It starts with a play – and a passion. The Young Vic may have developed a reputation as the home of so-called ‘director’s theatre’, offering radical takes on classic plays directed by the likes of Joe Hill-Gibbins, Ivo van Hove, Benedict Andrews, Carrie Cracknell and Simon Stone, but for artistic director David Lan, the really crucial component is still the play. The right director is the person who mounts a convincing case for urgently staging it right here, right now.
“What I start from is the premise that there’s no point doing the play unless we’re excited by what’s in the play,” he explains. “You’ve got to love it. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we’re doing it because Joe said, ‘I really really want to do it’.” It’s this compulsion to revisit a classic, looking anew at “how is this relevant now?” that often leads to the “most surprising and deep response.”
A surprising response to a well-loved play – including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its magic, fairies and romance – can raise hackles, even if it does spring from a director’s own love affair with the material.
Lan recognises that unusual stagings of classic plays make some audiences anxious.
“Part of my job is to find a way to say ‘it’s fine: it may not be exactly what you think it’s going to be, but it’s good! It’s real. You’re not being cheated out of anything.’” Indeed, the hope is that by shaking off the shackles of over-familiarity, the play comes into a sharp new focus – as was the case with van Hove’s A View from the Bridge, Cracknell’s A Doll’s House or Stone’s Yerma.
“People say, don’t you sometimes want to get out of the way and just ‘do’ the play? But you can’t just ‘do’ the play,” Lan suggests. To him, any production is a series of choices, from what the actors bring to their parts to the visual world a designer creates. Any performance that has a director is, in a sense, director’s theatre because they guide these choices. “With any production, you’re always going to see the particular director’s take on the play; it just might not be a very interesting director!”
The notion, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, that actors should simply speak the text or trust the language is also naive. “A robot could just ‘say the words’, but an actor can’t, because they’re a human being and what they’re responding to is the meaning those words have in the situation they’re in.”
And this response can be – should be – complicated and multifaceted. If there’s one thing Lan really wants a Young Vic production to do, it’s to explore the contradictions inherent in being human, contradictions which the best dramatists reveal. They’re certainly there in Shakespeare.
“We’re trying to say, all human life is here. And audiences feel that, they’re not patronised, the characters in this play are as complicated and complex as they are. Everybody’s life is a complete mess, everybody is going ‘god I don’t know what to do’ – and that’s in the plays. Don’t try to resolve it. Stage the contradiction.”
That means allowing the play to be complex: A Midsummer Night’s Dream might turn out to be stranger than we expect. The material shouldn’t be treated with stuffy reverence but as an obligatory dose of cultural medicine.
“It’s not to do with simplifying, or saying ‘oh this is a bit like a druggy rave so let’s get a lot of polythene…’ No bullshit, [but also] no worthiness, no saying it’s good for us.” Just the question: is there actually something there for us, today, in a certain play?
In attempting to answer this question, the Young Vic has become known for its distinctive takes on familiar works (not that, as Lan points out, the theatre would be considered radical compared to most European theatres) but while he’s “delighted that people think that if you go to the Young Vic you will get something special, or unexpected, or surprising”, he also hopes that people think of the Young Vic as a place where you still “really get the play.” That’s where it starts – and that’s where it ends, too.
By Holly Williams