She has tackled plays exploring trauma and state corruption, and now Tinuke Craig is turning her hand to a boldly re-imagined panto at the Lyric Hammersmith. Rosemary Waugh meets Cinderella’s versatile director
Tinuke Craig is pretty sure she has glitter “about her person” somewhere. Constantly discovering bits of sparkle is, she explains, something of an occupational hazard at present.
The London-born director, a winner of the Genesis Future Directors Award, is a rising star of the British theatre scene with two major productions under her belt this year – The Color Purple, a co-production between Leicester Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome, and a new adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Vassa by playwright Mike Bartlett at the Almeida.
Now, for the first time, she’s trying her hand at pantomime, bringing Jude Christian’s new version of Cinderella to the Lyric Hammersmith. And sparkle is not in short supply. “There’s glitter on everything,” she laughs.
Panto is a far cry from the works of Debbie Tucker Green – Craig directed her haunting double bill of plays Random/Generations at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year – and Gorky’s attack on state corruption and a political system in terminal decline. Indeed, even Craig’s sole musical – The Color Purple – was, as she says, about “trauma and pain” leading to redemption.
To complicate things further, both that production and Vassa were hit with offstage problems. The Color Purple was embroiled in a casting row connected to homophobic social media comments, which led to its lead performer, Seyi Omooba, being replaced. Luckily for Craig, the “extraordinary” T’Shan Williams was able to step in before rehearsals began. Craig recently told the Guardian that it was “really hard at the time” though she had not been involved in any of the decision-making.
Then, with Vassa, a back injury caused its lead Samantha Bond to pull out in week five of a five-week rehearsal process, “literally days before we were due to open”. Craig jokes that losing her lead cast members appears to be her “curse” before admitting that while it’s made her more resilient as a director, she’d be happy for it never to happen again. Cinderella, it’s also worth noting, started rehearsals the day after Vassa had its press night.
Following a stressful few months, Craig is happy to end the year in panto. “It felt like a big old present at the end of the year,” she says. “Going from Vassa to panto was the right way around. There’s no way in hell I could have gone from the panto on to Vassa. But Vassa to panto was really cathartic. Also, I was so tired and Vassa requires an awake brain because you drive it. Whereas panto kind of drives you – it wakes you up because it’s so energetic.”
There’s also, she claims, “something liberating about the fact there’s no subtext in a panto”. Craig has found this aspect to be a bit of gentle relief from her normal interrogatory approach to plays. “If you spend most of your time, like I do, sat around a table picking apart a line, there’s something really amazing about going: okay, so Cinderella wants to go to the ball, that’s literally the whole point of the scene and then… it’s just jokes.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant director on Hundreds and Thousands by Lou Ramsden, directed by Lisa Spirling at Soho Theatre in 2011.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it was okay to be myself. At first, I thought I had to mimic other directors that I’d assisted. I’ve felt proudest of my work when I’ve been authentic to myself and the way that I work.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The director Lyndsey Turner has been an amazing mentor in the past couple of years. Her rigour is something I come back to all the time. Also, Petra Letang, an actor I worked with last year at Chichester in a one-woman show. She’s extraordinary and has taught me a lot about what the acting muscle really is and what it can be.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I would be a knitwear designer and have this whole handmade Etsy situation. Sometimes when directing isn’t going so well, I think I’m just going to pack it all in and knit jumpers.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really, though I have some traditions – the only time I ever go to the gym is if I’m in rehearsals. I think it’s to do with stress and structure.
Spending all day in the panto environment can, admittedly, get a little “hysterical”. But the broader humour combines with the uplift that comes from being in a room “that starts with a big musical vocal warm-up. If that’s the first thing you do at the start of a day, that does do something to the character of a space. There’s something physiologically beneficial about a room where people are singing.”
Craig is well placed to make this assessment. In the past, she’s worked as a professional choir teacher and writer of choral arrangements, a role she sees herself picking up again if her hectic schedule ever allows her the time. In person, her warmth and openness is coupled with a calm confidence that makes her frequent references to “joy” feel completely sincere. Have there been any days, I ask, where she just wasn’t in the mood for a trip to glitzy panto land?
“I did come in hungover on a Monday,” she confesses. “And the first scene we had to do was where the performer has to crash some cymbals. That’s literally all she has to do, repetitively crash some cymbals while someone else bashes on a massive drum. I was really hungover and I spent the morning getting people to clash cymbals together in my face, my hungover face…”
Pantomimes were not a big part of her childhood. Her family leaned towards musicals, favouring that as the festive theatre outing. A sole trip to Dick Whittington was, however, pretty memorable. “I was about seven and I was the kid that got taken up on stage. So they’ve probably got a lot to answer for. I had to wear a pair of large giraffe slippers and shake a shaker.”
The Lyric Hammersmith has established its own Christmas tradition of maintaining the classic elements of a pantomime while remixing the outdated parts. With Cinderella, that’s involved some thoughtful navigation of its gendered features. Most interestingly, Craig and Christian haven’t opted for a straightforward omission of Cinderella’s love story or to rewrite her as a ‘tomboy’ character.
We have a responsibility to deliver this princessy goodness without it being unhelpful to the development of tiny girls in the audience
“We have a responsibility to deliver this princessy goodness without it being something that feels unhelpful to the development of tiny girls in the audience,” Craig says. “We talked about that a lot. Because on the one hand, I don’t want to contribute to a society in which little girls feel like their goal in life is to get married and live in a princessy bubble. But on the other hand, princesses are pretty and dresses are beautiful, and that’s allowed.”
She continues: “We talked about this tendency to shame femininity. People will boast about how their daughters love football, but they don’t tend to boast so openly about how their little boys love ballet. So essentially what we’re saying is, girly things are bad.”
The ultimate aim, Craig feels, is to acknowledge that “girly things are good – celebrating a fluffiness and a candyflossness” without pushing it on girls and, equally, to “get better at enjoying when our boys like pink”. At the heart of their show is a “feisty scientist Cinderella who can also rock a beautiful ball gown”.
It’s not just the gendered traditions of pantomime that make some people feel as if the entire genre is out-of-touch. Craig invokes an analogy with marriage when I ask her why pantomimes are still relevant and worth staging. “Marriages, historically, are a deeply oppressive and subjugating institution. But over the years, marriage has become what the couple make it,” she explains. “In the wrong hands, panto is vile. You could create a panto that was racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic. But you could also create a panto that’s none of those things.”
In the future, she hopes to maintain this “magpie” approach to directing a complete variety of stage productions. A year spent on a serious musical, a Russian classic and a pantomime reflects pretty accurately her wider tastes and interests. If there is a constant, it’s not a genre or a playwright but a theme – “I’m interested in the gap between who you are and who you want to be.”
But at the close of 2019, she’s fully enjoying the panto ride and its explicit aim “to deliver a shot of joy to those who are coming to see it”.
Born: 1987, London
Training: English Literature and Drama, University of Sussex; Theatre direction postgraduate degree, LAMDA
• Dirty Butterfly, Young Vic, London (2014)
• I Call My Brothers, Gate Theatre, London (2016)
• Random/Generations, Chichester Festival Theatre (2018)
• The Color Purple, Leicester Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome (2019)
• Vassa, Almeida Theatre, London (2019)
• Genesis Future Directors Award (2014)
Cinderella runs at the Lyric Hammersmith, London until January 5, 2020