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John Tiffany: ‘New plays are where my heart is’

John Tiffany. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child director John Tiffany has returned to the Royal Court with a play about a working-class town torn apart by Thatcherism. He tells Andrzej Lukowski about the politics that informs his work and why he won’t be swapping the stage for screen directing any time soon

Born into a working-class Yorkshire family in 1971, John Tiffany could lay claim to being the most successful theatre director in the world at this moment. Not because he has the greatest number of hits to his name (though give him time) or the highest profile. It is because he’s the mastermind behind arguably the most successful British play of all time: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

He and his regular team of collaborators – foremost his movement director and college friend Stephen Hoggett – have an ability to realise worlds on stage that are wholly, emotionally convincing and connect them to a wide audience.

In the past it has allowed him to make a global success of challenging work, notably Gregory Burke’s visceral Iraq War play Black Watch, which established the National Theatre of Scotland as a major force in 2006. And since this vision has been brought to bear on commercial productions, the results have been out-and-out blockbusters.

Whimsical folk musical Once won eight Tony Awards – including best director for Tiffany – and ran on Broadway for three years. Disney came knocking, and a musical of Pinocchio is finally hitting the National Theatre over Christmas.

Then, of course, there’s the little matter of the two-part Cursed Child playing at London’s Palace Theatre since June 2016. It became the most sought-after ticket in UK theatre history after it went on sale, shifting the first batch of 175,000 in just eight hours.

Any director might have had a hit with JK Rowling’s wizard, but perhaps no other could have brought the grit, heart and magic to bear that led to critics embracing it as a five-star triumph as well as inspiring adoration from the fans.

By all rights, this success should have made him unbearable, but in person he is genuinely affable; a sunny figure with a wardrobe of retina-searing bright shirts who has conspicuously failed to drink the Kool Aid. The tag ‘nicest man in theatre’ sounds naff, but he is probably the most consistently cheerful person I have met in the industry.

Meeting Vicky Featherstone

We are sitting in the bar of the Royal Court, where Tiffany remains an associate director. He was brought on board by his good friend and colleague Vicky Featherstone, now the theatre’s artistic director, whom he first met at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the early 1990s – “I met her on the last day of my placement and we just hit it off and ended up working together that summer and haven’t stopped, really,” he says.

Indeed, after working with Featherstone at Paines Plough and the National Theatre of Scotland, it was no surprise when she brought Tiffany to Sloane Square with her.

He is now a big deal with a hectic schedule that means he needs “four people who make my life possible”: the assistant directors who keep Harry Potter running smoothly while he pursues other projects. Their help has allowed him – between recasting Cursed Child and the first rehearsals for Pinocchio – to schedule the revival for Jim Cartwright’s seminal Road at London’s Royal Court.

A raging, exhilarating, poetic depiction of a depressed Lancastrian town partying like its life depended on it, Road hasn’t been revived in London since it premiered Upstairs at the Court in 1986. Its iconic promenade staging transferred Downstairs the following year.

“It had a massive influence on me just in terms of developing a passion for the theatre in the 1980s,” he says. “But reading it again, I was really shocked by two things: one, it felt as through it was written from the point of view that people couldn’t get any poorer, that this was as bad as it’s going to get – and we’ve managed to succeed in making those communities poorer.

“The second thing is the absolute beauty and poetry of the writing, which you don’t normally get in northern realism, in gritty plays about lives like these. It felt almost Shakespearean, those gorgeous speeches. I thought, ‘I’d love to get in a room with some actors and start exploring the language.’”

Politics and theatre

It has been six years since the new-writing-focused Royal Court revived a play, and though Road isn’t forcing out any new writing in order to accommodate it – the show runs through the theatre’s traditionally dark summer – the decision to bring it back is clearly a pointed and political one. And Tiffany is clearly a politicised director.

His most recent play at the Royal Court was a near-agitprop take on Roald Dahl’s The Twits and before that was Hope, a downcast Jack Thorne play that mournfully raked through the embers of New Labour.

Road absolutely fits with that trajectory of political work, and Tiffany’s tough, sparse production – which dispenses with the promenade staging – is not the work of a man who has gone soft with success.

He talks about his politics with a bluntness that is rare in the industry. “There is hope at the end of this play,” he says. “We started rehearsals the Monday after the election. It was amazing after the awful things that had happened in 2016 to think that 40% of the people who voted were voting very clearly for socialism.”

Tiffany continues, “I’ve had my problems with Jeremy Corbyn, but I respect the fact he’s really stuck to his guns and said: ‘No, you’ll come to me’. And the same people who’ve voted to leave Europe have voted for him, which is amazing. It’s changed. People want change.”

Q&A: John Tiffany

What was your first non-theatre job?
Delivering milk when I was 13.

What was your first professional directing job?
The Sunset Ship, a devised piece about Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire for the Young Vic in 1995.

Who was your biggest influence?
Robert Lepage and Vicky Featherstone.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be able to articulate why you connect to the play.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
A marine biologist – there’s still time.

The director’s views can largely be attributed to his roots. He came of age in 1980s Yorkshire, and grew up seeing first hand the damage that the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government did to communities in the north.

“I had a lovely time growing up,” Tiffany says. “But I was very aware of the miners’ strike going on, friends’ families collapsing and people being unemployed.”

His working-class parents pushed him to do A levels and go to university “in that aspirational way” but the young Tiffany was well aware the country was “not well”, especially at the time of the Falklands War.

