“It was incredibly successful. It was a well achieved display of a mature artistic policy, between him and Ben Power and him and Rob Icke,” says Jeremy Herrin, reflecting on Rupert Goold’s final season as artistic director of pioneering touring theatre company Headlong. Herrin succeeded Goold last year, after the latter left to take charge of the Almeida Theatre. “If I can achieve some of that level of success despite having a different aesthetic, Headlong will be pleased.”
After taking over the reins last September, Herrin is preparing to kick off his inaugural season as artistic director of Headlong by directing a piece that explores the murky digital Wonderland of the internet. Written by Jennifer Haley, The Nether is a thriller which sees a young detective enter an online entertainment realm that frees users to explore their deepest desires.
“The cupboard was bare and I was looking for really interesting, contemporary new writing,” Herrin explains, when I ask (over the phone) why he decided to start with this particular play. “And it made sense to look abroad, because you can then do a European premiere of something that already exists.” Los Angeles-based Haley won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for The Nether in 2012.
And it just really excited me,” Herrin continues. “I’d been looking for years at plays about what’s happening technologically, in terms of virtual life and our increasing dependence on that form of communication, and none of them were really satisfying.” But where he felt those works simplified the issue, The Nether impressed him as “entertaining and provocative but also intellectually rigorous and not silly – it’s plausible and believable.”
Herrin is turned off by work that preaches to people. He likes The Nether because “ultimately you do locate the moral line, but it throws up a load of questions along the way.” That’s what he loves about theatre and why, he argues, it “beats the op-ed pages. You can take an audience through a subject and explore it in lots of different ways. You don’t have to be reductive.” It’s important to him to “activate people’s imagination rather than giving them answers.”
He’s fascinated by the interrogation of reality that unites the imaginative exercise of theatre and the virtual world of online experiences. “When you put those two things together, you’ve got a very elastic and suggestive piece of work,” he enthuses. “Because, in both, you’re dealing with notions of what is real.” He sees huge creative potential in the slippage between “the states and spaces” of theatrical and digital encounters.
For Herrin, the questions asked by The Nether touch on the essence of drama: “What’s happening underneath? What are our baser motivations? How do we integrate those into maintaining a functioning society?” And while he’s reluctant to give too much away, he reveals that “the morality of living vicariously” is channelled into the design of the production. “It’s something we’ve had to think carefully about,” he says, slowly. “What is the effect on the people involved?”
Warming to his theme, he says: “The mistake when policymakers are debating such issues is to demonise the technology, when, actually, that technology – to a greater or lesser extent – simply enables our urges.” The relationship between the two is a subject for debate that Herrin argues we duck at our peril. “The longer we’re in denial about how dark and destructive we are, as humans, the further we are from being able to make it work on a social level.”
If The Nether is about “finding that point of tension in society and exploring it,” Herrin is delighted that he has the opportunity to do so at the Royal Court – a theatre for which he has huge affection and somewhere he has directed numerous plays since his critically acclaimed production of Polly Stenham’s That Face in 2007. “Headlong doing this at the Court is a fantastic combination of energies,” he enthuses.
The Royal Court has undergone something of a creative renaissance under the leadership of Vicky Featherstone, who was appointed artistic director in 2013. With initiatives like the Open Court season, there’s been a renewed emphasis in the theatre’s recent programming on new, experimental, form-challenging and socially relevant work.
From its modern issues to the creative potential of its staging, “I guessed The Nether would really work in that space,” attests Herrin, for whom collaborating with the Court “just felt like a natural graduation” when he took over the wheel at Headlong. “I know the management well,” he says. “Vicky’s great, and was very clear about doing co-productions when she came in. And I have to say – it’s been really good fun.”
Partnering up with venues around the country to co-produce new work is something Herrin is dedicated to doing. Next year, for example, he’s looking forward to bringing Jack Thorne’s new play, Junkyard, to “its natural home” of Bristol, which is where it is set. “It’s really exciting,” he says. “One of the privileges of Headlong, as a company, is that we’re not limited by having to occupy a particular space.”
Herrin is particularly looking forward to “bonding some of the stuff that’s happening in London with what’s happening regionally.” One of the biggest problems he sees with the geography of British theatre is that “it has felt quite separate and disparate.” And he wants Headlong to bridge the gaps. “It feels like an obligation for a company like ours,” he says firmly. He’s wary of any artistic culture that seems to be talking to itself rather than society at large.
By his own admission, Herrin isn’t interested in “auteur” theatre. “Having an investigation into form, interrogating what it means to make theatre, but also making work that is entertaining, stimulating and edifying for a broad audience,” will, he says, be the aim of Headlong’s programming while the company is under his stewardship. “Bringing those things together will be a great challenge but an exciting one,” he enthusiastically anticipates.
Herrin is, of course, following in the footsteps of one of the best known and artistically distinctive figures in British theatre. Does he feel the weight of Goold’s legacy at Headlong? “I’m very happy to shoulder that responsibility,” he answers. “I think it’s fair to say Rupert has a clear aesthetic. You can identify the tropes in his work and the patterns that repeat. My work is probably more elusive than that. But that’s not pejorative,” he stresses. “That’s just the way it is.”
In any case, “as a director, you hope your process will always change and grow. I’m certainly not the sort of person who’s ever wanted a specific aesthetic,” reflects Herrin, whose recent work includes directing the RSC’s stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. “I’ve always wanted to serve the play and the playwright. That’s always been my approach, rather than having an easily identifiable body of work.”
And as he points out, change is woven into the fabric of Headlong, which started life as the Oxford Stage Company and saw a succession of artistic directors before Goold took over in 2005. “It’s a continuum, an evolution,” he says. “So it’ll be good to see what it turns into next.” Nonetheless, he’s also enjoyed identifying the points of correspondence between his goals and what has gone before.
“There’s a contemporaneity, there’s a relevance, there’s an examination of classics and the encouragement of young directors. And that’s always going to be the case under my watch, too. But I’m going to approach it instinctively differently to the way that Rupert approached it.”
Ultimately, Herrin feels “really, really blessed. I started out wanting to be a working theatre director and to pursue relationships with actors and designers and create great theatre.” And notwithstanding the hard work and occasionally having to roll with the punches, “I’m really lucky being able to do what I want to do,” he affirms.
“It feels like a good time for theatre, with lots of people making lots of good work and asking really good questions about the form and about how theatre functions in our society. I’m really looking forward to taking some of those questions on the road.”
The Nether is at the Royal Court Theatre, London, from 17th July – 9th August, with a series of Big Idea talks and discussions, exploring the plays themes, taking place between 25th – 30th July, including Jennifer Haley in conversation with criminal psychologist Anthony Beech on the 25th.