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Who was Ma Rainey?

Ma Rainey black-and-white photo

They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.

– Ma Rainey

Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, the greatest blues singer you’ve never heard of, was born either in Alabama or Georgia, either in 1882 or 1886. She went on to become Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues: a singer, mentor, trailblazer and cultural icon – and the inspiration for the title character of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now playing in the Lyttelton Theatre.

Ma Rainey’s date of birth is disputed: she claimed to have been born in 1886, though some census information suggests she may have been slightly older. We can forgive her any lies about her age: by the time she was in her early teens, she was already performing in talent shows in her hometown, Columbus, Georgia, going on to join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels with her husband, Will Rainey (known as ‘Pa’), in 1906. The word ‘minstrel’ may now bring to mind white men in black-face and racist stereotypes; however, in the early 20th century, it was common for black artists to perform as minstrels.

Ma Rainey and her husband went on to become Rainey and Rainey and then The Assassinators of the Blues, before Rainey forged a considerable career of her own. In 1923, just three years after Mamie Smith became the first black female musician to be recorded, Rainey signed to Paramount and laid down eight songs in Chicago, the setting for August Wilson’s play. Her recording career was to last just five years, but she was prolific, with almost 100 songs. She worked with Louis Armstrong, and created a powerful back-catalogue of her own, including Bo-weevill Blues, Moonshine Blues and, of course, Black Bottom.

As important as her music was her mentorship of younger artists and of one in particular: Bessie Smith. If Rainey was the mother of the blues, Smith was its empress. She remains, to this day, one of the most important female blues singers of all time, in no small part due to Rainey’s influence. One story even says that Rainey kidnapped Smith, forced her to join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and taught her to sing the blues.

The Bessie Smith story might not be true, but it says something about the courageous, trailblazing woman that Ma Rainey was. Her bisexuality was an open secret, and one that she did not shy away from in her lyrics. The following, from Prove It On Me Blues, refers to an event in 1925, when she was arrested for hosting a lesbian orgy with members of her chorus:

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me;
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must’ve been women, 'cause I don’t like no men.

The sentiment, coming as it does from 1925, is undoubtedly bold. Coming from a black woman in the southern United States, it shows even more remarkable courage and daring.

All the above has made Ma Rainey the icon that she is today – she is even name-checked alongside Beethoven in Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues. She has been recognised in the Grammy Hall of Fame, on a US postage stamp and in HBO film Bessie, played by singer Mo’nique.

On 26 January, she will come to the Lyttelton stage, played by Sharon D Clarke, in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the play, she wrestles with her white producers for control of her music: a powerful, bold fight against incredibly difficult odds. Of Ma Rainey, we would expect nothing less.

 

Go to the Ma Rainey's Black Bottom show page

The National Theatre Magazine is edited by Claire Heaney and Sarah Woods

Welcome

Welcome to the tenth issue of the new format National Theatre Magazine. It seems fitting to follow that modest landmark with a celebration of 22 nominations and 5 awards for the NT at the 2018 Olivier Awards, and a record-breaking 11 Tony Award nominations, and 3 wins, for the Broadway transfer of Angels in America.
 


Never to be accused of resting on our laurels, in this issue we look forward to the next season of powerful work. Ben Power, Deputy Artistic Director at the National Theatre, talks to us about adapting Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy for the Lyttelton stage. A familiar face at the National Theatre, Ciarán Hinds, expands on the epic language of Brian Friel’s Translations. Jo Tyabji sheds light on the lesser-known role of the staff director through her work on Julie and the Learning department celebrates the continuing success of its schools touring programme.

Contents

Ciarán Hinds on Translations
For his fifth NT production, Ciarán Hinds talks through the history, relevance and legacy of Brian Friel’s Translations.

Shakespeare in a School Hall
The NT has a long history of both touring and educational work. Jane Ball, Secondary and FE Programme Manager, explains how combining the two has helped bring theatre to a new generation.

Julie Through the Eyes of a Staff Director
Staff director Jo Tyabji finds a rich vein of powerful content in Polly Stenham’s reimagining of Miss Julie. She sheds light on what the role of the staff director can bring to the rehearsal room.

Investing in the Text: Ben Power on The Lehman Trilogy
Ahead of rehearsals beginning, Deputy Artistic Director of the NT Ben Power talks through his approach to adapting Stefano Massini’s play, as well as the journey that brought him to the National in the first place.