“I felt very uneasy about all that,” he says. “I didn’t really understand it: the Belgrano, whether or not it was in the exclusion zone. And Thatcher, she was becoming a madder and madder person whenever she spoke. She must have known what was happening was avoidable.”

Is any of this reflected in his work? Unmistakably. Tiffany consistently returns to lower-key, issue-driven plays – he pushed for the revival of Road, and was the driving force behind Hope. He has spoken out frequently about the decline in social mobility over the last three decades, convinced that if he were growing up today, the route to becoming a stage director would simply not exist for him.

A House of Lords commission visited the Royal Court recently. He says: “I was able to say to them really clearly that if I were leaving school now then Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as it is wouldn’t exist. And that show is going to make this country a huge amount of money.”

Is using the economic argument to justify art the start of a slippery slope? Ever the pragmatist, Tiffany says: “It’s the only way some people will listen. It’s the truth and certain people just can’t ignore it.”

Accessibility to tickets is clearly high on his agenda. Less than a year before Cursed Child’s Broadway transfer, Tiffany has already gone on record as saying that the tickets – a licence to print money on the Great White Way – will be as affordable as is possible.

It seems to be a deal-breaker for Tiffany that the show is produced by Sonia Friedman Productions, which staged it in the UK. He says: “Sometimes on Broadway you don’t know who the investors are and you end up making a million dollars for somebody awful. But I feel really trusting of them.”

He is also not afraid to make bold casting decisions, including the casting of black actor Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in Cursed Child. She has subsequently been replaced by Rakie Ayola, who is also black. The move angered the alt-right but proved a masterstroke. Dumezweni won an Olivier award for the role and the conversation it sparked has largely been empowering and constructive.

Tiffany’s next project – though one that has been in development for years – is Pinocchio. Surely it’s not possible to draw a particularly direct line from Road to a lavish Disney musical? “Or is it?” he jokes. “It’s going to be Pinocchio with stonewashed jeans and Doc Martens.”

He continues, “It isn’t, of course, but it has been lovely and important to do a project like Road in the middle of Harry Potter and Pinocchio.”

Moving on to Disney and the National

The director had been talking to Disney for some time about working with them. “Pinocchio was the one really. But they’re very guarded about those early films. The theory is that from The Little Mermaid onwards they’re much more based on the template of Broadway musicals, whereas those first films are odd: they don’t follow any template at all.” He adds that the creative team will not write any new songs: “We’ve stuck to our guns there.”

Tiffany says: “The National seemed like the most obvious place to do it. I thought we should premiere it this side of the pond as it uses so many European theatre techniques.”

Despite his reputation, Tiffany has never directed a conventional musical before – the folky Once was determinedly lo-fi, with all instruments played by the cast. He seems delighted at the prospect of working with an orchestra – another first – but confesses to not being a big musical theatre person.

“West Side Story is one of the greatest theatrical experiences I’ve had,” he says. “And Hamilton is incredible. But I’m not an aficionado at all. Despite the fact it must look like I’m doing all Harry Potter, Pinocchio-type stuff, new plays are where my heart is.”

Harry Potter (Jamie Glover), Ginny Potter (Emma Lowndes), Albus Potter (Theo Ancient). Photo: Charlie Gray

Speaking of Potter, does he mind that The Stage recently went in and re-reviewed it with the new cast, even though members of the press were not formally invited?

“Not at all,” he laughs. “The problem is that there aren’t many tickets available, so you could invite a few critics but where do you stop? It was lovely for the actors – they’re the level that’s used to being reviewed. And it’s gorgeous they’ve all committed themselves to this for a year. I mean, it’s not the worst-paid job in theatre, but it’s not Al Pacino wages. They’re doing it because they want to.”

To paraphrase Pinocchio’s Disney stablemate The Jungle Book, Tiffany has reached the top; will he have to stop and look beyond the theatre to the world of films?

“I flirted with it,” he says, “I did a couple of short films when I was in Scotland. But I suppose about five years ago I decided to just enjoy films as an audience member and not to get involved.

“It comes up a lot. People seem to think it’s almost your duty or something. Many directors are insecure about the fact they haven’t made one yet – done the same as Nick Hytner and Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry. Maybe it’s seen as more glamorous, but I’m not sure: getting up at 2am and spending the day in waterproof clothing. I don’t know how films get made and I think I’ll leave it to other people.”

Tiffany once told me that the older he gets “the more I realise you don’t need to have a tough time”, a credo that seems to run exactly counter to the usual idea of a great artist. But it is an approach that has brought him huge success.

Tiffany does not pretend to have personally revolutionised theatre ethics and admits work has got in the way of his intended aim to give younger working-class directors a leg up. Yet he is an extraordinary force who brings heart to blockbusters and commercial clout to kitchen-sink dramas, and he does it all with a rare integrity. If he is the future of our commercial theatre then we can all be very proud.

Road runs at London’s Royal Court until September 9.

CV: John Tiffany

Born: 1971, Marsden, West Yorkshire
Training: Classics and drama, University of Glasgow
Landmark productions: Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland (2006) and Barbican, London (2008); Once, Off-Broadway (2011), Broadway (2012), Gaiety Theatre, Dublin and Phoenix Theatre, London (2013); The Glass Menagerie, Broadway (2013), Edinburgh (2016), Duke of York’s Theatre (2017); Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre (2016)
Awards: Olivier awards for best director for Black Watch (2009) and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2017); Tony award for best direction of a musical for Once (2012) Agent: Mel Kenyon

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