BWW Interview: Director Sean Holmes On Reviving SHOPPING AND F***ING
Sean Holmes has been Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith since 2009. Memorable productions during his bold and varied tenure include Three Kingdoms, Saved, Bugsy Malone, Ghost Stories, the Secret Theatre programme, and the Olivier Award-winning Blasted. Next up is a revival of Mark Ravenhill's provocative Shopping and F***ing.
What was the impetus to revive the play?
It's an interesting one. Around February, we'd settled on the programme for the autumn and into spring next year, then we looked at it and thought maybe it wasn't as bold or diverse as we'd like it to be. We chatted through some ideas, and then I woke up at 1am that night with Shopping and F***ing in my head.
I saw the original production, but I hadn't read it for a long time. I reread it, and I was taken by prophetic the play is - something Mark was sensing in society is even more prevalent now. Plus it's the 20th anniversary. It's been done a lot across the world, but there hasn't been a major revival here, so it just made sense.
Do you think the Lyric audience welcomes more challenging work?
Our audience is really diverse - they're younger than a lot of theatres' audiences, and there's a whole generation who's never seen these seminal plays. Like when we did Blasted and Saved, it's great to see if work that was provocative at the time holds up and still has something to say to us.
There's a brilliant speech in Shopping about how there used to be big stories, big ideas, and now we're all making up our own little stories instead. That's so true, with social media and the way we're all presenting an edited version of our lives. Plus so many things are transactional now, so many relationships - that's increasingly true.
When the play was written, the Berlin Wall hadn't been down long. Now, we live in a world with one system - the genius of global capitalism is that we're all in it, whether we like it or not. That taints how we behave towards one another, and the response to it, whether it's Trump or Corbyn or radical ideologies. Mark saw that coming over the hill 20 years ago.
Does your production have a contemporary take on the piece?
It's definitely not a loving period re-creation - it has to feel contemporary. That doesn't mean we're whipping out iPhones, but you have to create a metaphorical world in which the concerns of today are reflected - all the pressures we face. We're transforming the Lyric into a huge studio or arena space, so it's a production that's very aware the audience is there. It's very presentational.
Did the current cast know the play beforehand?
It's the sort of play lots of people have read at drama school or used as an audition speech. What's been great is seeing the effect the play has on the younger generation - how shocking it still is. The interesting thing is that, apart from a pretty gruesome bit at the end, it's not actually that violent or even that sexual - somebody licks somebody's bum, someone fondles someone else's genitals. It's actually the humour and message that are more subversive. It's like Noel Coward on crack - funny, absurd, ironic.
There's a perception that the play's dark and gloomy, but the original production had a West End run and a national tour, so there's something in it that appeals to a wider audience. It's got elements we all relate to: it's about the ridiculous of human behaviour.
What sort of effect do you think it'll have on a 2016 audience?
All great writers make us challenge our perceptions and those easy narratives. Power structures and the media often simplify very complex issues. I think what a play like this does is challenge us to look at our place in those narratives - to see that maybe we're more affected by certain systems than we realise. We're not telling an audience anything - we're saying "We're all in this together. We're all subject to the same desires."
Has Mark been open to exploration?
He was in yesterday, and we were mucking around, changing not the text, but the context in which it's presented, and he was really exciting by that - chucking in loads of ideas. He's very non-precious. We're not rewriting the play, but building a frame around it for today.
How do you balance shows like Shopping with something like Bugsy Malone?
I really choose work based on my own taste and what interests me as a director. Our young audience gets excited by challenging work, though Shopping is also a really funny and surprising play. I'm most interested in affecting an audience - whether it's Bugsy and everyone going out full of happiness and joy and hope, or Shopping, where they might have questions about their own lives and the world they live in.
Do you feel pressure to choose shows that will also fill the theatre?
There's pressure for any theatre to get people in - I feel that every day. But we're subsidised for a reason, and that's to take risks. What's nice about the Lyric is that what's worked historically is risk - something like Ghost Stories, I didn't have a clue what that was when we programmed it, or Blasted, which everyone said we were mad to do in a 500-seat theatre, and it was a very successful production. I've done other things that haven't worked as well, but the only way to succeed is to take risks.
