She Stoops To Conquer at Rose Theatre Kingston: director interview

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By Teddington People | Friday, August 22, 2014, 10:04

Director Conrad Nelson talks about his work, the company's repertoire and why audiences should see "She Stoops to Conquer" at Rose Theatre Kingston.

Interview by Nick Ahad

Fresh from the critical acclaim of An August Bank Holiday Lark, Halifax theatre company Northern Broadsides are set to stage Oliver Goldsmith’s much loved 18th century comedy of manners She Stoops To Conquer at Rose Theatre Kingston from Tuesday 16 until Saturday 20 September.

Northern Broadsides built its reputation on one specific thing – Shakespeare with a northern voice.

Since its inception 22 years ago, the company has grown, evolved, and while its reputation for that initial impetus remains strong, it has added significantly to its portfolio. While Barrie Rutter is the face of the company, Conrad Nelson has been, if not quite the power behind the throne, certainly a vitally important part in the evolution of Broadsides.

Nelson, a musical genius and actor of great power, is at the helm once again of a new Broadsides production. Unlikely as it seems, the company’s latest show is a Georgian 1773 comedy of manners.

She Stoops To Conquer, by Irishman Oliver Goldsmith, tells the story of a wealthy landowner Mr Hardcastle who wants his daughter Kate to marry Charles Marlow, the son of a wealthy Londoner - who only seems to relax around women from a lower class.

“It’s a good title for Northern Broadsides,” says Nelson.

“There were lots of reasons for us to do it. Next year we’re doing King Lear and I’ll be doing The Winter’s Tale, so next year will be all Shakespeare. That was partly why this year we are doing a new play (Deborah McAndrew’s An August Bank Holiday Lark) and a classic revival with She Stoops. It’s fair to say that the diet is varied.

“This is a classic piece driven by that high comedy and a real love of language. It was also one we were able to just pick up off the shelf and do, which is useful to have sometimes. I love the adaptations that we do, but I also really love revisiting a piece of writing that already exists. New plays are really exciting, but returning to a play that exists has something special about it too.”

When the company was first established there was much hilarity among the London critics about Shakespearean Northerners. “T’be or not t’be” was what the metropolitan theatrical elite thought they might be getting. They were all stunned by the clarity and power of the Bard performed by those voices.

“It’s our natural voice, the short vowel and hard consonant. That’s what we perform with and it means the voices are a character too, it becomes a dynamic way of speaking – there’s definitely nothing lethargic about the voices. It is our USP.”

So what is Nelson’s plan for She Stoops to Conquer?

“I want it to be the play,” is the seemingly obvious answer.

Look at how young directors take a classic and ladle on a ‘concept’, however, and you realize how revolutionary this notion might actually be.

“I don’t want to rip the heart out of it. So while we’re doing it in traditional garb, we are billing it as traditional garb as a Vivienne Westwood inspired ball.

“It’s full of great characters Mrs Hardcastle is great fun. She is Bet Lynch, she’s Hyacinth Bouquet, she’s aspirational and wants to be in London and wants to wear those Vivienne Westwood inspired creations, but just gets it a bit wrong. So she’ll see that leopard print is in, and will then come out wearing full leopard print.”

It sounds like Nelson has a strong vision, but this is high comedy written in a certain voice – Goldsmith set it in the West Country - how can it fit in with what the director calls Broadsides’ USP?

“When you see the show normally, the posh characters are speaking RP and the lower class generally speaking in that south west burr, Bristolian accents. If we did that with Broadsides, it would be ridiculous.

“One of the problems for me is that with Kate Hardcastle, the minute she starts speaking in that RP accent, she immediately becomes Veruca Salt (the spoilt young girl in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). RP is the voice of class and suggests certain sensibilities, suggests privilege when you hear that voice. She sounds petulant when that is the voice - and for me she isn’t petulant, she’s fiery, but she isn’t spoilt. She is actually very modern, a woman who happens to be able to run rings around daddy – but does so knowing she is being a bit daft.

“The Broadsides’ Kate Hardcastle has one foot in the North and wants to travel to London. It avoids the RP accent that would be, in a Broadsides production, the downfall of the character. It just tells us about her aspiration.”

