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Unicorn’s Purni Morell: ‘Theatre is an industry – unless we get rid of that, we’ll have no art’

Purni Morell. Photo: Giulia Savorelli

Purni Morell has been artistic director of London’s Unicorn Theatre for six years and in that time she has changed the shape of children’s theatre. She’s now decided to leave both the company and the country and tells Matt Trueman how British theatre is suffering from ‘groupthink’ and how making art is like sex, not business

Purni Morell isn’t just stepping down from the Unicorn Theatre [1] this spring. After six years as artistic director of the London venue, she’s stepping away from British theatre for a bit – and, indeed, from Britain itself. “I don’t know,” she ums, sat in the flat she’s leaving for Antwerp. “I think this country might be over.”

In her time at the Unicorn, Morell has entirely transformed the purpose-built children’s theatre. The organisation she inherited was “slightly traumatised by financial difficulties”, she says; the box office is up by 26%, and audiences by 28%, even with one in 10 tickets given away for free.

But the real overhaul has happened on stage. Artists such as conceptualist Tim Crouch, playwrights Chris Thorpe and Nancy Harris, Shunt founder Hannah Ringham and even risque comedian Kim Noble have wound up at the Unicorn – none of them artists you would associate with young audiences.

Beowulf review at the Unicorn Theatre, London – ‘joyfully smart’ [2]

In fact, forget the Unicorn. Morell has changed the face of children’s theatre as a whole, at least in this country – the possibilities as well as the perception of it. What was once seen as a separate entity – at best specialist, at worst secondary – is now far more integrated and, indeed, integral.

A rich seam of international programming, much of it from Belgium and the Netherlands, has set the bar and shows by Ignace Cornelissen, Campo and Lies Pauwels have reframed our understanding of what theatre made with, and for, children can and should be. Pop along to a daytime performance and, chances are, you’ll spot at least one artist in an audience of kids.

In this country, people don’t give a fuck about children

It was what she went there to do in 2011. “I was always really amazed by the fact that, in this country, people don’t give a fuck about children.” Morell means socially, as well as artistically; the way we talk down to children or treat them as adults-in-waiting.

Creating a beacon

In post, she’s repeatedly pushed against the notion of categorising children separately. “It’s people,” she insists. “It’s everybody. Children are badly served by being a subset of the population.” In Morell’s eyes: “Children are no different from adults. They’re not. They’re the same.” She pauses, then adds: “I wanted to make the Unicorn a beacon for how we could be as a society, with children and adults together.”

Has she achieved that? She’s certainly seeded the idea, one that still feels radical today, but Morell “would have liked to go further”. One young audience member sticks in her mind: “This kid said: ‘It’s really good coming here because normally, when you go to the theatre, you sit right at the back. Here, we get to sit at the front.’ But it’s not just that we let the children sit at the front, it’s what else we can do once they’re there.”

Looking back, she cites the shows that broke down the distinction between adult and child audiences, shows that spoke to both in the same breath, as particular successes. Her own staging of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit [3], for instance, framed a boy’s relationship to his favourite cuddly toy in such a way as to allow two men to share a bed and a life on stage without raising an eyebrow. By placing the image beneath a sweet story, it sought to normalise it for young audiences.

Ashley Byam, Christian Roe, Stephen Kennedy in The Velveteen Rabbit. Photo: Manuel Harlan [4]
Ashley Byam, Christian Roe, Stephen Kennedy in The Velveteen Rabbit. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Other shows have enabled a two-way conversation. Rather than adults telling kids what to think, work such as Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes and Chris Goode’s Monkey Bars have allowed adults to hear children’s voices anew. Difficult subjects have been handled with frankness and care: NIE’s Pim and Theo looked at the collision of far-right and Islamic fundamentalism; Evan Placey’s Girls Like That put sexting on show, cautioning kids and illuminating adults. Morell’s philosophy means respecting kids now, not cultivating the adults or audiences of tomorrow. “I mean, I do occasionally sing Whitney Houston down the phone at people, but…”

Say what you mean

Spend any time with Morell and it quickly becomes clear that she both knows her own mind and speaks it. Even cooped up ill in Camberwell, wrapped up in a rug (she’s meant to be at a showcase in Australia), the 45-year-old talks up a storm. “I’m just going to speak frankly,” she says, and does just that – accompanied by a liberal sprinkling of Anglo-Saxon. It’s an admirable capacity – her complete and utter lack of bullshit. Morell laughs – it has cost her. While she “can’t stand a euphemism or a thing that’s unsaid”, that has, at times, felt like a failing. “Not everybody wants that,” she explains. “I’ve lost friends when I didn’t like their play. I’ve lost friends when I’ve thought their show at my theatre wasn’t very good. You can’t do anything about that.”

