Steve Marmion looks remarkably calm for someone who, on all accounts, couldn’t be blamed for feeling the pressure. We’re wedging our interview between tech rehearsals a few days before The Night Before Christmas opens for previews and before we meet, I’ve been gently encouraged to keep our interview brief, but Marmion is very present, very affable – an engaged and engaging conversationalist who, like many directors, seems naturally predisposed to talking in bold statements and striking images.
He’s also intent on studding our conversation with sardonic and straight-faced jokes that riff affectionately off of the chaos of the creative process. At this point, “the rehearsal room in the final week, smells of anxiety and Lynx Africa,” I am told, one of many gags wavering between comedy and complete deprecation that rather humbly disguise the real hard graft of play-making.
“It’s seat of the pants stuff,” he confirms, when I ask if this new version of The Night Before Christmas, a collaboration between old friends Marmion, Anthony Neilson and composer Tom Mills, reflects the risk-taking reputation the Soho has developed with him at the helm, and that he clearly delights in. ”There’s a bravery within this piece that I’m proud of, really proud of.” Marmion continues, “As a cap to what’s been a really good year, to finish with a process that is this brave – we got a new draft of the script yesterday and we’re two rehearsals into the tech, there’s a lot to be done. But, though this way of doing things can be at the expense of other creatives, it also allows the writer to be so central in the process.”
In addition to that risk-taking, I suggest that a seasonal show comes with its own set of expectations and assumptions, perhaps even derogatory ones. Marmion is quick on the defence, “For me, Christmas is theatre time – it’s many people’s first and perhaps only experience of theatre, and it is a time that people want to, rather than feel they should, go to the theatre. That’s exactly the kind of work we’re producing at the Soho, and if we’re a theatre that takes risks, then it’s important that we use this time to take them, our biggest risks – and that’s genuinely risky from budget lines to artistic reputation – but it would be disingenuous for us to do anything otherwise. The show is not an anti-panto and it embraces that hopefulness – because Christmas is a hopeful sign for the human race, where artists everywhere are working so hard to make things and tell magical stories for us to enjoy. It shows we’re a good species.”
The premise of The Night Before Christmas is enjoyably absurd: a shifty character caught thieving from a warehouse claims, in his defence, to be an elf sent by Santa, triggering a familiar Neilson blurring of fantasy and reality, and an interrogation of Christmas itself. I struggle to conceal my perplexed expression when Marmion asserts that this show “isn’t a version of the 1995 play. Yes, that is the way we’ve released it and advertised it,” he clarifies, “but when Anthony revisited it and re-engaged with the material, he felt differently. After all, he’s eighteen years a better writer, the world has changed over eighteen years – all these things need to be reacted to – really, it’s as if he’s read that play and begun again with those ideas in a new context.”
There’s a refreshing forthrightness in Marmion’s manner – the jokes are there but he’s also unapologetically dogmatic about his craft, with no concern for pandering to anyone other than the audience, “Let’s get off our high horses and get our hands dirty with glitter,” is his line on pantomime, and as the artistic director who has more than doubled Soho’s annual attendance numbers over the last three years, it’s difficult to doubt that it’s his commitment to an uncompromising vision has, to put it in crudely mercenary terms, really got results. Marmion shares that dauntless and deeply protective enthusiasm of first-time fathers- quite understandably proud of his relatively young theatre, and as proud of his work directing pantomime as of his time with the RSC.
He’s also fiercely cynical about the ‘prudish food chain’ in which theatre sneers at musical theatre even when, in terms of audience popularity, the usual hierarchy is reversed. The Night Before Christmas, he admits, “is perhaps, in its original form, a fifty minute knock-about fun comedy,” but “it’s also a popular work that strikes at the heart of what Christmas means to adults. In terms of making it into a musical, for a long time I’ve believed the form of a musical gets a lot of bad press and has a reasonably negative attitude towards it. I don’t believe that’s true of the form – I believe it’s a form that, used the right way, can add depth and insight, that when a character in a musical sings, it’s the equivalent of a Shakespearean soliloquy, that ‘words are not enough, I need to sing’ – and it’s that depth that adds so much to this piece in terms of resonance and importance.”
I ask if the eerily grinning elf that adorns the show’s promotional material suggests we’re not necessarily in for an evening of whimsical cheer, and Marmion concurs that “it certainly goes a step beyond whimsy and it has a darkness to it, though we’re not quite in a cellar, sewing up genitals and shitting in boxes, as we know Neilson is capable of. It’s an aggressive slice of insight – and whilst it’s funny, really funny, it’s also exploring what Christmas means for an adult, when that gleeful excitement wears off and you move out of Santa’s jurisdiction and into God’s.”
I admit that, imagining director-deviser Neilson’s rehearsals, I naively envision some sort of magical mystery anything-goes wonderland. As I’ve come to expect from Marmion, pragmatism wins out over any abstracted profundities. “It’s exciting,” he agrees, “but it’s not that kind of devising heaven that people imagine, because it’s truthful but also difficult to have the material come into the room a few scenes at a time. It’s quite a nervous room, too, of course, and it’s very unusual because this is the first time that he’s let someone else direct a first show of his for about twenty years – it’s a new process for the both of us.”
“What I thought I’d done,” he muses, now only partially kidding, “is make a safe version of an Anthony Neilson play, but what I’ve discovered is Anthony Neilson is never that simple.. and it’s always worth it,” he adds, as I’m about to move on, “because what he produces is some of the finest writing to come out of this country.” So what draws them together again and again? “Our taste in high and pop art, mixed with our urge to entertain and to move, mixed with our love for the wonderful qualities of humanity, and disdain for the cruelty that humans inflict upon each other, these are three things that we’ve shared in the twelve years that we’ve been working together, and all of those are very present in the show.” I press him a little further, perhaps seeking some magic ingredient for guaranteed collaborative success, but his response is touchingly simple, “I keep returning to Anthony because I struggle to find work that I think is better.”
So The Night Before Christmas is a risk-taking, multi-disciplinary, contemporary Christmas show – though in danger of putting words in his mouth, when I suggest this show might actually encompass Marmion’s vision for the Soho Theatre as a whole, he seems genuinely pleased. “That’s a lovely thing to say, thank you for noticing! It’s been three years where I’ve been finding my feet – and finding a theme for the seasons,” (this is the climax of the ‘Fall of Innocence’ season, moving into ‘The Hedonistic Heart’) and the very reason I wanted to be an artistic director was that I wanted to a longer story to share with an audience, to say ‘this is where the world is right now, what do you think about that?’
This show, as a company working at the convergence of forms, is where we pull it all together – with music at its heart, actors that you want to see, with one of the country’s leading playwrights at the centre supported by a new writing support machine that we have at the very core of the building. So, yes,” he concludes, “it’s all the things we do in one,” then adds, as if unable to resist one last caveat, “..if I get it right..” and to be honest, I’m rather convinced he will.
The Night Before Christmas is at Soho Theatre from 29th Noveber 2013 – 5th January 2013