I spoke to Nadia Fall in a gale. I was standing under a bridge at first and the breeze whipped past me. I sought out a quiet street and cars passed and helicopters mocked me by passing impossibly directly overhead. Listening back over the interview, it sounds as if the director and I are at sea aboard a ship, wind tearing at the sails, salt lashing creaking boards and two hundred souls in the balance.
This week Nadia is putting Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good on the Olivier stage – not just a big play, but a big play that lots of people know really well. “Yeah I feel a huge responsibility. Because so many people have studied it at school or drama school and it seems to be a favourite of young actors and student actors. I never went to drama school, and I’ve got to admit that I had never read or seen the play. It seems, rightly so, to be people’s favourite special play, and then you do feel a responsibility to do it justice. It’s absolutely up my street because its beautifully written but it has a lot of space in it, it’s quite distilled, there’s not arias upon arias upon arias, there are those moments where a particular character does open up an speak their soul but Timberlake chooses her words so forensically.”
Her experience at the National Theatre alone seems perfect for this political play with a classical text (The Recruiting Officer) at its heart. In 2012 she directed George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma in the Lyttleton, and in 2014 her own drama Home graced the (then) Shed. They’re two pretty key toolkits for this play. “Well I hope so! It could all come crashing down. You never know. Timberlake’s written a very contemporary piece. I know on the tin it looks like a history play. But because she took so much from interviews in the 80s with ex-prisoners and prisoners, so much of the psychology of the dehumanisation of people came from ideas of concentration camps – so the atmosphere that she’s conjured up and the humanity she’s conjured up comes from things in our living memory, and political situations we recognise which are as prevalent now as in the 80s. It doesn’t feel like a dusty old thing about the first convict ship – which is interesting – it’s really not what the play is about.”
Wertenbaker’s research process chimes with the work Fall did when preparing Home. “Psychologically the play feels very verbatim. They feel like very real people going through very real traumas, palpable traumas. Convicts and officers alike. I’ve worked in prisons and people have valued it, and here is a play, a play within a play, putting on a play in a prison environment. So we talked about that. We brought in a couple of people that I’d worked with before, ex-prisoners, and they talked about their lives, and their difficulties and their history but then also how putting on a play helped transform them and what it did to them. We spoke about what it feels like to put on a play in such a high-stakes environment. It isn’t just something that happened hundreds of years ago – prisons are overflowing now, with austerity measures they’re among the first-hit: lock-downs for 22 hours a day; books that may or may not be banned because there aren’t the staffing levels. There are all sorts of echoes as history repeats itself. All good plays tell us about now, but it goes a little bit further than that.”
Our Country’s Good is a political play down to its individual scenes and beats, but it’s also incredibly optimistic. It takes political pains to drive home a very positive perspective on what these prisoners experience in their encounter with theatre. “If we think that things are insurmountable, then they are, and we don’t feel like we have the energy or motivation then to make a better world. And I truly believe, as the play does, in the redemption of art – but also in redemption in the first place! I think that’s what’s happening now is that some political view would have it that people aren’t meant to be helped or are beyond help, that we can wash our hands of these people. And this play is reminding us that no, that we have a duty of care, that people can change, even from the bleakest of traumas, and the bleakest of places. And I think that it’s important that a play has hope and redemption in it. It’s exactly like in Home. When I interviewed the young people they didn’t just cry and say, ‘my life is over’, and ‘there’s nothing I can do’, they had hope and ambition and dreams. And the moment you give some voice and some humanity, they will start to articulate those hopes and those dreams. And they’ll be one step closer to making them a tangible reality. I mean it sounds romantic, but I think it’s crucial. A play like this is why the arts are necessary. They’re not just a frivolous past-time of the chosen elite. We all benefit from the arts, not just artists, not just me, that person who’s lucky enough to direct the play. It’s part of how we understand ourselves and each other. That’s why we need it in prisons, that’s why we need it in schools, that’s why it’s part of our mental and physical health. And all of us deserve it. Not just a lucky handful of people.”
It is a very big play but the Olivier is a frankly huge stage. “I know! I’ve never directed in the Olly before, I’ve done one transfer: The Collaborators, with Nick Hytner, I was an associate on that. But I don’t know, that’s the honest truth. I love small scenes, I love two handers. I love those intimate scenes. I love the generation of the close-up on the television, you know. And it does make me nervous. But I do think that the Olivier is built in that kind of Greek theatre, very personal, connected kind of way, so even though it’s big and as an audience you’re looking down on it, you can have the intimacy of someone sitting on the floor and telling you about their life. So I hope that I can make those ‘close-ups’ work. Of course I’m tentative about the whole thing because the play has an epic feel, but it wasn’t built for a big space. It was built for the Royal Court.”
The convict scenes are small, the officer scenes are a little bigger, so how is she going to punch to the edges of that cavern? “Movement and musicality. To make it slightly the movie version. That ghastly journey, Auschwitz on wheels, when they’re hungry and there’s rape and pillage and violence and God knows whether they’re going to get to Australia – that’s the opening image: if it was a movie we’d see that. We’d go through that, and that’s where we’ve used song. So I’ve tried that on as an idea. And I hope it will pay dividends. No two people would do it the same, and it does allow you that space for your own thumbprint. And I hope it’s a chance to have a bit of personality on it, of one’s own and with the company. I think it’s a perfect storm where you get to be authorial with it as well.”
Our Country’s Good runs 19th August to 17th October on the Olivier stage in the National Theatre.