Ciarán Hinds and Adetomiwa Edun in Translations

Ciarán Hinds on Translations​ 

 

Kripa Gurung and Lindsay Walker
Corporate Development Team

At the midpoint of rehearsals for Ian Rickson’s major new Olivier production of Brian Friel's Translations, we caught up with Ciarán Hinds, who plays Hugh.
 

It’s shaping up the be a busy year for Ciarán Hinds: he recently earned an Olivier nomination for playing Nick Laine in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic and in the West End, and now he is returning to the NT to play Hugh in Brian Friel’s Translations. It's Hinds’ fifth production at the NT – his most recent being Sean O'Casey’s Juno and the Paycock in 2014, directed by Howard Davies – and he is delighted to be back in a familiar setting. ‘I have such fond memories of working here with the late, great Howard Davies. It’s fantastic to be back at the NT. It’s one of my favourite places in theatre to work. There is a great energy within the building; it’s very alive to me. While you’re focused on your own project with all the people you work with, you know that next door there is also some magic trying to be woven.’

Hinds is also thrilled to be working with director Ian Rickson in what will be his first role in a full-length play by Friel. With his roots in Belfast, it’s a play close to his heart. Hinds admires the late Irish playwright and his vast command of language, ‘He brought the sensibility of another age to his writings. All of his works are about disappointment or missed opportunities.’

Translations is often hailed as a classic – it is studied widely as part of the National Curriculum – and Hinds agrees the play possesses a universal quality. ‘I think in our psyche we all know this play.’ It was performed here at the National in 2005, in what was then the Cottesloe, directed by Sean Holmes with a company led by Kenny Ireland and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor but Hinds remembers the original 1980 production in Derry–Londonderry, which starred his good friend Liam Neeson. ‘Ian [Rickson] sees it as a classic play; it will be staged time and time again. The more the play is looked at and interpreted, the more people begin to understand that everybody somewhere along the line in history has had similar experiences.’ It seems fitting to the continuing reputation of the piece that this revival will play in the Olivier with such an impressive cast. ‘People say about Translations “you can’t fail” and “it’s a masterpiece”, so it’s a big responsibility. It’s a play that’s deep in our history so it’s something we feel we need to get absolutely right.’ 

Ciaran Hinds as Larry in Closer

‘There is a great spirit within the building; it’s very alive to me.’
 

Designer Rae Smith, whose past work includes War Horse, is used to capturing regional landscapes with intensity and authenticity for the Olivier stage. ‘We have already seen them making the back of the landscape and I went “God, that’s big!” It’s mud and earth and hard-nosed.’ Friel is often considered one of the most evocative Irish playwrights of the 20th century; within this expanse of land the characters struggle to accept future change and erect barriers to communication that confront any outsiders.

While Friel was not an overtly political writer, he wrote Translations in 1979 as a response to the political climate in Northern Ireland at that time. The play focuses mainly on the innate power of language, communication and miscommunication, using language to align colonialism with cultural decline. Hinds comments, ‘You can kill a culture by killing its spoken language. Language is about talking. It is about communication and the difficulties of that through different languages, through different accents, through regions and their own tribal history. But language has to mean communication, otherwise it’s dead. I think that’s what Friel was trying to say, that there has been no genuine connection between things that need to happen for progress to be achieved. He uses the word ‘civilised’; sometimes there is a need to change or fossilise. He uses these extraordinary words, but in a kind of ritualistic language, and in an old floral way of speaking.

‘It’s showing the command of language and showing what you can do with it. I know that sometimes it confuses people, but it’s a writer in his art, expressing in many ways.’

‘It is about communication and the difficulties of that through different languages, through different accents, through regions and their own tribal history.’
 

Translations is set in rural County Donegal in 1833. In the play, Irish is spoken by the locals and English by the British map-makers, with only a few characters able to understand both. The play is staged so that the audience hear both languages as English, regardless of the ‘original’ Irish language. These linguistic layers demand attention – the audience has to imagine that languages other than English are used. ‘Will people buy it?’ Hinds asks with a glint in his eye, ‘Where is the point when the audience will actually latch on to the fact that they’re all speaking Irish? Maybe it’s just one of those things that creeps up on people.’

