Polly Findlay: A thrilling follow-up

Matt Trueman
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Polly Findlay, one of the UK’s top young directors, talks to Matt Trueman about taking on the biggest directing task of her career so far – a ‘political thriller’ of Sophocles’ classic Greek tragedy, Antigone

Sarah Lund, The Killing’s protagonist and queen of Nordic knitwear, seems an unlikely counterpoint to Antigone. The same goes for Jack Bauer and West Wing President Jed Barlett. Yet all of them are running around inside Polly Findlay’s head during rehearsals for the National Theatre’s forthcoming production, starring Jodie Whittaker and Christopher Eccleston.

Having made a horror of Seneca’s Thyestes at the Arcola in 2009, she is out to make a ‘political thriller’ of Sophocles’ play. “Everyone’s fascinated by these big television dramas: The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge and so on. Antigone has got a lot in common with them,” she says, smiling a mischievous smile that suggests she is totally aware of the inherent playful iconoclasm.

It is a great statement of intent; one that smashes straight through any notion of staid, systematic Greek tragedy that is all masks and no heart. As she unpacks it, however, it makes a lot of sense. “They’re all fast-paced and ask you to keep up, rather than making it too easy. They really pull you into the drama. In that respect, the play feels very contemporary and very exciting.”

“I’ve always been really interested in classical plays because they’re part of our imaginative DNA. They reach places other plays don’t. It’s like: Carlsberg don’t do drama, but if they did…”

Throughout Nicholas Hytner’s tenure, ancient plays have been fitted with modern pacemakers. Katie Mitchell’s acclaimed Iphigenia at Aulis and her subsequent Trojan Women happened on his watch, and he launched NT Live with a Greek myth, albeit as told by a Frenchman, in Phedre.

The most recent, three years ago, was Jonathan Kent’s Oedipus with Ralph Fiennes in the title role. Antigone is the sequel. “The beginning feels a bit like you’re starting a series of 24, seven hours in,” says Findlay. “In fact, we’ve called the first chorus ‘Previously on Antigone…’”

At its centre, of course, is an individual defying and standing up to the state; something that feels perfectly pertinent in the wake of the Arab Spring and the midst of the Occupy movement. However, Findlay is somewhat cautious about drawing too many parallels.

“Like all great plays, it has a permanent freshness,” she explains. “Every article I’ve read about it, across the last 250 years, says, ‘Isn’t it extraordinary that this play reflects the current political climate so precisely. It’s a question of where in the world this dynamic – between Antigone and Creon – is being enacted, rather than if.”

For that reason, she and her designer Soutra Gilmour have avoided a specific geographical setting and, with it, any “indictment of any particular political regime. We felt that might be reductive and ask us to look at the play through too narrow a prism”.

At only 29, Findlay is one of the youngest directors to be entrusted with the Olivier Theatre. It is a notoriously exposing space with a capacity of more than 1,000 – a prospect she describes as “terrifying” and, seconds later, “lots of fun”.

At least, as a staff director on both War Horse and Man of Mode, she has had some experience of conducting understudy runs in there. Between the two productions, she won the James Menzies-Kitchin award for emerging directors.

Findlay only started directing at university, having previously worked regularly as a child actor, and deems the National her real training ground. When it comes to influences, she cites first Hytner, then Marianne Elliott: “I love that she’s happy to change her approach and her take on things to put the play at the centre of the process.”

That explains the diversity on her CV: Caryl Churchill, Roald Dahl, Derren Brown. She directed Svengali last year, picking up the Olivier award for best entertainment. “My mum was pleased,” she says. All, however, are connected: “I’m excited by theatre as something that happens in the same room. Derren’s shows change from night to night; Thyestes has a real intensity in that small space. I’m looking to make things immediate, personal and visceral.”

Despite their obvious differences, Findlay says she employs the same toolkit across the board. Directing Brown, for example, “is like doing a new play – sort of dramaturgical”.

“We looked at each routine as a five-act structure and dramaturged in the same way. You’d say, ‘This is about information, complication and defying expectation’.”

Does she know his secrets? “I couldn’t possibly comment.”

The emphasis throughout is on dramaturgy, reflecting both her English degree from Oxford and, like several of her contemporaries, an openness to European influences.

On the one hand, she describes seeing Thomas Ostermeier’s higgledy-piggledy Hamlet at the Barbican as “game-changing” (simultaneously hymning about Noises Off). On the other, she talks about “unpacking the logic of a text, particularly difficult and challenging ones, where it’s no longer that of our world. That’s really interesting”. Next up, in keeping with that, is William Wycherley’s The Country Wife – “a romp, but a romp about domestic abuse” – at the Manchester Royal Exchange.

Variety is the key both to her work and her tastes, which must mark her out as a future artistic director. She relished the taster of last summer’s Double Feature, “curating the audience experience” in the temporary space. “The business of looking after someone’s entire night – how the plays sit within that – is something I find really exciting,” she says.

* Antigone is at the National Theatre, London, until July 21

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