Director Nicky Cox tells Gill Sutherland about the challenges of staging Alan Ayckbourn’s epic domestic trilogy The Norman Conquests, which is currently on at The Bear Pit Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Whose idea was it to take on the challenge of The Norman Conquests?
The Bear Pit’s artistic director David Mears. I’m dreadful at picking what plays we are doing. David contacted me and said, “What about this?” I agreed to do it because it’s not what people expect me to do. Previously I’d done Thirty-Nine Steps, which was a bit bonkers, and Hound of the Baskervilles – so both quirky. I thought it would be good to broaden my horizons and to do something like a domestic British drama, and explore why it is successful and what are the challenges of doing that. As it’s three plays for a group of amateur actors that’s quite demanding: it’s a big task and the run’s long.
Tell us about the cast.
It’s a mix of people fairly well known to the Bear Pit. I’m working with Roger Ganner, he’s my Norman. He has that experience and playfulness – we were in The Vicar of Dibley together and so he gets me. Then Lily Skinner is Annie – I worked with her husband Dominic on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other Bear Pit productions, so I know her really well. Tom the gardener is Thomas Hodge, who was brilliant as George in the Bear Pit’s Blackadder. Then Vicki Jamieson is Sarah and Zoe Mortimer is Ruth – I hadn’t met either of them before but during the auditions they really impressed with their great energy.
As well as the challenge of presenting three plays at once, I understand it’s in the round to boot?
We wanted a challenge because it’s The Bear Pit. We have an audience and we want to give them what they want, but also something unexpected. So yes, we’ve reconfigured the seating. I think I’m right in saying that none of the cast have played in the round before, so it fights against the natural actor’s instinct to look for the audience. During rehearsals I’ve been sitting in different places to try and tackle the challenge of how to tell the story when there’s more than one viewpoint.
So is the aim to get the audience to feel as though they are living in those lives?
Yeah, like a fly on the wall. What’s interesting is that when we started rehearsing we read each play individually because it’s the events of the weekend seen from different rooms – Table Manners takes place in the dining room, Living Together takes place in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden takes place in the garden – so there are some scenes that are happening at the same time, but they are in a different place. For logic’s sake we then rehearsed the scenes in order so people knew what had just happened to them, otherwise it’s difficult connecting the plays up. Now we’ve gone back to the individual plays and it’s just changed the tone completely, and as an audience you’re thinking, “What’s gone on?” It’s been a long rehearsal process.
What do you think the audience is going to get from it?
I think it’s going to be the same question the actors have, which is: Why do people stay together? It’s a study into the glue that holds couples together. It’s going, “Why would that wife say that?” in one play and then in the next play you see the flipside of that, and if you’d just seen the first play you’d think everything was fine. So it’s quite interesting because each play gives you a different viewpoint of a different character. I think we’ve all gone on a journey of questioning why they would put up with that and I’ve told the actors: “You have to believe in your character’s decision.”
You’ve been working at the RSC for the last few years – including assistant directing on Tartuffe, etc – what have you learned there that you’re bringing to this production?
It’s the detail – looking at why characters behave in certain ways, for example. Because sometimes when you work in amateur theatre you can go. “It’s okay because it’s not professional”, but actually it’s pulling at tiny strands. Like really thinking about the significance of a line. It would be easy to dismiss – “It’s just one line” – but you need to really dissect. If you just play it on the surface then you’re not getting that depth.
After this epic, what’s next for you?
I’m freelancing so I’m doing a bit of directing and I’ve kind of got back into workshop-leading with the RSC. Then I’m going to be associate director on Twelfth Night, which goes back to my first acting job that was with a company in Devon that took Shakespeare into schools, so it feels like after 15 years of association with the RSC I’m finally back to where I arrived. I’m really happy about that.
When and where: Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests runs at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford, until 14th March. Visit www.thebearpit.org.uk for more information.