The play begins with a look at the workings of a rural hedge school and rumours of what the soon-to-be-established national school will mean for the future of education, language, and the community. That future comes crashing in with the arrival of British soldiers carrying out an Ordnance Survey, aiming to map out the rural backwaters of Ireland, renaming and anglicising locations as they go. Hinds’ character Hugh O’Donnell is the alcoholic schoolmaster of a hedge school in Ballybeg (Baile Beag). Hugh is well-educated and versed in different languages, yet heavily conflicted and faced with challenges at every turn. ‘Hugh is the only character who has the ability to communicate in Irish, English and Latin.’

‘I’m still digging to find out more about Hugh’s character. There are still a few more feet down to go…’
 

Hugh’s understanding of the spoken languages presents him with a unique set of choices. As Hinds notes, when Hugh initially meets the British soldiers he offers them no help with the communication barrier. Is this an act of passive resistance towards strangers? Part of a need to have the intellectual upper hand? Or simply an attempt at self-preservation? ‘I’m still digging to find out more about Hugh’s character. There are still a few more feet down to go…’

The cast of Translations in rehearsal

Hinds wants the audience to feel both elated and exhausted by the end of the play. ‘Though there’s a whole mixture of stuff in there, I think deep down the play is about allowing your tradition and soul to be.’ These emotions have a strong resonance today. Despite being better connected through technology than ever before, linguistic differences remain a barrier to communication and sharing traditions. Translations continues to address the impact of cultural change and has even inspired adaptations from cultures in the grip of their own tumult, like Ferran Utzet’s 2014 production at the Library of Catalonia, in Barcelona. Translations clearly speaks loudly to humanity in its challenges, humour and disappointments. 

A hedge school in Ballybeg may not be a grand political stage but Hinds thinks it serves a larger purpose. ‘Something like Translations possesses that power – the idea of language and people, how things have to change, but at the same time what is lost in that change. People can recognise that is part of our journey through life and death as well. But to recognise the humanity inside I guess is what we’re looking for.’ Seeking to recognise the humanity inside ourselves and others is certainly time at the theatre well spent.

Translations is part of the Travelex season with thousands of tickets available at £15.

Translations | Production Gallery

Translations | Rehearsal Gallery

Nana Amoo-Gottfried in The Comedy of Errors

Shakespeare in a School Hall

 

Jane Ball
Secondary and FE Programme Manager

 

It’s 7.30am on a cold winter's morning and out of a van in a school car park come two rails of costumes, a sound desk and a box marked 'Blood’. In two hours’ time 180 young people will be sitting down in their school hall to watch a production created especially for them; for many of them it will be their first experience of live theatre.
 

The National Theatre has been successfully touring productions of specially adapted Shakespeare plays to primary schools in and around London for many years. Each primary production is an hour long and introduces children in Key Stage 2 to Shakespeare. The adaptations are intentionally fun and interactive and are designed to open up Shakespeare’s stories and language, making them engaging for children. Productions are additionally supported by an in-depth creative learning programme which focuses on developing literacy skills. In recent years, children have enjoyed productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Comedy of Errors and, in spring 2018, over 3,000 children saw a vibrant production of The Winter’s Tale, adapted and directed by Justin Audibert.

‘A stunning show: definitely the best thing I have ever seen for schools and a brilliant way to develop the children’s interest in high-quality literature and theatre.’
Literacy Coordinator, Barlby Primary School 

‘Many of our children do not get the opportunity to experience the wow factor of going to a theatre production. Despite being held in the school hall, the set and the quality of the performance brought the wow factor to them. They were talking about the performance for days!’ 
Teacher, Gallions Mount School
 

Gabby Wong and Nana Amoo-Gottfried in The Winter's Tale

Last year the NT embarked on a tour to secondary schools for the first time in ten years. We had noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult for schools to make trips to the theatre. A combination of curriculum change, exam pressures, timetabling, cover issues and cost were preventing teachers from booking trips. Our response to this was to turn things around and take theatre to them. In the spring of 2017 we took a 90-minute version of Macbeth to schools in London and Kent, bringing the play to life for almost 4,000 students who were studying the text for GCSE English Literature.

The production went on tour again in the autumn, this time going outside London for the first time, to Wakefield, Doncaster and Sunderland. Many of the students who saw this production had never experienced live theatre before. The response to the tour of Macbeth from schools outside London was phenomenal. Across the three areas, over 2,000 students saw the play and 23 teachers took part in professional development workshops. Touring the production outside London formed part of our strategy, supported by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund, to work with local venues to develop audiences in key areas of low arts engagement. Over the next three years, the NT will work in six areas across the country: Doncaster, Greater Manchester (including Salford, Rochdale and Wigan), Hornchurch, Sunderland, Wakefield, and Wolverhampton. Alongside touring productions, the NT will also offer a broad range of educational projects for schools and provide professional development opportunities for hundreds of teachers, ensuring a legacy for the project.

