BWW Interview: David Mercateli Talks INSIGNIFICANCE At Arcola Theatre
Twenty years after its first premiere, Terry Johnson's Insignificance is being given new life by director David Mercatali at Arcola Theatre. He discusses his career and how the world has changed since the play was first on.
When did you realise you wanted to become a director?
I was at university and one year they were short of directors for the upcoming year - there wouldn't be enough plays for everyone to be in. At that point I felt a sense of responsibility.
When I first came in to rehearsals, everybody was looking at me to take the lead. It was quite daunting, but at the same time there was a certain buzz that came with that. So I realised I preferred directing to acting, as I loved having an overall view of the production, and I really enjoyed helping actors realise their potential. It all evolved from there.
Did you pursue any training as an actor?
No, I only acted as a hobby at that point.
Or as a director?
Not really. I turned up in London wanting to get work experience and I volunteered at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell for a period of time. I just worked my way up from very small productions that didn't go very well, but I kept going from there with the hope that people would finally pay attention to my work.
What was your first professional job as a director?
It was a piece back in 2005. I'm not going to name the details of it - it wasn't a good production from the start. I decided to direct it because I thought I needed the credits to get my career going.
In the end, the reviews came out and said everything I already knew, but also they blamed me for much of it. What I learned is that you need to work on something you believe in. If you can't advocate for a play you're doing, if you can't defend it to the hilt, if you don't feel passionate about it, then you need to look somewhere else. It was a brilliant learning experience.
You're directing the first revival of Insignificance in 20 years - did you feel any pressure going into it?
Not really. I think because I take each play on its own terms, I trust the actors, I trust that we'll find a way through it together. I don't tend to pile pressure on at the early stages, because I think we've got a process for a reason. Obviously every single show we do has pressure, expectations, difficulties, but I wouldn't say I felt it more because of the history of the play.
The characters are really well known and people have their own ideas of them. Did you play on that or try to give them your own spin?
I worked with them as they are in the play, but we obviously spent a lot of time researching and working on the history of the characters. The play is actually faithful to that and to where they were at that stage in their lives.
So it's a combination of understanding who these people are and where they were coming from, but really taking them at face value as they are in the play too. I felt we didn't have to impose anything beyond that. We went from the script onwards.
Do you think what audiences expect from the play has changed since it first premiered?
I don't know what audiences expect or expected, but I do know that the world has changed since the play first premiered. It's set in the Fifties when the world was living under nuclear threat, and it was written in the Eighties when the world was coming to the end of the Cold War and we had a celebrity president.
Now it's this incredible combination, a scary one too, of both a celebrity president from a reality TV background and, rather terrifyingly, it's starting to feel like we're living under nuclear threat again. I think things have drastically changed. Bringing this play in now, we have a different feeling from people watching it than we had 20 years ago.
Why should people see Insignificance?
For a few reasons: it's a very poignant story, very truthful, it's also funny. It takes something incredibly big, but I hope it will make people laugh and cry in equal measure.
Any advice for budding directors?
Find your collaborators. Find the people who you feel are passionate about the work, make those relationships, advocate for them, let them advocate for you. Don't feel like you're going into this alone.