Published in The i paper October 28, 2020
“I had this anxiety that I would just be extremely rusty,” says Tinuke Craig, with an apologetic smile, when I ask how it feels to be back in a rehearsal room. While the director is thrilled to be preparing for a socially distanced production and live stream of Sarah Kane’s stark, poetic play Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre, she was nervous about getting back to work, too.
“In lots of ways, I just quit theatre for a good couple of months,” says the 33-year-old director of her experience of lockdown. It was too painful to watch her industry crumble; instead, Craig went into “a state of denial” and distracted herself with a series of lockdown hobbies, from knitting to bread-baking to rollerskating.
But British theatre will be glad she has put down her needles, dusted off her floury hands, and got back to the stage. Craig’s star has had a notably bright, rapid ascent in recent years: she made a name for herself directing debbie tucker green’s work, first dirty butterfly at the Young Vic, as the winner of the Genesis Future director award in 2014, and then random/generations at Chichester in 2018. Last year, Craig directed a large-scale musical of The Color Purple at Birmingham Hippodrome and Leicester Curve; Mike Bartlett’s Vassa at the Almeida and a pantomime Cinderella for the Lyric Hammersmith, where Craig is also an associate artist.
And she was nearing the end of rehearsals for Last Easter, by Bryony Lavery, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond when lockdown hit; it’s been indefinitely postponed.
But as we talk over Zoom, Chichester Theatre’s distinctive hexagonal ceiling looming behind Craig’s head, I get the impression that an enforced breather was actually strangely welcome. “It makes it easier to let go of your need to plan, your need to be in control. You do what you can do – and then take up embroidery,” Craig laughs.
Still, such an accepting attitude is easier to hold onto when there is work coming up, and Craig knows she’s proved lucky in this regard: Crave was scheduled for the summer, cancelled, and then rescheduled. “You just feel incredibly grateful to be working – and quite a substantial dose of survivor’s guilt, that we’re getting to do the show at all when so many people aren’t.”
She looks set to be busy for the rest of the year: Craig will also be remounting an in-the-round, concert version of The Color Purple at the Leicester Curve just after Crave.
The musical got off to a rocky start in 2019 after Seyi Omooba, the actress cast as the lead of this queer love story, was fired for historic homophobic comments online; she then launched legal action against the Curve, and is still awaiting a tribunal. Her replacement, T’Shan Williams, was acclaimed in the part, however – and returns for its unexpected, socially-distanced redux.
Craig is also running an educational project via the Lyric Hammersmith for local secondary school students this autumn; entitled Race, Identity & Hidden Histories, it aims to “challenge and create awareness of the unconscious perceptions society holds in regards to race and identity”.
She knows the value of workshops for young people: Craig, who grew up in Brixton and still lives 10 minutes up the road – handy for chats through the window with her mother during lockdown – spent some of her own teenage years in the prestigious Royal Court Young Writers Programme.
The workshops Craig will be leading this winter are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. She feels both optimism and wariness regarding the legacy of this summer’s ferment.
“There was something different about this time,” she reflects. “There were white people on the protests, which wasn’t previously the case. Part of me feels, yes, it’s brought people together; part of me thinks, oh people were just bored.”
But before those projects, Craig has to tackle Sarah Kane. Crave was programmed for Chichester’s temporary, seasonal, intimate spiegeltent venue. A short piece, featuring four unnamed characters speaking overlapping yet disconnected monologues, it premiered at the Traverse in Edinburgh in 1998 and is usually staged in studio theatres.
So it’s fair to say that the decision by artistic director Daniel Evans to revive the show – in the whopping 1,500 seat main auditorium no less – took Craig aback. It’s also fair to say that Crave is, like all of Kane’s work, incredibly bleak: a look at love and despair that discusses rape, paedophilia, and suicide. “No one survives life,” goes ones memorably pithy line.
“Everyone is trying to work out what people are going to want to watch now, what can the arts provide?” says Craig. “So when Daniel first suggested [putting the production in the main house], I was like, well I’m thrilled – but Crave? Really?”
She’s come round. While Craig appreciates that many people will be seeking feelgood escapism right now, she believes others will want theatre that helps them process what they’re going through.
“There are going to be people who need a place to gather together to grieve, who need work that says: I know it was really lonely, and I’m really sorry. Hopefully that will be the service we provide. We’ll do the ‘gather and wail’ play!”
In some ways, Crave feels like it could have come out of the last eight months. Its characters are isolated, stuck with their thoughts, their memories, their bodies; the darkest stuff in their psyches keeps rising up in spouts of self-loathing.
And there really is no one who captures the “weird tragedy of having a body and a brain that you can’t escape from” – as Craig puts it – quite like Kane. One character declares they’re “sick to the f***ing gills” of their own personality; another states simply: “I disgust myself.” Both rehearsals and the production will be socially distanced, while the audience of up to 600 people will be spread throughout the auditorium.
Because it’s a play about isolation, a degree of enforced separation feels dramatically useful, suggests Craig. But they’re also using live-feed video cameras, allowing for close-ups on the actors to be projected, to help bring the theatregoer “in to bodies and flesh and faces”.
Craig has loved Kane’s work since reading 4.48 Psychosis, her fifth and final play (Kane killed herself in 1999), while studying drama at Sussex university. “I remember crying, and feeling ‘this play is about me’ – which is probably the feeling every 18-year-old has reading Sarah Kane.”
Years later, she considered having a brilliant, unsentimental passage from Crave read at her wedding. She made the case for it to her husband: “It’s amazing, it’s truthful, it’s painful, and love is painful… but her husband said: ‘I don’t want painful readings at our wedding!’” Probably for the best: as Craig now acknowledges with a wince, there are things you learn about that character that are exceptionally grim.
That said, “truthful and painful” may be the catharsis in winter 2020 – and if anyone’s work can help us reckon with the dark times, it’s surely Kane. There can be something strangely comforting, even, in her depiction of the darkest nights of the soul: a recognition that this is a shared part of being human.
“The feeling expressed in Crave seems very particular: a very individual scream of isolation, that no-one could possibly understand,” says Craig.
“But we all relate to it. And the fact that we all relate to it, suggests we’re not alone in that feeling.”