You once said you wanted the Lyric to be like "the National Theatre of Hammersmith". Do you feel you've fulfilled that?
I laugh now at the hubris of that line! What we are is intensely local, but also London, national and, on a good day, international - there's lots of layers to the theatre. Our big redevelopment means spaces for young people, and they really animate the building. At any time of day, it's full of life, activity, youth, and lots of young people have ended up on our main stages too. They become part of the fabric of the building, and get opportunities they might not get elsewhere. There's something special about the Lyric as a consequence. We're very much part of west London and their lives, but also reaching out across London and the world.
Are co-productions a key part of that?
Yes, we've got City of Glass coming up with 59 Productions and HOME, and Fantastic Mr Fox with Nuffield and Curve. Obviously it makes financial sense to co-produce, but it's also really great to collaborate with other likeminded organisations and companies.
What did you learn from the Secret Theatre experience?
You should tell people what shows you're doing! On a more serious note, it's a really important thing and a really stupid thing all mixed up together. We had to do something crazy, because of the building project, and for me it was like going to directing school in your mid-forties. In fact it's directly influenced my thinking and practice on Shopping and F***ing.
A lot of us get excited by work we see elsewhere that challenges conventions or ways of working, especially in Germany, but Secret Theatre meant we could really test the structures of how that work is made, rather than slapping on an aesthetic copy. It also showed up the strengths of our traditions here. I hope the consequence is a synthesis - working metaphorically or abstractly, while retaining that psychological detail in the acting.
I did The Plough and the Stars recently in Dublin, and I really felt - as a result of all that work - that I did the play properly. It was clear and detailed, even though the setting was in no way 1916, and it really worked in a way that a popular audience could understand it. That audience isn't just a load of Guardian readers - it's a real cross-section of people. I felt really in charge of my decisions, rather than things happening by default because something's in the room no one ever said shouldn't be. And it's always a challenge not to get stuck or be complacent, but keep learning and finding new ways of making work.
What do the Artistic Associates bring to the Lyric?
To start with, they were really useful voices when we were defining what the Lyric is. Now, with Ola [Ince] and Jude [Christian] coming in, we've got those younger voices bringing something new - I definitely believe in leeching off the young!
Someone like Paule [Constable], I've worked with her a long time and I know you couldn't get a better theatre brain. Mind, everyone keeps stealing our Associates, like Simon Stephens doing fantastic work at the Court, so I guess we're doing something right.
The best thing is they're all top of their game in their fields, and they've all got different networks of people they've worked with and places they've worked, so you've suddenly got this brilliant data bank of most of world theatre. It's important to me to work collegiately. Or in other words, everyone else has great ideas and I nick them - that's pretty much the definition of "director"!
Are you quite democratic in the rehearsal room?
You do need a strong central vision - direction can't be done by committee. But culturally, in the UK, you can see a lot of great work being made collaboratively now. That's a strength of British theatre: we have to be good at swiftly connecting with new people and generating ideas together.
Do you get to see much work elsewhere, and does that inspire you?
I probably don't go as much as I should - I tend to splurge on theatre, and then not go for a bit. It's an interesting time. So much has changed just in the short period between Secret Theatre and now - if I did that today, it would be "Yeah, so what?" Though even then we were really noticing what was already happening and pushing it along, being part of that cultural shift. But I'm definitely inspired by work. Sebastian Nübling's staging of Three Kingdoms was a massive influence. Or doing Edward Bond's Saved - that rigorously challenges you.
What would you like to do at the Lyric that you haven't yet?
Probably in the next year we might do a few more classics, in a new way. We've done lots of neglected plays or big popular shows, but less of an interesting, Lyric take on canon work.
Any advice to directors?
It's a marathon, not a sprint. It takes a long time to get good at what you do. I look back at some of the shows I directed at the RSC early on and think "Oh god, I was rubbish." Just keep learning. You learn more from your disasters than your successes. And find an environment where you can take risks. Don't be boring. The Lyric is a special place to work - I'm very lucky.
Finally, what can audiences expect from Shopping and Fucking?
It's exciting, sensory, funny. Really amazing design, and a really thrilling theatrical experience.