James Brining has been Artistic Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse since 2012. In addition to driving forward a bold new vision for the producing theatre, including a forthcoming £13m redevelopment of the building, James has directed several flagship productions, including The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, The Crucible, Enjoy, Talking Heads, Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Into the Woods and Ode to Leeds.
This season, James directs Reece Dinsdale in a contemporary adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. We spoke to James amidst rehearsals prior to the show’s premiere later this month.
James, The Master Builder is an interesting piece of theatre to tackle…
Yes, but not to correct you, it’s (The Fall of) The Master Builder! Even though it’s inspired by the original Ibsen play and somewhat starts in the same place as that play, it goes in a particular direction. It’s very much after-Ibsen; a response to The Master Builder…
So what drew you towards the original concept?
I was reading Ibsen and I’ve known the play for years. Reading it, I thought it was a very interesting piece to study through a series of lenses in a contemporary sense. I was interested to see how this play, written over a hundred years ago, could resonate with certain things in modern society; how it deals with class, gender, the abuse of power and also a sense of generation succeeding generation. I believe all of these aspects which we’re exploring are very much issues of a contemporary society. So I read a number of different versions of the original play and gave Zinnie Harris a copy, explaining the particular enquiry and focus I was interested in. She read it overnight and said she was keen to take on the challenge, so we commissioned a new version rather than a direct translation.
Did you work closely with Zinnie Harris throughout the adaptation process?
When I gave Zinnie the copy of the original script I initially said I wanted it to be modern, to be contemporary. I wanted it to be set here, like it was just down the road in Wakefield or Dewsbury. So it’s a Northern play, but only because it happens to be occurring here. This story is one that can happen anywhere, so I explained to Zinnie what I was particularly interested in and she worked out a draft based on that, which we then workshopped and further developed. Zinnie is a brilliant writer who I’ve worked with before; she’s a fantastic artist with a forensic insight in terms of character, which she’s very much brought to the play.
It seems like Ibsen set out to rattle his audience with some contentious ideas. What are you saying with your version?
I’ll try not to reveal any spoilers, because the experience of the play will be affected if we say too much. However, we are interested in the events of the original play, which is the return of a young woman after an encounter with this man, Halvard Solness, ten years previously. It’s a very interesting moment, as are the reasons behind Solness’ conduct and behaviour at that moment, which is something we’re exploring.
The Playhouse has a real skill in bringing classics into a modern era. I’ve noticed some of your work is relocated into the late Seventies and early Eighties.
[Laughs] This is not set in the Eighties again! I have to say that (The Fall of) The Master Builder is very much in 2017. It’s now. I think that some people believe that classics should be left alone, but I think our job is to intervene. The play is there; the reason we’re doing a classic again is to find out how it speaks to us now. It’s a fascinating thing to do, to find out what the conversation is between the piece as it was originally written and how we’re responding to it today, and that may be different in two or five years time.
You cast Reece Dinsdale in the leading role. What’s he bringing to the character of Halvard Solness?
Reece and I had wanted to do something for a while, so we’d been looking at projects and read five or six different plays, including The Master Builder, and Reece really liked the idea of man who was tormented. In the original, he’s tormented, amongst other things, by a sense of approaching mortality and a sense of losing his powers. So when we commissioned the new version, Reece described how he had to jump from one story to the other. But I think those original themes, such as being at a particular age and having peaked creatively, informed by the other things we’re exploring, gave him so much to work with. He’s an actor with a real, naturalistic intensity and he was very keen to perform something in his own voice. He’s not “performing” or “acting”, in a way, as we want it to feel real and immediate, as if we have just walked into a room and there are people there. Reece pays incredible attention to detail and has a lot of emotional range, so it’s a very rigorous process working with him and I think we’re both enjoying a sort of forensic approach; opening up the psychology of a pretty tortured man. Also, what we’re trying to do is to stop the play from being what it can tend to be, which is a study of one or two people and actually make it a study of a group of people. So whilst it’s a show led by an actor, it’s actually an ensemble piece and it’s incredibly interesting how we can make it more of a company piece about a group of people rather than just a vehicle for a lead.
The play sounds deeply psychological. Perhaps I was sold that on the artwork which is rather Hitchcockian – inspired by Saul Bass?
Alex Lowde is designing and he has an eye for that look and stylistically its quite specific, but it doesn’t really have that MadMen influence. It’s quite cool, rather Scandinavian, but with a Yorkshire accent. But I think you’re right, psychological is what we’re going for; the study of human actions and the complexity, the contradictions, the darkness of human behaviour. Why do people behave like they do? It’s about understanding that. What informs that sense of morbidity which Solness has in the original play, which we’re harnessing in this contemporary version. I want the show to be a really compelling evening, where the audience gets caught up in the characters and their stories. In a way, it’s a play that takes place in a room, but visually I’m also interested in delivering something else in addition to that. So, without giving anything away, there will be a bold visual dynamic to the piece, where it becomes more than just an office or a drawing room. It’s a theatrical experience as well as a psychological one. It’s a truly fascinating play and it’s great working on a new piece of writing in which every line has proper reasoning with proper effect and we’re searching for that it in many different ways. It’s fascinating.
(The Fall of) The Master Builder is at West Yorkshire Playhouse from Saturday 30th September to Saturday 21st October 2017. Book online at wyp.org.uk or call the Box Office on 0113 213 7700.