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The vanishing man

Jeremy Herrin. Photo: Johan Persson

Britain’s busiest director, as Jeremy Herrin is christened in the Stage 100, is “very busy indeed – possibly a bit too busy”. The trouble is people keep offering him “the sort of irresistible project that it would be bad grace to turn down.”

Last year saw him swerve around the capital – starting in the West End with Absent Friends, before heading north to the Almeida (Children’s Children), south to the National (This House) and finally back to the Royal Court (Hero). In the middle of all that, there was also a quick jaunt down to Chichester to deliver what Michael Billington hailed as “the best Vanya since Michael Redgrave in 1962”. Not bad for a year’s work.

Nor are there any signs of slowing down. Before he moves This House into the Olivier in February, Herrin’s first of 2013 – Polly Stenham’s No Quarter, also at the Royal Court – will already be done and dusted.

[pullquote]There’s something really magical about great acting. Like any art, it’s a bit mysterious. I only know what great acting is by not being a great actor myself.[/pullquote]

“There was no question that I’d direct Polly’s play,” he says, “Well, in my mind anyway.” Their careers took off at the same time when, after six years at the Live Theatre in Newcastle, Herrin directed Stenham’s startling debut, That Face, in 2007. Two years later, he helmed her follow up Tusk Tusk. “[No Quarter] feels like it’s the third part of a thematic or emotional trilogy of plays about childhood, about being in a family, about what constitutes a family and the damage and occasional joy of dysfunction.”

More than the others, however, No Quarter shows Stenham on the attack. It’s shot through with money and death, corporations and war. But for Herrin, that’s secondary. “Polly’s turning out towards the world more. She’s older. She’s more engaged. But actually the core of the play, the muscle, is still quite small and domestic.”

On account of That Face, Herrin was picked by David Hare to direct The Vertical Hour. “Suddenly, that was the industry saying ‘Tick. We approve.’ It was ridiculous. I went from sitting in Newcastle writing letters and seeking opportunities to artistic directors getting in touch with me.

“There’s something slightly sickening about the industry’s reactivity. I wasn’t a bad director and then a good director. I was a good director working in Newcastle with unfashionable voices.”

It’s tempting to describe Herrin as a safe pair of hands, but then reviews don’t always go his way. Nonetheless, it’s easy to understand why writers want to work with him. He subscribes to the writer-first model of direction, even where their taste diverges from his own. “You never want anything onstage that the writer doesn’t like. You need them to be entirely proud. What you want is to give them the deluxe version of their play.”

That can, however, leave his own hand invisible, making his growing profile all the more impressive, stemming solely from industry and solidity. “I try to disappear into the work. I’d hate for someone to say, in the way they do about other directors, ‘That’s a very Jeremy Herrin production.’ Ego’s a really dangerous thing in theatre. It’s a collegiate enterprise.”

Little wonder that Sloane Square has always his spiritual home. “Growing up, I loved the Royal Court. It had the best writing, acting, design, the best everything. I loved what it purported to do to its society, to ask questions and be challenging.” In his application for the Regional Assistant Directors scheme, his order of preference ran: Royal Court, Royal Court, Royal Court.

If writing comes first, acting comes a close second. Though he knew he wanted to direct, Herrin trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. “I did it to learn what acting is, what it feels like and how to get the best out of an actor. There’s something really magical about great acting. Like any art, it’s a bit mysterious. I only know what great acting is by not being a great actor myself.”

Tall and commanding, yet jovial and gentle, Herrin is clearly adept at rehearsing and seems attuned to the vagaries of people management. Above all else, he values communication; the ability to listen, negotiate and build confidence. He’s renowned for having a real knack with very young writers and child actors.

If there is a place for personal agendas, Herrin believes it comes at the programming stage. In the current round of interviews, his name has frequently circulated as a potential artistic director and, after three years as Dominic Cooke’s deputy at the Court, he’s open to running a building himself. There have been applications, but he’s keeping tight-lipped about where.

“It would have to be the right building at the right time. You get into trouble when you go to the board and pretend to be someone else in order to get a job. In that case, I’d rather not run a building. I’ve got enough going on as a director, luckily, that I can find various places to do the work that I want to do.”

Coming from Britain’s busiest director, that might be the understatement of the year.

No Quarter runs at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London, until February 9

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