Jeremy Herrin on conveying the highs and lows of addiction on stage

Published in The Independent on Sunday on August 28, 2015

“There’s a lot of directing to be done,” is Jeremy Herrin’s first comment about new play, People, Places and Things. He’s not wrong: the latest work from innovative playwright Duncan Macmillan is a piece about drug addiction, and an actress called Emma who checks into rehab to try to get clean. But it’s no dour tale of gritty realism, as you might expect; Macmillan’s masterstroke is to set it entirely from her point of view, and the director must therefore find ways to evoke both the iridescent highs of taking drugs, and the hallucinatory, disorienting lows. Swirled into that mix are serious, thorny questions about identity and performance, and how these might relate to addiction, recovery, and self-acceptance.

Lucky that Herrin’s directing then – he’s not a man to shy away from big texts and bold visions. People, Places and Things is on at the National Theatre, but is co-produced by Headlong – the maverick touring theatre company, known for their boldly staged, conceptually rich productions, which Herrin took over from Rupert Goold in 2013. Since joining, he’s directed The Absence of War, Spring Awakening, and West End transfer The Nether, but his CV also includes James Graham’s political smash This House, Polly Stenham’s career-launching debut That Face, and, most recently, the juggernaut that was the RSC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, which transferred from Stratford to the West End and then Broadway.

Herrin dubs People, Places and Things a “fantastic play”, but admits it’s keeping him on his artistic toes. “When you’re not trying to replicate objective reality in naturalistic ways, theatrically it means the play can be much more dynamic. Especially when you bring drugs and drink and medication into it – it’s all over the shop.” Herrin promises the show will “mainline” theatrical experience, giving you a big, sensory “hit”.

But if that all sounds very in-yer-face, theatrically, Herrin promises there will be subtlety as well. “Dramatic currency isn’t always best served by viscera or shock or loudness; the tiniest transaction in context can be massively important. This play has both.”

Both Macmillan and Herrin have done research into addiction and recovery, with therapists visiting the rehearsal room, and the cast visiting the Freedom recovery centre in Catford, south-east London. Unsurprisingly, the issue of funding gets a nod; the Government has announced cuts to local authorities’ public health grants of £200m, which is set to fall hard on already squeezed drug and alcohol services. “It’s depressing when you think about what’s happening to those sort of centres in this country,” says Herrin. “Resourcing recovery is a really good investment. [But] it’s really difficult to achieve it – and prisons aren’t a place to go to recover. So it is a shame these [centres] are being closed down. That’s not the point of the play, but it would be remiss not to mention it.”

That the protagonist is an actress is also far from incidental. Amid some meta-theatrical playfulness, it also lightly suggests that a job where you are applauded for pretending to be someone else might appeal to people with self-esteem issues. “I’ve been wondering whether people who are emotionally needy are attracted towards the theatre,” muses Herrin. “There’s a bit of that for me. I want to bring a little group of people together and us to be close … There’s something needy and also quite promiscuous, emotionally, about it. But theatre’s also accepting of outsiders – it’s a notoriously tolerant place to work.”

Herrin is lucky indeed, for Headlong is something of a dream, as far as artistic director gigs go: he has the power and freedom to programme what he likes, without having “to worry about toilets or roofs … All my friends who are artistic directors of buildings are frustrated that there isn’t enough artistic time.”

But when it comes to personnel, Headlong did recently make an important commitment: to commission 50/50 plays by women and men. As one of the first companies to take such a position, the decision was big news in the theatre world – and making it “official” was the best way to do their bit for gender equality. “It’s something you can control. It gets more complicated, for me, when it gets to quotas of actors: that’s predictive of the artistic input. But the thing we can control is who we pay to write plays. And if we don’t start making statements, we can’t be held to account.”

Herrin is busy beyond Headlong too – he’s directing the new David Hare play, The Moderate Soprano about the creation of Glyndebourne Opera, and then will be rebooting Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off on Broadway. And, thrillingly, long-terms plans may include a return to the Tudor court … Hilary Mantel is writing the third Wolf Hall novel, and Herrin hopes it’ll be ripe for the theatrical treatment. “That’s my ambition, to do a trilogy.”

How was the experience of adapting such weighty books, whose doorstopping size is matched by the huge public affection they’re held in? “It was quite frightening. And everything had to be done really quickly, because we were aware the TV thing was coming … we escalated the process in quite an adrenaline fuelled way. [And] it’s very rare to suddenly find yourself doing work of national significance. The day after the reviews in Stratford, there were photos all over the front pages … it really brings home how the court of Henry VIII is one of our national stories.”

He’s diplomatically reticent on the subject of the BBC version. “The mediums of theatre and TV are so different, we had to attack the stories in a completely different way. What they were doing was very still, lots of close-ups, and we had to throw energy and élan at it. So it was odd to see it – I felt it was my material they were doing wrongly, somehow!”

It sounds like Herrin has always been in possession of a singular mind. He recounts how it was an inspiring, and inspired, drama teacher who got him into directing: “He noticed that I was annoyed because I hadn’t been given a main part, and said, it’s not that you want the main part, you just want to be involved all the time. So you should be a director. Go and find a play, you can direct it next term.”

And what did the teenage Herrin choose? Woyzeck, Georg Buchner’s famously incomplete German tragedy – which he staged with “someone playing a violin with a guitar effects pedal and a sad little drowning scene”. He laughs fondly at his own gumption: “It was the hardest play I could find.”

Where next?