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Nicolas Kent: Going out with a bang

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As Nicolas Kent bids farewell to the Tricycle Theatre after 28 years at the helm, he tells Aleks Sierz about his proudest achievements and his plans for the future.

Nicolas Kent, artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London, is leaving his job in May after 28 years in the post. During that time, this small venue has pioneered the tribunal style of verbatim theatre, most famously in 1999 with The Colour of Justice (about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry), while also staging modern classics such as Mustapha Matura’s The Playboy of the West Indies, and Irish plays such as Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets.

“I was going to leave in about two or three years’ time,” Kent says. “But when the arts council cuts came in, we lost our London Boroughs Grant Scheme and the Sustain money, and found ourselves £349,000 worse off in 2012/13. At that point I thought, ‘Do I want to spend my last years at the Tricycle fighting for more money, or should I make a stand and say, look, this is really ridiculous?’ I thought it would be best for the theatre to make way for someone else.”

He reckons that the arts council will support his successor, Indhu Rubasingham, when she takes over.

For several years, Kent has made the case for an increase in subsidy because, he argues, the Tricycle has – in terms of funding – fallen behind other comparable venues in London, such as the Hampstead. In general, he points out that the larger institutions, such as the National Theatre, find it much easier to cope with cuts because they are less dependent on local government sources of subsidy, which have shrunk all over the country.

His latest season, called The Bomb, is a good example of the politics, ambition and scope of Kent’s vision. Subtitled A Partial History in Two Parts, it comprises ten short plays which run on alternate nights or over one day during the weekend. “I was very struck at how well our season of Afghan plays worked,” he says mildly, referring to the seven-hour, 12-play trilogy The Great Game: Afghanistan season in 2009. This history of the West’s involvement in the region was highly successful, toured to the US, and was followed by Rubasingham’s Women and Politics season.

“One evening during the run of Women and Politics, I was talking to Shirley Williams [senior Liberal Democrat politician] and she said, ‘Why aren’t you doing something about the Bomb?’ It’s relevant because Trident comes up for renewal in 2014, and there’s been simply no debate about it. It’s a difficult subject to dramatise, but by chance I was invited to direct Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods in Vermont.”

This play, about the nuclear arms negotiations in the 1980s between the US and Soviet Union, inspired Kent to ask several other playwrights to write plays about the history of the nuclear bomb. “Coincidentally, the atom bomb was dropped on Japan in the same year, 1945, as I was born, so I have spent my entire life in its shadow. It’s dominated our psyche very much, especially during the Cold War.”

Two weeks ago, the Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical device which charts the world’s closeness to nuclear Armageddon, moved from seven minutes to midnight to six minutes, due to fears about Iran, North Korea and terrorism. “The world is nearer to disaster than it has been for many, many years,” says Kent. “But, ironically, much of the military establishment in this country don’t think we should have the Bomb, yet this has not been publicised.

“I hope that this season, which covers the genesis and proliferation of the Bomb, and then deals mainly with present dangers, will start a debate about this vital issue. Some of the plays are funny as well as thought-provoking, so I think it will be a very entertaining evening.”

These seasons have been a Tricycle trademark. “We discovered that audiences really liked the experience of getting their teeth into an issue and staying with it for a sustained period of time,” Kent says. “With the Afghanistan season, I thought that it was ridiculous to do it for just one evening. People were sending their children to fight in a country about which we knew very little. Asking people to commit a day to watch three sets of four plays seemed very small beer compared to the commitment of those who went there as soldiers.”

Last year, the Tricycle had a hit with The Riots, by Gillian Slovo, an instant verbatim theatre response to that summer’s disturbances. “After the riots in August, I thought, ‘Hang on, the government has refused to hold a public inquiry into the causes and consequences of them, so we should do it instead.'”

As well as tribunal theatre successes such as Half a Picture, Justifying War, The Bloody Sunday Enquiry and Called to Account (indictment of Tony Blair for war crimes), Kent is also proud of Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, which transferred to the West End. And, as well as building up a good relationship with the local community and staging socially committed drama, he has also directed wonderfully entertaining work such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, the 1995 Fats Waller musical.

“I am also tremendously proud of our education programme, which reaches 40,000 children a year, of which 12,000 are socially excluded, from asylum-seeker, refugee, or traveller backgrounds or with literacy and other problems. We are trying very hard to make sure that this is the least cut area of our activities.”

The most difficult time of Kent’s directorship was when the Tricycle burned down in 1987, after which it was discovered that the local authority had failed to insure the building properly, so he had to raise £1 million. It must have taken a lot of guts to keep going, pushing forward the building work and fundraising. Now, he has an enlarged building, which since 1998 includes a cinema. In 2006, he got a special Evening Standard Theatre Award for pioneering political theatre.

So what next? “I’m leaving the Tricycle,” Kent says, “but I’m not retiring. I would like to continue directing as a freelance, and I would like to produce as well as direct. And I’m happy to work anywhere in the country – it would be great to get out of London sometimes.”

* The Bomb season, which includes films and discussions, opened at the Tricycle Theatre on February 9 and runs until April 1. For more information, visit www.tricycle.co.uk

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