A workshop for teachers

‘Some students have now watched a live performance, that have NEVER been to the theatre before, or engaged with Shakespeare. I personally loved such a fresh, modern and musical version of the play. A fantastic production and a privilege to have it in our school.’
Teacher, Freeston Academy, Wakefield

‘Our students very much enjoyed it. It developed their cultural and social understanding. The actors were incredible role models.’
Teacher, Ridgewood School, Doncaster
 

Following the success of Macbeth, we were keen to find another production to tour to secondary schools, something that would have broad appeal for students. In 2014 the team behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time hatched a plan to create a ‘scratch’ version of the show to be performed in Stratford Town Hall for schools from across Newham. Following a short rehearsal period, a new, lower-tech version of the play was performed for enthralled audiences of young people.

Mark Haddon’s original novel of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation have always been popular with schools and the texts are widely studied by English and drama students. 

Simon Stephens has reworked the play into a 90-minute version. From September, we will be touring this new version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for secondary school students and last year’s successful production of The Winter’s Tale will be performed for primary school audiences again in the spring term. We have worked with education teams in local partner venues to identify schools and students who will benefit most from the experience, for example those with limited resources for theatre visits. 

Schools touring forms a hugely important part of the National Theatre’s Learning programme, allowing us to reach young people who might not otherwise have the opportunity of seeing a live theatre production and encouraging the theatre-makers and theatre audiences of the future.

Schools Touring is supported by:
The Mohn Westlake Foundation, The Garfield Weston Foundation, The Ingram Trust, Archie Sherman Charitable Trust, Behrens Foundation, Cleopatra Trust, The Ernest Cook Trust, Jill and David Leuw, Mulberry Trust, Newcomen Collett Foundation, The Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, St Olave's Foundation Fund, The Topinambour Trust, and The Robert Gavron Charitable Trust.

The Winter's Tale | Rehearsal Gallery

The Winter's Tale | Production Gallery

Come with us...
Help make theatre for everyone
 

At the National Theatre we make world-class theatre that is entertaining, challenging and inspiring. And we make it for everyone.

This year, the highly anticipated Antony & Cleopatra will take you to Egypt via the Olivier Theatre (and to a cinema near you as part of NT Live), and The Winter’s Tale will bring Bohemia to thousands of primary school children in their own classrooms.

Please come with us and help bring two outstanding National Theatre productions to thousands of people of all ages.

Antony & Cleopatra

Directed by Simon Godwin (Twelfth Night, Man and Superman) with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the eponymous lovers, Antony & Cleopatra takes us on a high-powered voyage of devotion and duty to the heat of the Middle East. Shakespeare’s gripping tale of power boasts an exceptionally talented creative team making a show that will undoubtedly be one of the hottest tickets of the year.

The Winter’s Tale

Our production of The Winter’s Tale was created last year for a young audience of 8-12 year olds, together with a creative learning programme for teachers and pupils. We are workshopping the production and mounting the developed version in the Dorfman Theatre in the February half term of 2019. In addition, 9,000 students will see the production in their school, local community or at our Stratford Circus residency, ensuring that young people across Greater London can engage with our work live.

For more information, and to support, click here.
 

We take our role as a national theatre very seriously. We have a responsibility to make theatre accessible for everyone, and help people of all backgrounds access the arts. This means keeping tickets to our in-house shows affordable, with tickets starting at just £15 for every production. It also means taking our work around the UK to share with people unable to access it on the South Bank; in the next year we will tour main-stage work to 27 regional theatres in 25 towns and cities across the UK and Ireland, playing for more than 57 weeks, as well as taking live shows into 80 schools nationwide.

Donations of any amount are greatly appreciated and will make a difference.Thank you for considering supporting this appeal.

Eric Kofi Abrefa and Thalissa Teixeira in rehearsals for Julie

Julie Through the Eyes of a Staff Director

Jessie Anand
Development Events Team

June 2018 saw the opening of Julie, Polly Stenham’s reimagining of the classic Strindberg play, Miss Julie, with Vanessa Kirby in the title role. In the third week of rehearsals staff director Jo Tyabji took time out to discuss her role and how the production was coming together.
 

