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Richard Jordan: Let’s not be blinded by bright young directors

Billie Piper in Yerma. Photo: Johan Persson Billie Piper in Yerma. Photo: Johan Persson
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The early 21st century will be remembered for the growth of a new generation of young, exciting directors. You could argue that not since Peter Brook wrote his seminal book, The Empty Space (1968), has there been such a profound impact on the world of theatre studies.

In contrast to Brook and his theatre blueprints, this new generation of directors were the first to be discovered through the internet. Their work was widely written about, and gained them immediate national and international profile. They gained celebrity status, after a fashion.

The noughties delivered a new age of celebrity culture, embraced by the mainstream media. In interviews, journalists were seemingly as interested in obsessing over these new directors’ dress sense or hair as their work. Some directors engaged their own personal publicists.

Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of a new generation of exciting directors: Robert Icke, Maria Aberg, Carrie Cracknell and Ivo van Hove. Their work harks back to the legacy of directors such as Rupert Goold. Goold’s production of Six Characters in Search of an Author (Chichester Festival, 2008, then the West End) gave Pirandello a newfound coolness. Lyn Gardner, in the Guardian, talked of “Goold’s signature razzle dazzle”.

Eight years on, Goold’s influence is reflected in the next generation of directors now making their own mark on the London stage, such as Simon Stone, who recently adapted and staged Yerma at the Young Vic. Stone’s critically praised production follows Van Hove’s acclaimed conceptual reworking of A View from the Bridge, and I believe these two directors’ work and legacy may become the most influential upon the next generation of UK theatre students and directors. Both have also made clever play choices, picking classic works over new writing.

Van Hove directs using all the conceptual skills he has learned through reworking various classic texts for Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Stone, praised for his innovative staging of Yerma is, in fact, combining the elements of two productions he successfully directed in Australia: The Wild Duck, which was played behind glass, and Thyestes, which employed a similar traverse staging with some cleverly-placed hinges.

The Young Vic, which had the foresight to produce both A View from the Bridge and Yerma, has also emboldened its reputation as a supportive and stylish venue choice to make ‘UK-made’ directorial debuts.

None of this means that Van Hove or Stone’s work is not ambitious. But both have used production concepts that they have employed elsewhere. The trick is to give the media, including social media, a sense of discovery that leads to endorsement. That engenders a sense of ownership for audiences, and for commercial producers.

But there is a risk that the rapid rise of recognition in our impatient social media world will deliver audiences who are impatient to be constantly amazed, and when they are not, to move immediately to the next thing. You want directors to make their marks, but I worry that they may come under pressure to make those marks with a preconceived and deliberate effort to provoke and to shock.

The resulting “signature razzle dazzle” could set a dangerous and damaging theatrical trend in motion, especially for the classical canon, where the play and its writer fall at the feet of the director’s concept.

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