“If science is the ‘what’, then art is the ‘why’,” explained Michael Longhurst from across the small wooden table in the Young Vic café. “And if drama is about putting yourself in the position of another and understanding the human condition, then science is a hugely powerful thing to tap into. And it often provides a theatrical angle with it.”
Within 48 hours of the interview, the award-winning director would explore the interplay between science and art once more when rehearsals kicked off for his six-week run of A Number at the Young Vic’s Maria theatre space. Bag slung over his shoulder, and a bright green smoothie in hand, the 34-year-old seemed quietly relaxed about bringing the play back to the stage.
A powerful and often claustrophobic tale, Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play examines the boundaries of science and ethics within the frame of a complex and strained father/son relationship. This is the second time Michael has directed it, with the revival production at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre last February having attracted wide acclaim for Michael’s direction and Tom Scutt’s two-way-mirrored box set.
But for all its science, Michael explained, A Number is a very human tale. “Caryl takes us a fraction beyond our known scientific abilities right now. But it’s not sci-fi; it’s about thinking ‘If we take this step over, then where does it lead us? What are the moral ramifications?’ By stepping a little beyond the world we are in, we get to analyse where we are now and where we might want to be. That’s really exciting.”
This is neither the first time Michael has gazed at grand science through a theatrical human lens, nor is it the first time he’s been invited to revisit a production. Case in point: the current Royal Court Theatre tour of Nick Payne’s Constellations is the third time Michael has been behind its wheel. Like A Number, science and art collide in Constellations, this time in a story of love and heartbreak played out across infinite parallel universes. From its world premiere at the Royal Court featuring Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins in 2012, Michael took the play to Broadway in January this year for a Jake Gyllenhaal/Ruth Wilson-fronted run.
Taking the show across the pond was a thrilling ride, he explained, but it wasn’t without its stresses. “Broadway is an incredibly intense experience. It makes you realise how different it is to the subsidised world – which I’ve mainly been working in – where we make art for arts’ sake that’s affordable,” he said. Constellations’ West End opening three years ago was nerve-wracking enough, but the elephantine weight of Broadway’s commercial pressures made for an extra tense press night at Manhattan’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
“All you can do is sit in the back row, squeeze your colleagues’ legs and just go ‘Breathe, breathe’ and hope that they do the same on stage,” he said laughing. “But then that’s directing theatre – it’s about creating something, then saying ‘Fly, my pretties!’. You spend your time training, inspiring, and giving a platform and then it’s their turn to run on it. That’s why you want to be in a rehearsal room with people you trust.”
Needless to say, Constellations gathered award nominations (Michael’s old Nottingham Uni contemporary, Ruth Wilson was nominated for a Tony) and glowing reviews alike. His confidence buoyed, Michael had a veritable “smorgasbord of choices” to direct from when it came to the play’s third iteration – the current UK tour featuring Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey, which finishes in Brighton in early July before a transfer to London’s Trafalgar studios. “Fundamentally, the structures of the universes I created stayed very similar,” he said, reflecting on the different productions. “But what was absolutely different was the chemistry of two different people, such as how a flirt is delivered and how it is received. That has been individual to each couple. That was quite freeing actually, because by the third time, I was able to have confidence about what the beat was but let that be an individual interpretation.”
Science and its exploration through the human experience has clearly been a successful theme for Michael, but it isn’t necessarily a defining trend of his work; it’s simply part of his broader scope of interest. “I studied Philosophy at university before studying theatre, so I’m really interested in the big ideas that underpin who we are and the way we live,” he said. That much is reflected in Michael’s CV from the past 18 months alone. For example, Carmen Disruption – the radically deconstructed re-telling of Bizet’s classic opera, which recently ran at the Almeida Theatre – tackled big concepts of passion and alienation through the microscope of everyday life. And the same could be said of his riotous production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews (launching last year at the Theatre Royal Bath, transferring to London’s St James Theatre, and now to the Arts Theatre). Here, religion is the theme and the family dynamic is the vehicle.
Tackling such meaty subject matters isn’t something Michael does lightly. Each new project presents fresh challenges, and finding the confidence to step up to them has taken time. “When I was first offered to direct Bad Jews, I read the script and thought, ‘Wow, this is funny and vicious, but I don’t know if I could direct this’,” he said. “You always have that kind of thing going on – ‘I’m not Jewish, I’m not American, can I really come to this world?’ and so on. But then, I’m not Jacobean or Iraqi and I’ve directed plays about both of them. So you just have to take a leap of faith and think, ‘Can I direct an authentic response to this if I do my homework?’ “And the joy of Bad Jews is that it’s a family drama, and it has the level of conflict only families can create. So whether it’s Judaism or Catholicism – which I was brought up in – you can see religious rifts in families and how that brings out the worst in people.”
Michael Longhurst explains that confidence isn’t something that has ever eluded him. It’s something that has flourished within him incrementally as each new project has been successfully tackled. But he draws strength from collaboration, and in many ways it defines his approach to direction. “In terms of making work, I would hope my approach is about putting collaborative people in a room together, then prompting, encouraging and inspiring them to make work, and creating a platform to sculpt from that,” he said.
But he’s has developed a keen sense of when to stick to his own guns, too. “I have always seen myself as a director who gives a platform to other people’s stories. And only now am I beginning to ask ‘What do I think is the most beautiful or striking way to tell that story?’ I’ve never, and would never, put something on stage that the writer didn’t like. But as you do more, you gain confidence about what you can bring to the production and how you can enhance a writer’s work.”
So what’s next? First, it’s a holiday to the West Coast of America, where he intends to recharge his batteries after a hectic year-and-a-half flitting between theatrical productions. And then? “I hope this last eighteen months of doing a lot of shows will allow me to get to be brave and slightly pickier,” he said. “Not that I haven’t loved the shows I’ve been doing. What I mean is that the work is only as good as the time put into it making it. Sometimes you get lucky and the shows you quickly put together fly, but ultimately the satisfying thing is trying to push your art, and you need time to do it. So I’m excited to have that time with projects in the future.”
As we parted ways, Michael set off for the National Theatre’s shop where he needed to buy a copy of A Number’s script. “And it’s less than 48 hours before rehearsals start,” he laughed. It was the perfect summation of the interview, and an expression of Michael’s growing confidence. When you have a CV like his, at some point surely you come to realise yours is a safe pair of hands.
A Number is on at the Young Vic from 3rd July to 15th August, then the Nuffield Theatre Southampton until the 29th August. Bad Jews runs at the Arts Theatre until the 11th July, and the Royal Court tour of Constellations runs until 4th July and then plays Trafalgar Studios, London, from 9th July – 1st August 2015.