Jo Tyabji manages to meet in a snatched break from rehearsals; she has been held up by an impromptu meeting after the cast have been released for lunch, all in a day’s work for a staff director. Whilst a vital part of the production team, her role is often mystifying at first to people unfamiliar with this particular practice. Tyabji’s job is to assist and support the director in the main rehearsal period, but then to steward the show once it has opened. She will be rehearsing with the understudies and leading ‘bring-back’ rehearsals, intended to get the main cast back in shape after a break from the show – which, at the NT, can last up to a month.

At this point in the process, director Carrie Cracknell is leading the rehearsal room, but Tyabji is pleased to find that her style of working is very collaborative. ‘Carrie said to the entire company “There is no wrong idea – every idea is welcome!” It doesn’t mean that they’ll all get used, or that the making of the show is a totally democratic process in which you need consensus on any artistic idea before the work can move forward. It’s more that she encourages us to be offering and offering and offering ideas, and then it’s ultimately down to her to edit – but a director like Carrie wants the input of the rest of the team in making those editing decisions.’

‘I really love bringing naturalism and detailed script work into dialogue with more expressive, more abstract forms of performance.’
 

The idea for a reinvention of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, written in 1888, has been with Cracknell for over a year now, Tyabji says. She herself joined the project in October 2017, with a background that was very well suited to the demands of the show. ‘I really love bringing naturalism and detailed script work into dialogue with more expressive, more abstract forms of performance, so that’s ideal for this project.’ Tyabji trained in physical theatre with the Jasmin Vardimon Company, but now tends to use that in conjunction with textual work.

She is interested in community initiatives and the possibilities of bringing theatre to more people through NT Learning. ‘I don’t think it would be possible for me to make work that didn’t feel like it was engaging with wider questions. I don’t think there’s such a thing as apolitical theatre. If you’re deciding to look away from something then that’s a political decision – so again that’s healthy for this job.’ 

Vanessa Kirby with the ensemble in rehearsals

Miss Julie has always been, in some senses, a political play. It takes place on Midsummer’s Eve on the estate of a wealthy landowner, at a party which brings together the landowner’s daughter with the household servants before pulling them apart again in catastrophic ways. Class tensions are at the heart of Strindberg’s play, along with an exploration of female power (or lack thereof). In Polly Stenham’s new version, those issues are intermingled with questions of race. Eric Kofi Abrefa and Thalissa Teixeira play, respectively, Jean and Kristina, the two ‘servant’ characters. It is a real exercise in intersectionality as Tyabji explains, 'The central idea that Carrie and Polly have kept coming back to is the intricacy of gender, race, class and place, and the way those things interlock.’

Carrie Cracknell has been a regular at the NT for a while now, staging major revivals of Medea in the Olivier and The Deep Blue Sea in the Lyttelton. Filling large spaces, therefore, has never been a problem for her. But this production presents a new challenge: how can a (literal) kitchen-sink drama which started life as an intimate three-hander find a comfortable home in the expansive Lyttelton? The immediate answer to that, Tyabji says, is that nothing about this production is meant to be comfortable. They hope to question and provoke; no audience member should feel ‘settled’ whilst watching it. But there is also an ambition to create a sense of scale within Julie. Tom Scutt’s spacious yet sparse set goes some way towards achieving that, whilst also fostering a sense of discomfort. On a psychological level, he has created a profoundly unwelcoming, anti-domestic space, ‘There’s a lot in the fact that Jean doesn’t have anywhere to put his coat in the house, and goes to the car to hang it up’. Ultimately, none of the characters in Julie is able to feel at home in the space – Tyabji is keen to point out the importance of creating a sense of warmth within the rehearsal room to counterbalance that.

Carrie Cracknell and Tom Scutt in rehearsals for Julie

‘I don't think there's such a thing as apolitical theatre.’
 

Perhaps the most revision that has been made for this production is the addition of 19 cast members, made up of dancers, actors and supernumeraries. Tyabji explains, ‘They make up the party, but they are also another expressive tool, either amplifying or acting as a counterpoint to the action that’s going on in the more naturalistic scenes.’ Ultimately, there seems no doubt that Julie will feel important – even epic, perhaps – as a microcosmic exploration of very current issues. ‘It touches on a lot of nerves around the national identity crisis. It’s extraordinary working on a play where someone’s immigration status is a really active thing, in a lived-reality kind of way, then walking outside and seeing that the Home Secretary’s just resigned because of the hostile environment created in Britain.’ Although immigration is never explicitly mentioned in the play, Tyabji feels that an audience will inevitably consider it when thinking about whether it is possible for Jean and Julie to be together.

