Ned Bennett is telling me a story about the back wall of the Royal Court, a fixture held in reverential affection by a good chunk of the theatre community. During preparations for The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, the ordinarily black wall – which was visible for portions of the show – had to be made to look like exposed brickwork. Instead of stripping the paint back to the bricks beneath it, Bennett explains, the black surface was painted over with brick-effect artwork. Bricks painted to look like bricks.
This small absurdity is oddly apt for both the postmodern commentary of Gorge Mastromas, in which surface is everything, and for the self-mythologizing urges of the Royal Court. Few theatres are quite so invested in their own history. Bennett emerges fresh from this environment, having just finished a year as trainee director with the theatre, in twelve months that spanned the departure of Dominic Cooke, the arrival of Vicky Featherstone, and the whirlwind festival of Open Court. It was nothing if not a baptism of fire.
“It was certainly demystified in no small way,” Bennett admits, agreeing that there is a potentially intimidating aspect to the building’s status within modern British theatre. “It’s funny, though,” he goes on, “you go in being aware of all the history … and it feels like it’s very important to acknowledge the history, then kind of leave it at the door, as it were, and see what’s happening next.”
Despite the demystification, Bennett clearly still holds a fierce affection for the theatre and the projects he worked on during his time there, which ranged from directing a production that toured around schools to being right in the thick of Open Court. “I’d always admired, respected, loved the theatre,” he says, “but what never ceases to amaze me about the building – and this is proper gushy – is how uncynical it is, how uncynical a place to work it is. It is all about trying to create the most interesting, most urgent, most exciting plays, and they’re a very cohesive bunch who all are pulling in the same direction.”
Open Court, the summer festival during which Featherstone handed the keys to the theatre’s writers and the building hosted a staggering range of different events, was clearly a highlight for Bennett. “It was amazing to be going from rehearsing one weekly rep and putting that into tech, and then starting that day on the next weekly rep, and working with a really versatile, exciting rep company of actors. It felt like with Open Court we discovered a lot about what direction the theatre was going to go in from then onwards.”
It was during Open Court that Bennett and I first met, while he was assisting on Anthony Neilson’s Collaboration project. Neilson too was an important feature of Bennett’s time at the Court; as well as being involved with Collaboration, he assisted earlier in the year on Narrative. Neilson’s process, which involves working closely with actors while developing a new play, is one that fascinates both of us. We discuss the openness of his rehearsal room, in which Bennett says “play and curiosity become part of the lifeblood of the room”, and the trust he places in both the actors and the collaborative process.
“What I got from Anthony that I thought was amazing was his perseverance in exploration, rather than immediately wanting to get results then and there,” Bennett tells me. “So if it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t ready; we’d just keep exploring, keep going and keep trying out different things.” This closely tallies with my own experience of Neilson’s rehearsal room, where ideas were gently pushed in new directions and input was welcomed from all directions. “Simply, he creates a non-hierarchical room, and then you get such surprising results.”
Bennett’s year at the Royal Court followed hot on the heels of his explosive revival of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur at the Old Red Lion, a show that was 2012’s unexpected hit of the fringe. When I mention that the production with which Bennett made his breakthrough was almost two years ago, he shakes his head in smiling disbelief. He is still a little disbelieving, too, about the show’s success; “we were really, really surprised,” he says of the overnight impact it made. Fuelled by astonishing word of mouth, Mercury Fur quickly sold out at the Old Red Lion, earning itself a transfer to Trafalgar Studios that same summer.
Ridley’s play is set in a dystopian near future, where London is a lawless wasteland and addictive hallucinogenic butterflies are eroding the memories of those still scratching out a living. Bennett’s startling, visceral production for Greenhouse Theatre Company created an electric charge in the tightly packed space of the Old Red Lion, drawing out both the play’s infamous power to shock and the surprising humanity of its characters and their love for one another.
“I was just so struck by the relationship between the two brothers, Elliot and Darren, and this big question of what would you do for those that you love,” Bennett says, getting right to the heart of his interpretation. He describes Mercury Fur as a “modern masterpiece”, explaining that when he was given the script to read by Greenhouse’s Henry Lewis and Joel Samuels it immediately became his favourite play. Even with this faith in the material, however, he was blown away by the response it received. Bennett attributes some of this to the production’s appearance in the wake of the 2011 riots, which lent Ridley’s play a haunting prescience, but he is clear that his version did not set out to make this connection. For Bennett, it was all about the characters.
It is character once again that has attracted Bennett to Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, the UK premiere of which he is currently directing at the Southwark Playhouse. It is being presented by the same company behind Mercury Fur, who have newly reinvented themselves as The Trick. Bennett is a “huge fan” of Letts and is excited to get his hands on this script. “I always found that his writing – as with Ridley – has such a visceral complexity to it,” he explains the fascination.
Superior Donuts is set in a donut shop in Chicago, telling the story of the man who runs it and the people who pass through every day. “You’ve got these nine fantastic characters, aged 21 to 72, all endowed with such depth and humanity,” says Bennett. “I found it profoundly moving and hugely optimistic. It just felt like the right play to do, and it couldn’t be more different from Mercury Fur.”
While Bennett describes the play as a “naturalistic piece”, he is interested in ways of pushing that naturalism in his production. “We didn’t just want to build a donut shop,” he explains. “The brilliant Fly Davies has come up with an incredible design that allows us to represent the off-stage world in a non-literal way in the space.” He quickly adds that they are “not doing some big expressionistic production of it”, but it is clear that his production hopes to test what can be done within an ostensibly naturalistic framework.
When I ask how Bennett feels about naturalism as a director, he wrestles a little with the question. Referring to projects such as Narrative, which clearly departed from naturalism, he suggests that his own position is somewhat ambivalent, before adding, “I don’t think there is an either/or”. We end up discussing Secret Theatre, which offers an intriguing marriage of a more naturalistic, character-based British tradition with continental influences that are less interested in realistic representation.
“One of my biggest interests is definitely character,” Bennett says, “but I think – as things like Secret Theatre’s Streetcar showed – you can still create, represent, express amazing characters, but not necessarily be pinned down to some kind of naturalistic context. I sort of feel like I’m just exploring what that means.” For now, he is happy to remain on the fence and keep exploring.
Superior Donuts runs at the Southwark Playhouse 11th February – 8th March
Photo: Ben Broomfield.