It is hard to shake things up without speaking up – and Morell is pretty frank in her assessment of the current state of British theatre. It is, she believes, going through a period of “massive” contraction. “British theatre’s too busy trying to be theatre,” she says. “I don’t think it’s really concerning itself with anything very much at the moment.

“When was the last time you saw something that blew the fucking roof off? I don’t mean something good. I mean something that made you sick or angry? We’ve got ourselves into a position where we make balanced art.”

For Morell, art exists to do something else, something beyond examining a subject or telling a story. It exists to disrupt or alter, to make us pause, feel and process. “Art feels to me like a prism,” she says. “We find where the edges are. It’s a whisper from the future.” She speaks of theatre as a kind of performed utopia: “Somehow being [on stage] makes other things seem possible, things that don’t exist. It’s like a fissure in our world – like Lyra and her sword in His Dark Materials. You create a rupture between what is and what’s possible.”

It’s why she and executive director Anneliese Davidsen explored turfing their foyer and building an aquarium into the box office. Just for wonder’s sake; just to trip audiences up and, well, because they could. “The conversation around art, I think, is the biggest death of art in this country because it’s nearly always about the justification of it, rather than an investigation of what it actually is.” She warms to her theme. “The problem we’ve got is that we are an industry, and I think unless we get rid of that industry, we’ll not end up with art.”

The cast of Monkey Bars (2013). Photo: Richard Davenport
The cast of Monkey Bars (2013). Photo: Richard Davenport

Morell has stepped away from theatre before. At 25, working in the National Theatre’s literary department under Jack Bradley, she headed off around the world – not a gap year, but an about turn. She worked as she went: at a sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica, on a Seri Indian fishery in Mexico, with Aboriginal farmers. A shelf of small shells and corals on one wall serves as a memento. “There was a point where you could leave me in a forest and I’d have known what to eat and what not to.”

The trip lasted several years (“I met a bloke”) and when she returned to the UK, it wasn’t to theatre, but to charity work: Shelter and Comic Relief. It makes her unusual: an arts leader with experience outside the arts. “I’ve never needed the theatre,” she says, stubbing out a roll-up. “I’d be equally happy running a florist properly – properly being the key word.” At Shelter, she learned “how to talk about difficult things”, not least “how to fire people”. At Comic Relief, she saw diversity in action; different departments with different approaches and backgrounds working together.

“The arts are so bad at HR,” she goes on: “Diversity, equality, processes, policy, just talking to people with respect.” It stems from a few things – insularity for one; a narrow pool of people slotting into a system. Morell believes the way artists are hired – inevitably, not entirely on merit, but according to taste, flair, connection and so on – bleeds into other fields, “so the truism of hiring people in one’s own image is exacerbated”. For Morell, it leads to conservatism and, worse, to groupthink. “In the theatre, we’re a little bit stuck in the idea that diversity means inviting more people to our party, rather than asking how our party might change.”


Q&A: Purni Morell

What was your first non-theatre job? Selling industrial cleaning products over the phone.

What was your first professional theatre job? Assistant stage manager on Gregory Motton’s Downfall, Royal Court, 1986.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t worry when you’re not happy.

Who or what was your biggest influence? My mother.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t do them. Auditions only tell you how good someone is at auditioning. Meet people. Talk to them.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? A marine biologist.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No.

Groupthink, I suspect, is the thing Morell can’t bear. Raised in south London, by a Belgian mother and an Indian father, she spent her school holidays in Antwerp – “two completely different worlds”. Her Belgian friends mostly came from working-class backgrounds, instilling a “political sense of social justice that has to be manifested in what we do as artists”.

She found theatre at school: stage-managing, lighting, eventually directing – never acting. “If you’re a half-Asian, slight, nerdy kid and everyone else is blonde and pretty, you’re not going to be an actor. You don’t need to find that out.”

At university, she switched from theatre to history after one lecture. “To me, theatre’s not a thing to study. It lives on a completely different plane to anything intellectual,” she says. “I don’t give a fuck what the Greeks said.” And 30 years on, she’s still never read a book on the subject. “That’s not a badge, I’m not like, ‘Woohoo’. I just haven’t. I’ve got plenty. I just haven’t read them.” She notices me scanning the shelves around the living room. “Most of them are biology books,” she points out. “The theatre books are hidden away in a cupboard.”

A scene from Jeramee, Hartleby and Oogelmore (2017). Photo: Richard Davenport
A scene from Jeramee, Hartleby and Oogelmore (2017). Photo: Richard Davenport

It fits with her hands-on, people-first approach. Morell forged her philosophy – that art isn’t industrial – heading up the National Theatre Studio under Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr. After “missing my tribe” on her travels, she returned to theatremaking in Scotland, before going back to London’s National Theatre in 2007. “The making of art is not easy,” she says. “Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s truth. It’s luck. It’s like sex. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it isn’t.” She draws a comparison with marketing: the more you put in, the more you get out. “Art? Not like that. It’s a non-linear thing, it’s a rebel. It won’t be told.”