Julie also feels strikingly timely in the era of #MeToo. With a female-led production team and Strindberg’s play as source material, there was never any doubt that it would shine a light on the oppression of women, but the way in which to do that was very much up for discussion. Cracknell and Stenham have tried to address the issue in a way that exposes, rather than validates, existing power dynamics. The character of Kristina – the staff member who starts the play as Jean’s girlfriend – is
not to be overlooked here either: Tyabji notes that Polly Stenham has chosen to bring her relationship with Julie to the fore in the final moments of the play.

Jo Tyabji came to Julie without prior knowledge of Miss Julie, and hopes that audience members in the same position will find it to be a fresh, vital play for today. ‘There’s something really important about the dynamic between those three [primary characters], containing within it something so explosive and so huge for our time, for how we understand ourselves in London and the UK… It’s exposing things that are really present in all of our everyday lives right now.’ Parting ways – Jo still brimming with ideas about the production – you can’t help but wonder how the production might yet develop as rehearsals progress alongside events in the wider world.

Julie is part of the Travelex season with thousands of tickets available at £15.

Julie | Production gallery

Julie | A new version of 'Miss Julie'

The cast discuss this new production of Strindberg's masterpiece.

More info

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Ben Power in rehearsals for Earthquakes in London

Investigating the Text: Ben Power on The Lehman Trilogy

Cressida Peever
Major Gifts Team

Ben Power is a man of many talents. He has been Deputy Artistic Director at the National Theatre since 2015, he is a respected dramaturg, renowned for his energy and enthusiasm in helping writers to tell their stories, and his adaptation of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy will open in the Lyttelton Theatre in July 2018.

‘I do think before producer or dramaturg or literary manager, I call myself a writer,’ Power says. He has just come from a production meeting and after this conversation he is meeting a writer to discuss a new play, followed by a meeting with one of the NT associates and then a reading of a new play over at the NT’s New Work department.

‘Although I may only write one thing every two or three years for the stage it’s the middle of what I do. It’s what I learn from working on a project like Lehman that allows me to give notes to another writer or help with an adaptation or to note a director in previews. It’s all the same thing – an understanding of story and clarity for an audience, and the intention of the artist being communicated effectively.’ 

And what does that mean in practice? According to Power, the difference between the first draft of a play and the performance draft of a play is not a dramatic shift in ideas. ‘It’s that you work out how to build the vehicle which can most clearly articulate those ideas to the audience.’ 

It’s not the most transparent of job descriptions; something borne out by his route to his current career. ‘I studied English at university but spent all my time acting. I had friends who were great actors and are now famous – Eddie Redmayne, Rebecca Hall, Tom Hiddleston. We did plays together and I thought I’d have an amazing career as a stage and screen actor. But in my final term my girlfriend took me out for dinner and told me that acting wasn’t the career for me. I was really upset and I remember leaving the restaurant. But she was right.’ Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of their partnership, as Power’s straight-talking girlfriend is now his wife.

‘The part of theatre that I enjoyed was being in a rehearsal room and trying to find a way to apply the things I was learning about in my degree – particularly Shakespeare, which was my obsession – and how to make that work in practice with artists in a rehearsal room. So I stopped acting and I started working as an adaptor, writer and dramaturg.’ 

Anne-Marie Duff, Martin Marquez, Tala Gouveia and Josie Walker in Husbands and Sons

Power makes it sound simple: he wanted to do something, and so he did. But in reality, the next few years involved real dedication to his craft, which, combined with his flare and talent, won him the trust of some of the most exciting theatre practitioners working at the time. 

‘Before producer or dramaturg or literary manager, I call myself a writer.’
 

‘I worked really early after I graduated with Simon Godwin [who most recently directed Twelfth Night for the NT, and will be directing Antony & Cleopatra this autumn] and was then based at a theatre in Northampton. We worked together on a couple of shows and it became a great creative friendship. He introduced me to Rupert Gould, [now artistic director at the Almeida] and Rupert and I went on to do five shows at Northampton and set up Headlong together in 2006. 

‘Then I started working not just on my own stuff but on commissioning and developing other people’s. We commissioned ENRON by Lucy Prebble and Earthquakes in London by Mike Bartlett and Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood. I was developing an Ibsen adaptation for the National in 2010 when Nick Hytner asked me to become a full-time associate, commissioning and developing work as well as doing my own writing. That’s how I came to the National.’

