From the beginning Clive Judd had a sense that that his career as a director would burn more slowly than others’. “A lot of people made much more work more early than me. I knew it would be a much longer development, to the point that I think the people who were interested in me when I was in my very early stages lost a bit of interest because they thought that I was less driven than other theatre makers.”
Even if that’s true, 2015 is an exception: there was Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against The Eunuchs at Southwark Playhouse in July, Rob Hayes’ monologue This Will End Badly at the Fringe in August (heading to London in January), and now Simon Longman’s tender two-hander Sparks at the Old Red Lion. All hugely acclaimed, all in the space of a few months.
Let’s start with Sparks: “It’s about two sisters, Sarah and Jess,” Judd explains, “and Jess turns up on Sarah’s doorstep 12 years after they’ve met and she’s holding a goldfish bowl. And standing in the pouring rain in the Midlands.” The two of them try to reconnect in their polar ways. Each offers differing versions of the same childhood memories, different aspects looming larger in their minds. “Memory is really important to the play and particularly to Simon’s writing. He always talks and writes about memory and how we appropriate memories and distort memories for our own use.”
In such lengthy separation is a sense of loss, too, not only in terms of the death of loved ones that plays a part in the narrative, but also in terms of what has been missed in a dozen years. All the conversations not had, love not shared. “It’s really about loss, the distance between humans, what home means to people, and a whole raft of things really.”
Home has its valence in different ways and on different scales: the attachment you have to a region, a city or an area, and the more honed attachment to a specific building, and then the less tangible sense of home as people – the people you’ve grown up with, you love, and you return to with no sense of ever having been away. These relative scales infect the play, certainly, but they also hold huge meaning for Judd and Longman in their own lives. After meeting at Manchester University, auditioning for Alistair McDowall’s first play, the two realised that they had grown up just half an hour away from each other in Worcester.
Judd often returns to the importance of the Midlands, more than a county but less than a country, and his attachment to the place where he grew up. “I dream about my first house quite regularly. It’s like I’ve stepped back in time. I’m always in my bedroom looking out onto my garden through the window. I always come out of my bedroom and I walk down the stairs into the lounge. Me, my brother and my family living in this strange little council estate just outside the city centre. I’m usually proud of that.”
But the way that Judd has directed Sparks offers a different, a profound sense of home: that loved ones orbit each other like planets. In the play, Sarah – who has stayed in the same house and done the same job for twelve years – moves very little, while wild, nomadic Jess darts unceasingly around her, not still and not quiet for a moment. In this sense, home is what you orbit. It is impossible to escape home. You can move further away, your life can move more quickly or more slowly, but your home is the tether – like the sun to the earth – that always keeps you going and always keeps you coming back.
Just after finishing university, Judd took a production of Simon Stephens’ Herons to NSDF which, although a formative week in Judd’s career, was not without its anxieties. “I was a nervous wreck, I had really high anxiety levels, to the point where you question why you want to be in this bloody job with press nights and that stuff.” This intensified when Stephens came to see the play at the Festival. “This big handsome lumbering man came in and sat next to me. I think I probably shat myself.”
Straight off the back of the NSDF production, Stephens asked Judd to assist on a production of Punk Rock at the Lyric Hammersmith. “As to so many young theatremakers, writers, directors – whoever really – his support was integral. He came down like one of those claws in a funfair, picked me out and put me in a professional rehearsal room. I was 21 or 22 and I had a panic attack on the first day of rehearsal.”
“You have this image in your head of what professional theatre environments are like, and you build it up. It’s just people sitting around a table drinking coffee, and having interesting conversations. Just enjoying themselves. So there was nothing to feel anxious or panicked about, but I sat round that table and thought I was going to be sick.”
He applied for the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme, which has the likes of Vicky Featherstone and Rupert Goold as its alumni, and was given a placement at the Watermill Theatre under Hedda Beeby. Part of the interview process for RTYDS involves picking a play and describing how you would stage it. For Judd, however, new writing is where his passion sits. “I kind of wanted to say, ‘actually the play I would direct for you probably hasn’t been written yet.’” But revivals figure in Judd’s CV – and of course all writing was once new writing. Which is where Little Malcolm comes in.
David Halliwell’s 1965 play, the first production of which was directed by Mike Leigh and ran at over 6 hours, was revived by Judd earlier this year at Southwark Playhouse. It was a magnificent production, both epic and intimate, but what really stood out is how completely fresh the writing felt. “I think Mike Leigh is right when he said that David Halliwell had all the tools to be one of the greats.” Instead, Halliwell died young, poor and with only a few works to his name.
Judd’s production wasn’t six hours – despite the inch-thick script, replete with detail and backstory that Leigh lent to Judd. “People thought that I’d cut it down from six hours, which is nonsense. There is a version that’s been around for 40 years that John Hurt did, and that is around three hours long. I couldn’t cut anything more. It’s impossible, I think.”
If Little Malcolm is about masculinity and all its impotent bluster, Sparks explores a concept of the feminine in an oblique way. The two sisters can’t communicate properly, they drink hard and live lonely, solipsistic lives. Jess struggles against any pressure to take responsibility. These are qualities that come ten a penny in plays about men, or plays about brothers. Longman and Judd have turned those expectations on their head.
“All my work is about men in crisis. It’s really masculine, it’s boisterous because I was drawn to theatre by people like Arthur Miller, writers who write these really big plays about flawed men. But we do have to find more plays for women, proper roles, properly wrought female characters, flawed female characters. I felt like that was a conflict I wanted to explore because I hadn’t for a long long time.” The two actors, Sophie Steer and Sally Hodgkiss, alternate the roles of Jess and Sarah each night, again an attempt by Judd to reorient a masculine device. “It’s a real masculine thing. It’s a dick-swinging macho thing that guys get off on. And I thought, well fuck it. I’m going to do it with two of the best female actors I know.”
Role swapping is not a gimmick, not a cynical ploy to get audiences to come twice. But nor is it something that has any blatant effect for an audience member seeing it on just one night. Instead, it seems to be a genuine challenge for Judd and his team: a way of probing the play, its surfaces and its depths, in as incisive a way as possible. There is no trace of cynicism in Judd or his approach to making theatre. Bigger concepts drive his work, concepts that make it deeply human and unerringly humane.
“The kind of theatre I wanted to make was about humans, and will always be about humans. What it is to be alive, what it is to experience the full spectrum of emotions that a human can feel. How can I possibly be prodding around in a human drama if I don’t know what it is to feel. I work at Foyles. I have to do something that connects me to a wider existence. Because theatre is satisfying, but not alone.”