In the two years he has been in charge at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, James Brining has only directed a couple of plays. At least, that’s what I thought. I was forgetting the Talking Heads.
The ones at the front of the mind are Enjoy and Sweeney Todd. They were big, epic plays that filled the enormous Quarry Theatre. They were fitting statements of intent and ambition from the man who runs what was once called the National Theatre of the North.
The third production, the one I was forgetting, was the less epic Talking Heads, the Alan Bennett monologues he staged in the theatre’s rehearsal room-turned auditorium and – much more importantly to Brining – in community centres in Burmantofts and Seacroft.
Not that they were forgettable, just that they seemed a much smaller piece of work than you might expect from the boss of the theatre.
“Probably the most important work I have done in my life was taking the Talking Heads into those communities. People were coming to us and were saying ‘we love that you’ve come here, brought this here, please come back’. And we will.” So, he can do the epic – Sweeney Todd and Enjoy made that much clear – and he can do intimate, evidenced by his Talking Heads. Can he do a perfect combination of both? We’ll find out as he has just taken on what is one of the greatest plays ever written.
“The Crucible is a play of massive ideas, with huge emotion which has moral ambiguity at its heart. It’s a play about big things – and plays about big things often feel like they are not human, but this connects on a very human level and a very theatrical level and an intellectual level and that’s what appeals to me about doing it in the Quarry. It’s truly epic.”
Arthur Miller’s play, which met a fairly hostile reception on its premiere in 1953, has become recognized not just as a classic of American theatre, but a classic of theatre.
The genius of Miller is that he creates a piece of work that is about the Salem witch trials, but takes sharp and highly effective jabs at the American government of the day. Brining says: “Even though it came from the very specific notion of McCarthyism and communism and all that, I think the play transcends that.
“It’s a play about the human condition. It’s about the tension between freedom of individuals and collectivism, the responsibility of the individual to society and the need to conform to keep society together.”
It is a play of truly huge ideas. For some, however, it might be thought of as the play they were forced to study at school. As with Shakespeare, a bad experience at an impressionable age can set you off on the wrong foot for good. Brining is aware that he has something of a responsibility.
“One of the really brilliant things about it is that it genuinely appeals across the generations. Whatever age or gender you are, there is a relationship in the play that relates to you.” As with all good directors, the question that plagues Brining when it comes to choosing a play is ‘why now’? Directors can always find a reason they want to stage a play like The Crucible, but the question has to be why stage it at that moment?
“One of the great ideas in the play is about what is right and what is wrong and justice. There’s a great line: ‘you are either with this court or against this court’. That resonates so strongly in this climate of fear and of terrorism and the whole idea that human rights can be compromised because of the need for the greater good.
“That is a really important question for us today, how much we should be willing to accept that imposition on us by the state, because we are told it is necessary?
“‘Some of the lines in the play are startlingly modern and yet it is over 50 years old this play. It really does feel like it was written now.”
When we meet Brining is hours away from the first preview, the first time he will share it with the staff of the building. He doesn’t seem nervous. He seems excited to share his vision of the play. “It’s a huge play and a really ambitious project for us and when you see it I think you will recognise that,”