Ben Power in rehearsals for Greenland

Flash forward to 2015 and Power is made Deputy Artistic Director, a new role created with the arrival of Rufus Norris as Director of the NT. It was around the same time that the director Sam Mendes approached Power about his idea to bring an Italian play about the Lehman brothers to a UK stage.

‘Sam Mendes had a relationship with the Italian director Luca Ronconi, who made the first production in Italian of The Lehman Trilogy in 2015 at the Piccolo Theatre in Milan. So Sam commissioned a literal translation of the full Italian text and asked me to try and make a play in English out of it. The form of this play is really unusual and interesting. It’s written in a kind of verse. It’s got lots of direct address and has lots of characters talking about themselves in the third person and then moving into dialogue. It does not rhyme, nor is it prose. I think this doesn’t feel like a British play in the way that we might think of a British play of the 20th century. It’s got something more in common with the Greeks. 

‘The literal translation is thorough but not quite speakable and a bit confusing in its images – what works in Italian doesn’t quite work in English. So you want to try and find the image that does work and does translate what he’s doing. Sometimes that means moving quite a long way from the original and creating something new that’s trying to do the same job. That’s what translation is really.’ A mammoth task, evidently, and one that required an equally Herculean approach to finessing the new raw material. ‘The job of the adapter is about understanding what the original writer’s intention is and doing anything you can to render that intention. 

‘This doesn’t feel like...a British play of the 20th century. It’s got something more in common with the Greeks.’
 

‘So it’s not about the letter of the work. In The Lehman Trilogy there’s brilliant language, images and writing in the play which is entirely Massini. But finding the structure and context and approach to that material is what I do. I’ve spent a lot of time with all the different texts laid out – five different versions of the opening four pages –looking at different versions and trying to understand what’s going on.’ 

The shape of the play has undergone some fundamental changes in this process. Ben Power explains, ‘We did a big workshop at the NT Studio about 18 months ago where we tried to work out how the play worked and what the form of it should be. And it was in that workshop that the company went from 20 actors to ten and then a few days later to six. By the end of the week we had the focus on three brothers; then the whole thing in its entirety could be performed by three actors playing the three Lehman brothers.’

The cast and production team of Husbands and Sons

This labour of love has produced a play still laced with significance for an audience today, as it was ten years ago. ‘I had an amazing conversation with one of the bosses of the Lehman European division [when the firm was] at the point of bankruptcy. He explained to me in forensic detail how everything we’re currently living through in  2018 – the rise of populism, the referendum result, the presidential election in USA, Russia and the rest of the world, the disparity in economic reality for people within a lot of countries and its political meaning, the relationship to the tech industry and the political establishment – all of this is borne out of a response to the bankruptcy of Lehman, the rest of the 2008 financial crash and the way in which world governments responded. If people are making certain decisions at the ballot box, whole countries deciding quite radical futures for themselves, they are making those choices because of how it has felt for a decade to be living in response to that.’

He does not mean that to sound quite so bleak. Or, not entirely. ‘It’s a romantic, hopeful story; the idea of America, this immigrant nation, fulfilling its potential and becoming a global superpower is really positive. And within that are the seeds of things that go catastrophically wrong, and that disaster we are living with every day. In doing what Massini does, going back to the beginning of the story and following it, taking in the whole sweep of history from the 1840s to the beginning of this century, you understand where film and TV comes from, how New York was built, and why railroads and automobiles happened in the way they did.’

The Western economic model made flesh through three actors on the Lyttelton stage.

The Lehman Trilogy | Rehearsal gallery

The Lehman Trilogy | Production gallery

Haggerston School perform The Sweetness of a Sting by Chinonyerem Odimba

Connections 2018

We are delighted to celebrate the success of Connections 2018, which culminated in a week-long celebratory festival in the Dorfman Theatre.
 

Over 6,500 young people staged one of ten brand new plays written especially for them by some of the most exciting contemporary playwrights and had the opportunity to  perform in a professional venue. The aim of Connections is not just to inspire the creative workforce of tomorrow, but to open up theatre to everybody growing up in the UK. It's work that's at the heart of our mission - to produce work which is for everyone: diverse, collaborative and which reflects that we are a truly national theatre.

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Antony & Cleopatra | Trailer

Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo

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