past decade, since Michael Grandage turned the fortunes of theatre in Sheffield around in a spectacular manner.

You are also becoming the leader not just of the Sheffield Crucible, a mistake some people sometimes make, but of the Sheffield Studio and of the Sheffield Lyceum. The Crucible is world famous, thanks in some part to the annual World Snooker Championship, but Hastie is just as responsible for the other two theatres as for that famous thrust stage.

Man of his word Hastie said that he cared about all the spaces of which he had charge when we first spoke.

He’s proved his word again by stepping into the studio to direct his second piece for Sheffield Theatres, Of Kith and Kin, which opened in the Sheffield Studio this week.

Studio? How come he’s ‘slumming it’ in the studio (my tongue was in my cheek).

“I don’t think of directing in the studio as slumming it at all,” he says.

“I thought it was really important for me to direct in the studio. It’s a beautiful and versatile space that speaks to audiences in a really different way to our other spaces. It was named a studio in the seventies, part of that utilitarian way we looked at our theatre spaces at the time, but it seats 450 depending on the configuration – which is bigger than a lot of main spaces.”

Over the years I have seen productions occupy the studio in such different ways; I’d go so far as to say it is one of Yorkshire theatre’s most flexible spaces. Such malleability creates a special atmosphere.

“I think audiences come to the studio with a sense of adventure,” says Hastie.

“When they come through the doors, they don’t even know where they are going to sit. Often they will be seeing a piece of new writing or parts of the canon that they aren’t already familiar with. It makes for a particularly adventurous experience.”

The adventurous experience for audiences currently being presented at the Sheffield Studio is a new play from Chris Thompson. Hastie directed a previous production by Thompson, Carthage, which gained impressive reviews.

“I want new writing to be really central to what we do. Chris’s first play was written after a career as a social worker and his experiences of seeing the best and worst of humanity really informed the piece he wrote. His experiences have made him a really witty and humane and quite challenging playwright and I just thought 
he would be a great person to write a new play for my first full season.”

The play itself tells the story of Daniel and Oliver, a couple about to have their first baby with their best friend Priya acting as surrogate. Into this pressure cooker arrives Daniel’s chaotic mother, to explode several home truths that will upset the couple’s equilibrium.

The production also marks a first co-production between the Sheffield theatre and London’s famous Bush theatre under Hastie’s reign. “Working with the Bush allows us to create work in a certain way and it allows us to strengthen relationships we have in the industry.”

It also marks a strengthening of the relationship between Hastie and the city of Sheffield. His production of Julius Caesar, his first as artistic director, was presented to Sheffield in May this year. At the time I praised its ‘wit, panache and necessity’ in my Yorkshire Post review.

“I wanted that production to set out our stall. It’s the kind of work I want to bring to the theatre in terms of the diversity we had on the stage and the stories we want to tell that have something to say about the city. If you look at that production and something like Of Kith and Kin it tells you something about the range of stories we want to present. We want to put those big, powerful productions on the stage and tell great stories too.”

Those big stories for the rest of this year include Wizard of Oz, Hastie’s first big Christmas production – something that has become more of an event in Sheffield with each passing year – and Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, which opened in the Crucible yesterday starring Matthew Kelly.

“That is the kind of production we are really excited to bring to the stage, the kind of thing that will get people’s hearts racing the minute they step into the theatre,” says Hastie.

“When I arrived I was very aware that I had to hit the ground running, there was very little time to relax into the job and hopefully audiences can see the kind of work that we are going to keep bringing to the stages we have.”

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Chris Thompson spent a decade as a social worker before giving up that career to become a playwright. His first play, Carthage, opened to great acclaim at the Bush theatre in 2014. His follow up, Albion, also opened at the Bush in September of 2014, tackling racial tensions in an East End pub. Of Kith and Kin, opened this week at Sheffield Studio before transferring later next month to the Bush theatre.

Of Kith and Kin runs at Sheffield Studio until October 7.

Desire Under the Elms, The Crucible, runs until October 14. Tickets from 0114 2496000 or www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

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