Kate Wasserberg talks to Wales Arts Review about her new production of Terry Johnson’s award-winning 1980s’ comedy-drama Insignificance at Theatr Clwyd.
How is it returning to Theatre Clwyd since you left as Associate?
It’s wonderful to be back in the building and see it thriving, and to be reunited with so many amazing colleagues. Clwyd has the most incredible backstage team and as a visiting artist you really appreciate the support and talent you have access to. The audience feel like old friends and I even stayed in my old flat from before I was married – an odd but very nice feeling!
Why Insignificance? Why this story now?
I saw a production at my local theatre (The New Vic in Stoke) when I was a kid and it always stayed with me – the way it boldly moves from high comedy to serious drama, those stand out visual moments, the meditations on fame, life and the American Dream alongside all out farce, complete with comedy doors and Einstein running around in his pants. What’s not to like?
Thematically, the idea of a society beset by fear, looking for an enemy while letting the true villains off the hook, feels very relevant. But there is hope in the play too – the curiosity and compassion of which we are capable at our best. It sort of shimmers, this play, and I felt ready for a bit of redemption in these dark times, a bit of beauty.
What is it that attracts you to Terry Johnson’s work?
He’s a proper grown up writer, with a complex, clear-eyed understanding of the world, and a playful, joyous sense of fun. He’s an absolute giant of the theatre.
Did you spend much time looking at the Nic Roeg film?
No, I tend to deliberately avoid other versions of any production I work on. I try to respond to what’s on the page, and what’s in the room. I don’t want other performances in my head, getting in the way.
Casting must have had some unique challenges – not just lead roles, and not just iconic roles, but the roles of icons. What was it you found yourself looking for in the actors?
That’s difficult to answer in so many words – I tried to cast the characters as written rather than looking for impressions, but at the same time there is an expectation there to create that iconic image. So I suppose I added in vital elements of the real people to my thinking – vocal quality, certain physical attributes or ways of being, then I cast it like any other play. My cast is incredible – I am hugely fortunate.
It’s a great role for Sophie Melville to get her teeth into after the phenomenal success of Iphigenia in Splott. How has she risen to the challenge?
Sophie has blown me away. She totally transforms when she becomes the Actress, she brings a whole world, a whole life onto the stage with her. That combination of genuine innocence and raw sensuality is remarkable – she nails it. She is extremely diligent and detailed too – working until every moment is exactly right, and she gives it everything, every performance. She is, and this is not hyperbole, a star.
The play is very much about a specific era (the 1950s), but is also about notions of fame. What do you think it has to say to a modern audience?
Our relationship to fame, and the way it is used to hold us in place and make us aspire to things that don’t challenge the status quo, hasn’t really changed, just intensified. At the moment, that notion of a populace motivated by an unfocussed sense of need, of rage and fear, feels as present as ever. And looking across the Atlantic – there is a choice to be made there, about what America will be in the years to come. So it has a lot to say.
Tell us a little about the process of recreating that era on stage.
Amy Jane Cook who designed the play has an very clear sense of period detail as well as real vision and dash, and the brilliant stage management team, wigs and wardrobe departments have all brought their considerable abilities to bear, to ensure the production looks exactly right. The rest is in the writing really – be true to that, and you get the fifties for free.
For a director, what is the main focus of a play that takes place in one room? Are you forced to zone in more on the script, or do you look for ways to make that room bigger, to make it mean more?
Terry Johnson has taken care of that. There are moments in the production when I deliberately increase the scale (no spoilers mind), but that all came out of what is written. Theatre is always the whole universe in a small space – a single room is just a further distillation. It’s the size of the ideas that matter.
You are the artistic director of one of Wales’ great recent success stories, The Other Room; how has the experiences of with TOR prepared you for this play?
I suppose working at TOR means that the up-close nature of in-the-round held no terrors for me, I thrive on that intimacy now. I feel like running The Other Room has given me a determination to wring every moment out of a play, to make every second on stage count, because when you are building an audience from scratch, once you get them through the door, you need to transport them, thrill them, or they don’t come back. That stood me in good stead with Insignificance, because I was adamant that the comedy had to be full throttle, and so did the tragedy, the softness, the beauty, the ugliness. Hopefully that’s how it feels to watch it.
Is there an issue with context for this play? You can safely assume audiences will be familiar with Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, but have you had to think a lot about how people might see Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio, who are more distant for a British audience?
That’s true, and I think there are some references that don’t quite land in terms of an historical recognition. But these characters are also just themselves, they are types, and they are individuals. So as long as the audience understand them within the world of the play, it doesn’t matter if they don’t know who inspired them exactly. We have to know as a company what is underpinning every line, but the audience just need to feel it. And for those who do know, there’s a little extra frisson in some moments.
Did you have any modern equivalent figures in mind when you were in rehearsals for these figures?
Not always the obvious, but yes, definitely. We talked about Donald Trump, of course. Nigel Farage too. We talked about Sarah Kane, Daniel Radcliffe, Keira Knightly, a German professor one of us knew, about our friends, people we loved who struggled with depression, people we knew who had become famous. We used whatever we had in the room, whatever came up. But the play is relevant on its own terms, so it was really about us accessing the characters however we could. We had a great time – I think it shows.
Insignificance is at Theatr Clwyd, Mold until October 15. More details from the theatre website or the Box Office on 01352 701521