All programmers can do is create the conditions that might make it possible, she says. It’s why she’s sceptical of the Studio’s recent mutation into the New Work Department, driving shows towards the National’s stages. “The Studio has always worked best as a rogue entity down the road, where you don’t know who’s running it or what they’re doing. You’re more likely to get something that way than with a structure.” Its soaraway successes – London Road [5], for example – come about by chance. “You’re not going to get more than one of those a decade. The idea that you are is ridiculous.”

That informs her approach to practical development and dramaturgy. “You can go into someone’s rehearsal room for literally a minute and know everything you need to know,” she says. “You can feel it, you can smell it.” Her point is it happens, not by sifting through a script, but up on its feet, in a room, between people. “That’s the bit that makes theatre theatre: those antennae.” It’s a developer’s job “to sense when you’re wanted and when you’re not”. Essentially, she trusts artists to get on and make art. Both Chris Thorpe [6] and Ellen McDougall [7], two Unicorn regulars under Morell, told me she pairs artists with projects and largely leaves them be. The aim, always, is freedom.

Shane Zaza in Henry the Fifth (2013). Photo: Manuel Harlan
Shane Zaza in Henry the Fifth (2013). Photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s at the heart of her move away. “The biggest challenge in this country at the moment is freedom of expression,” Morell says. She’s wary of tribalism and the censoriousness creeping in from both left and right. “The convergence of identity politics, years of assuming the economy is more important than society and what appears to be a patriotic identity problem – those are not fertile grounds for intellectual enquiry or artistic bravery. The danger is there’ll be a period of retrenchment that has, I feel, been coming for a long time.”

Stepping away wasn’t Morell’s initial idea. She has, in recent years, applied for artistic directorships at Sydney Theatre Company, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Young Vic. She wasn’t interviewed once. The first two might have been seeking native leaders, but the Young Vic? Morell should have been a contender. She ticks a lot of boxes: artistically progressive and socially engaged, an internationalist with local ties, above all a backer of art and of artists.

“I was cross,” she says, upping that to “astonished”. What was her pitch? “I wanted to set up an ensemble. It gets £5.4 million. You spend one million employing 30 actors at £30,000. Done.” After staff and upkeep costs, she estimated having £2.4 million for all its activities. Voila: London’s first European-style repertory company. “I can’t see why that wouldn’t work.”

So it goes. She’s half-tempted by the position at the Donmar – she has a soft spot for the space – but in the end, “it’s also a theatre”, one with all the structures and systems she finds so frustrating. “It’s the opposite of what I’m talking about, really.”


Purni Morell’s top tips

• Concentrate on the thing that’s actually happening in the room that you’re in, not where it might go.

• Your only real job is to call bullshit on yourself. Check when you believe it and when you don’t.

• If you are someone who wants to have children, have them before you’re 30. Everything else will come round again, but that won’t

‘You have kids or you don’t’

A day later, Morell emails: “We didn’t talk about the whole kids thing.” It is, she explains, a big factor in her moving on. It’s not something I tend to ask female artists – I wouldn’t ask it of men – and Morell’s Unicorn has never felt in any way parental. “I always wanted kids,” she tells me by phone. “Biologically, it would appear I’m not built for it.” She underwent IVF for three years, as she joined the Unicorn, but to no avail.

“Running a children’s theatre in those circumstance isn’t always great.” The difficulty wasn’t seeing families in the foyer – though she reserves irritation for parents that enquired about her parental status when complaining about her programming. Rather the two things sat side-by-side, jostling for space. “The last decade’s been almost entirely defined by it. It’s a binary position: either you have kids or you don’t. It’s a complete existential unknown. You can throw money and medicine at the problem, but that means you’ve decided what you want.”

Purni Morell: My manifesto to enhance children’s theatre experience [8]

Trying for 10 years means deciding again and again – a draining process in itself. “I’m told by people who are post-menopause that, at a certain point, you make peace with it and I’m looking forward to it not being on my mind.”

Stepping down from the Unicorn – and away from theatre – is a part of that process. “If I want to do the things professionally and artistically that I want to do, I need to come to terms with personal demons. I could stay for 20 years and make the Unicorn my life’s project, but in order to do that properly, I’d need to have resolved the other things in my life that I want.” Morell’s move to Antwerp, then, is about making space. “I can’t deal with both me and work.”

CV: Purni Morell

Born: Hammersmith, London, 1972
Landmark productions: The Velveteen Rabbit, Unicorn Theatre, London (2014), Henry the Fifth, Unicorn Theatre, London (2015), The Winters’ Tale, Unicorn Theatre, London (2012), Alpha Beta, Finborough Theatre, London (2015), Public Enemy: Flint, Flint US (2017)
Awards: Peter Brook Empty Space Award, Unicorn Theatre (2014)
Agent: None