Clearly, Nelson has thought deeply on the play and his some strong ideas. That does not mean his mind is made up on everything ahead of arriving in the rehearsal room.

“My personal thoughts are: let’s not look at a play and decide that we already know what it’s about, let’s look at a play and open up the first page and say the lines out loud,” says Nelson.

“That’s when you can say ‘and now we can hear it, let’s really look at what it’s about’. And when you do that you start to hear a play differently and then you start playing together.

“Saying a play is not the same as directing it. Sometimes when you’re playing, you can find some great things. Having said that, sometimes you have to go back to the text, because ultimately that’s where the idea is for the story.”

So what has he found in this piece?

“This is not a textured play. It’s a full-bellied laugh of a play, you can mine this play and find the depths in it or you can ride it and ride on the laughs. You need to hope that the big dresses and the big wigs will allow you to still give the language and the script the space it deserves to be heard. If you do that then you are serving the play and the vitality of the piece. You can’t say that this piece hasn’t been done before, because it has, but you can say that it hasn’t been done like this, in this way. By its very definition then, this is a new play, because while you might have seen it done before, you’ve never seen it done with this group of actors, directed by me and produced by Northern Broadsides.”

While Nelson has been Rutter’s right hand man and has been in charge of music for almost every Broadsides production, he has also delivered several stunning performances for the company over the years. He’s played the ‘Crippled King’ Richard III and he played the twisted mind of Iago, opposite Lenny Henry’s Othello, with stunning power and precision.

“Apart from one or two productions I have something to do with every Broadsides production. Barrie set the company up, he kept it going, but I have written the music for the productions and been involved in all of them. He’s Mr Yorkshire and he is the public face of the company, I am interested in the work, in making sure that the quality of all the work we produce is what it should be. Not that Barrie isn’t, but that’s what I am behind the scenes doing.

“As an actor you are trying to look at your part in the context of the whole,” he says.

“When you are acting in a piece you are looking at everything from above, but you’re doing it as your character. You’re concentrating on your part, although I do also look at it from above and try to see where my part is coming in the running of the rest of the play - and then you bring your performance based on that. Invariably it means when you are in a play as an actor there is an element that what you are doing is more self-centred, that’s not a negative thing, it’s simply how it has to be - you have to be at the centre of your own world when you are acting.

“As a director it is completely holistic.

“You have to be looking at it and seeing the whole piece and ultimately, hopefully, brining everyone into one way of thinking.

“It’s like you’re building a PC, if the parts don’t fit together, then you’re going to have operating problems.

“You are also trying to give the piece your identity without being dictatorial.

“You have to drive the piece - I’m not a very passive director I like to get in there and feel the play in my boots. And how it feels to get a piece of music in the production, the whole approach has to be holistic. I’m approaching people to be in the shows and I want them to be involved and be creative but ultimately you have to get a show up. If the scaffolding is put together properly, then the whole thing will be secure and then when it’s up, it can start to bend and shape and warp into its own life. If the work is deep enough it will just become stronger, will get more and more flesh on the bones.”

Having watched Nelson at close quarters in a rehearsal room, it is true that he commands respect and does so with intensity in the way he works. He is also an exceptional actor. The obvious question is, which does he prefer?

“At the minute I’m directing and I like the notion of collecting people together to do some work. I also like giving jobs to people, I enjoy giving an opportunity to an actor out of drama school and then nurturing them.

“I like acting for a different reason. I like to hear the audience response. And I’m not talking about the applause. I mean listening to how they are responding when you are working them through a play and 30 percent of your ear is on the audience, you’re listening to them to hear what they are doing, and you are ultimately trying to elicit a response.

Obviously if the audience applauds then that’s very gratifying too, that they have enjoyed their evening.”

It sounds like audiences should be ready to enjoy themselves when they see Nelson’s take on She Stoops to Conquer.

“Why should people see this show? The joy and vibrancy of the script. It’s a play of great joy. Plus, it’s written by an Irish fellow, so it’s a play that’s up for the craic!”



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