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BWW Interview: Director Nigel Harman On Reviving Berkoff's LUNCH and THE BOW OF ULYSSES

Nigel Harman in rehearsal

As an actor, Nigel Harman's numerous credits include EastEnders, Guys and Dolls, Downton Abbey and Shrek The Musical, the latter of which he also directed. He's now helming the revival of a Steven Berkoff double bill: Lunch, about an abortive one-night stand, and The Bow of Ulysses, revisiting the couple after 20 years of marriage. The plays star Shaun Dooley and Emily Bruni, and begin at Trafalgar Studios on 6 October.

When did you realise you wanted to perform?

Probably from about six, and I did my first acting job for money when I was eight. I just enjoyed it - it always felt natural. I went to Alexander Academy in South Croydon, doing dance and drama, and apart from wanting to become a professional footballer or rugby player for a while, this has always been it. There was never any other choice.

I got a diploma in musical theatre from Arts Ed, and originally I was more interested in the singing and dancing side, but as I got into my twenties, acting really grew on me and that became my focus. Now I do a bit of everything.

When did you begin directing?

I officially started with the Shrek tour, but it's always been in me. I thought all actors were like me, and had the same sort of radar, but I realised that I was a bit unusual in thinking about lots of stuff that doesn't concern me! Then I reached a point in my life when I felt ready to give it a proper go.

Does your background help you communicate with actors?

Yes, it helps having insight into acting and vice versa. Sometimes you can forget how exposing and vulnerable-making it can be - directors can be a bit less tolerant of actors' concerns.

What appealed to you about directing?

I wanted to be see the creative whole and be involved in all the conversations - really shaping a piece of theatre, rather than coming in at the end when it's already formed. I wanted to be in the room with model boxes and discussing what colour socks someone should wear, what piece of music to play, everything. I've been lucky enough to work with brilliant practitioners, so just watching how they approach the work and storytelling is really stimulating.

Shaun Dooley and Emily Bruni in rehearsal

Have other directors influenced your style?

They're definitely inside me - I've got 30-plus years of experience working with some of the best directors in the game. I occasionally catch myself saying something and thinking "Oh god, so-and-so said that to me." But I'm very grateful for their influence.

How did the Berkoff plays come to you?

A producer asked if I'd read them, and I hadn't. I was absolutely blown away when I sat down with them. This is the first major revival in 20 years, and it feels like stumbling across a rare gem. Every day I spend in the rehearsal room they just get deeper, better, funnier, more moving, more shocking. He really stands up - it's been fascinating. We went in not knowing what was going to happen, and we've ended up feeling "Yes, this is really great material."

Do the plays have contemporary resonance?

They're set in about 1973 and 1993, but it could be any point. They're timeless - all about the human psyche, the parts we love and those we hide, that shadow self we try not to show too much. They go straight for the jugular. They're definitely pertinent to today.

It's been one of those rehearsal rooms where you have to go there - no hiding place or stiff upper lip acting. It all comes out! Having Shaun and Emily is a director's blessing - they're completely fearless. They did something yesterday and no one could speak afterwards. These roles are so dense, almost Shakespearean in nature, and they're doing incredible work. I can't wait for everyone to see them.

What about the physicality?

For me, the physicality has to come out of the emotion, so it doesn't become a mime show. It's important that it's connected to something real. I haven't seen every Berkoff production ever, but those I have, the physicality was often set aside or abstract.

What's it been like working with your creative team?

I'm like a kid in a sweet shop with them. Our movement director, Alistair [David], is just a fantastic voice in the room, Joshua Carr is this brilliant young lighting designer, Max and Ben [Ringham] I've known for a long time - when we heard the music, we all just stopped. Lee [Newby] is such a clever designer.

Everyone's really far too busy to be doing this - Lee was just on Broadway with Forest Whitaker in Hughie - but they're passionate about it. No one's getting rich off this project! So everyone's here because they love it and they can see the potential in the work.

Nigel Harman in rehearsal

Do you think the plays will be more or less shocking to an audience now?

You can never tell what will shock people. Some people will be laughing from start to finish - people of a darker character! There's an element of sexuality that's incredibly complex and wonderful to explore. That will definitely touch people in different ways. Bow has such an abrasive realism to it - the caustic nastiness in the ways partners of 20 years can talk to each. It strikes a chord in uncomfortable and funny ways.

I hope the theatre crowd will enjoy a revival of a work that hasn't been seen in a long time, but I'd also encourage any younger people to come along - it's the sort of theatre that's engaging and stimulating, not a stuffy period piece. You can get in the guts of it. We're challenging the audience right from the very start.

Have you seen other theatre recently that's inspired or challenged you?

Yes, I try to see lots. I thought X at the Royal Court was extraordinary. It really burrows into your subconscious. I try to work off my own instincts - I'm sure I use the palette of a thousand shows I've seen or been in, but I don't ape what other people have done before.

What's next? More directing, or back to acting?

I'd love to carry on doing both and see where that leads. I'm very intoxicated with directing right now, but I still have a penchant for getting up and showing off! Maybe directing a movie one day, but right now I wouldn't even know how to turn on a camera. You never know. I like to take on challenges I've never tackled before.

Finally, why should people come to see the double bill?

It'll be funny, intense, challenging. The Trafalgar is like a tiny Greek amphitheatre - it's such a visceral space. You'll be swept away into another world. And any fans of acting, come and see two fantastic actors going at it. Our staging is all about them. Based on what's happening in the rehearsal room, you won't want to miss it.

Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses are at Trafalgar Studios 6 October-5 November

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author Marianka Swain