“How do you juggle having a family and a career?” is the sort of awful question often put to (particularly female) people working in high profile roles. It is normally, however, meant metaphorically. When I meet Tamara Harvey, Artistic Director of Theatre Clwyd in North Wales, she is almost literally juggling a small, wiggling toddler whilst answering my questions on, among other things, how to stage Chekhov. A childcare glitch has meant that we are joined by Harvey’s adorable (and impressively well behaved) young daughter. Being fed small piece of fish finger by a two-year-old at the same time as being questioned might be enough to distract most people, but this interview is also happening 1 hour and 45 minutes before curtain-up on press night. Harvey, however, is nothing but calm, friendly and, it seems, faintly amused by the situation.
This appealingly accepting approach to what each day throws at you overlaps with Harvey’s attitude towards the aforementioned Chekhov. The looming press performance that evening is for Theatr Clwyd’s new production of Uncle Vanya, directed by Harvey. It’s the first work by the author that she has directed, apart from one act comedy The Bear that she worked on whilst a directing intern. For Harvey, the attraction to his works comes from “how comedy and tragedy sit side by side. That feels incredibly true to human experience. You know, the way that we can be in the midst of the worst thing that has ever happened to us and there will still be something that is ridiculously funny. Or, we can be in the midst of laughter and suddenly be struck by great sadness.”
Rehearsals for the play, a co-production with Sheffield Theatres that moves across to Yorkshire after its opening run in Wales, lasted just four weeks and often involved 12 hour days. Directing a ‘classic’ comes with its own baggage, and Harvey admits that, “It was really kind of terrifying in the run up to rehearsals thinking, ‘oh my god! I don’t know how to do this! It’s Chekhov!’” Yet the butterflies quickly stopped as, “when you get in the room, it’s the same rules as always apply. It’s about figuring out what the characters want and what drives them, and what the relationships are between them and why they choose to do those particular things in that particular moment.”
It is, above all, the “humanity” of Uncle Vanya that caused Harvey to commission a new version by Peter Gill. “I love,” she says, “Those moments in drama where you laugh and the laugh catches in your throat. Or where you’re weeping and then you suddenly burst out laughing. The proximity of those two emotions is one of the things that I find most exciting in theatre and this play has it in spades.”
Watching Uncle Vanya later that night, it doesn’t feel like a dated period piece. Despite sticking to the original time period, the use of colour, an easy vernacular and an in-the-round staging all contribute to a quality of ‘aliveness’. The characters are easy to relate to and, underneath the layers of period dress, they seem both vulnerable and likeable.
Theatr Clwyd isn’t the only Welsh theatre giving Chekhov an outing this season. As part of R17, a programme of theatre, dance and opera marking the 100th year anniversary of the Russian Revolution and Wales’ connections to Russia, Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre is producing a new version of The Cherry Orchard by Gary Owen, directed by Rachel O’Riordan. When I interviewed O’Riordan back in March 2017, we had a conversation about the virtues of directing classic texts vs. new writing. Like O’Riordan, Harvey considers being able to stage both as one of the bonuses of her current job: “ I’ve been really lucky in my career that I haven’t had to go down just one path. I find that when I get to the end of a classic text, I’m just desperate for a writer to talk to and ask questions of. Similarly, when I’m doing a new play, I get to the end of the rehearsals and I think ‘Ah, I could just do with a nice dead author, so I can do what I want!’ But it’s getting to do both that I enjoy.”
Harvey also stresses the importance of the audience in making decisions about classic revivals. “You’ve got to remember that even if you’ve seen another production of it or another ten productions of it, your audience possibly haven’t. So it would be doing them a disservice if you started making choices based on what you might have seen before.”
The website blurb for Uncle Vanya describes it as “Chekhov’s poignant comedy about polite people going crazy in the middle of nowhere.” Theatr Clwyd is located on top of a hill, just outside of Mold. Your best bet by train is the tiny station of Flint, just along the line from Chester. The multi-purpose building is a geometric monument to modern architecture opened in 1976. Both the style of the building and its elevated position in the landscape make it a striking addition to the otherwise bucolic countryside. By rights, it shouldn’t ‘work’ as an addition to the rural locale (you can imagine a fair amount of opposition in the vein of wind farm haters or Price Charles comparing the National Theatre a nuclear power station). However, like with the NT itself, there’s something curiously beautiful about Theatr Clwyd from the outside. Placed so prominently, it has a faintly regal air about it or – since this is Wales – it resembles a modern castle complete with a wide expanse at the front perfect for surveying the surrounding area including, the time I was there, the hazy sky softly turning peach at sunset. Renovating the 40-year-old building is Harvey’s next task as it currently has “sticking plaster on sticking plaster on sticking plaster, it’s never had a major injection of capital investment.”
Aside from her calm demeanour, Harvey doesn’t seem to be “going crazy in the middle of nowhere.” Since taking over a little over two years ago, she’s emphasised the importance of new writing at Theatr Clwyd and sees one of her ‘most importance achievements’ as keeping the theatre’s making departments. “We still have a full workshop, a full wardrobe, a full writing department, a scenic artist, a prop department, we still have all that even though when I arrived we were in the middle of a three year period of quite severe public funding cuts. I think that if we had lost those we would have lost one of our greatest strengths, which is that we are a theatre that makes theatre.”
Cultivating new audiences and getting the national press in is, as with any regional venue, a continual focus. With the latter, Harvey stresses how well connected geographically Theatr Clwyd is, particularly when coming from the direction of Liverpool or Manchester (I’d add to this Wales and the West, if you enjoy a rambling picturesque train journey every so often). Where audiences are concerned, Harvey takes a realistic approach to getting new faces through the doors. “When we did Rent last autumn, suddenly we brought in a whole new range of young people, a group of young people that we hadn’t seen in here before. The other thing is about looking at other ways of bringing people in that isn’t necessarily about theatre. So last Christmas, we had – for the first time – an ice rink on the side of the building, which was great as it brought a whole new group of people in.”
As an individual, Harvey’s career shows no signs of stagnating. Shortly after I meet with her, Rufus Norris announces that Harvey is directing a new Laura Wade play, Home, I’m Darling starring Katherine Parkinson in the Dorfman next July. The production will mark a continuation of the playwright and director working together. The pair studied at the University of Bristol (same time, different degrees) and Harvey previously directed 16 Winters at the Bristol Old Vic, Young Emma at the Finborough Theatre and Kreutzer Vs Kreutzer, Wade’s play designed for performance with a chamber orchestra. A thriving regional venue, a world premiere at the NT and, yes, a lovely daughter (who she originally gestures to when asked what her biggest achievement is since getting to Clwyd): perhaps the middle of nowhere suits Tamara Harvey.