Welcome return of Sheffield’s writer’s season

Niamh Cusack and  'Sean Gallagher rehearse for Afterplay
Niamh Cusack and 'Sean Gallagher rehearse for Afterplay
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The season celebrating the work of a single, major writer returns to Sheffield Theatres this spring. Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad reports on the Brian Friel season.

When he arrived to take charge of Sheffield Theatres – the biggest complex of theatres in the country bar the National – Daniel Evans had what he might have called at the job interview “problems and opportunities”.

One of the problems – for Evans if not the rest of us – is that he followed one of the most successful directors British theatre had ever produced. While Sam West ran the place in between the tenures of Michael Grandage and Evans, truth was it was still really thought of as the theatre that Grandage built.

Evans was able to tackle the problem of filling such extraordinarily successful and large shoes with an opportunity – to turn Sheffield Theatres into the sort of place, or places (the complex includes Sheffield Lyceum, Crucible and Studio), that had something for everyone.

Now, that platitude might be trotted out from theme parks to indoor markets, but Evans appears to have actually cracked the formula and genuinely does fill his theatres with work that can appeal to all audiences. His Christmas shows provide brilliant entertainment for the whole family, evidenced by the recently finished uber-success Oliver!

His studio shows draw those who like their theatre to exists on the fringes – witness the recent show by Third Angel, a Sheffield theatre company that might not still be around were it not for the support of Sheffield Theatres.

The Crucible is being used to the best of its vast potential on almost every show.

One of the things missing from the perfectly crafted theatrical menu last year was an intriguing and brilliant notion Evans introduced early in his tenure as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres.

The writer’s season, a period where a single writer is presented to audiences with real depth, was introduced by Evans in his second season at the theatre. The first writer to enjoy such attention was David Hare in early 2011. Highlights included Hare himself reading from an essay to a packed studio. Three of his plays were supplemented by lunchtime readings and all manner of other works. In 2012 another British theatrical great, Michael Frayn, was the writer flattered by the attentions of a single season in Sheffield.

What was so impressive about these first two seasons was that the writers were not obvious choices – until they had been made. Once they were announced, the idea that it could be anyone else being celebrated seemed unfathomable.

When the season for 2013 was announced there was a hugely conspicuous absence – the spring would not herald a third writer’s season.

The issue was that the programmes, while enjoyed enthusiastically by those who supported them, did not financially match the success of something like the big Christmas show. Evans took the decision to not have a season dedicated to a single writer in 2013, he admitted at the time, for financial reasons.

Great news then for fans of serious theatre, the season is back. Opening next week, the Writer’s Season sees a very welcome return for the event that runs throughout February and into March and this year celebrates Irish playwright Brian Friel.

Evans is in confident mood – and well he might be. Sheffield Theatres was named The Stage’s Regional Theatre of the Year, with good reason, towards the end of last year and he is aware that in choosing to celebrate Friel, he’s done it again – decided on a writer that is a surprise to see celebrated in Sheffield and yet the more you consider it, the more you realise it is entirely obvious.

Evans says he is delighted to return to the Writer’s Season, particularly as it is “dedicated to the work of a true poet of the theatre, Brian Friel”.

Opening on Monday and running until March 8, the Friel Season will feature Afterplay, Translations and Wonderful Tennesse.

Highly regarded Irish director Roisin McBrinn will launch the season with Niamh Cusack and Sean Gallagher in the cast of Afterplay.

The play takes two of Chekhov’s characters – Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from The Three Sisters – and puts them together in a new play 20 years after Chekhov had finished with them.

“Friel’s translations of Chekhov are absolutely exceptional. Frayn I think is the only other writer in the English language who comes close to his translations in the way they are able to reflect human life,” says McBrinn.

“I wonder if, once he had done with his translations he just couldn’t let them rest. I’m fascinated by the idea that 20 years later, these characters were still with him and he wrote about them with the greater insight and empathy that he must have had for being an older writer. He said the job of being a translator was not that of a father or foster parent, but of being like a godparent.”

As an Irish director, you have to wonder if McBrinn is particularly pleased that this Titan of Irish theatre is being celebrated in Sheffield. She feels to label Friel as such is to do him something of a disservice.

“Friel is bigger than Ireland. He’s an international figure. I think of him very much as being a leading light far beyond Ireland as a leading playwright,” she says.

“They say that great art comes out of turmoil and Friel was handed the baton to write about the specific landscape by writers like O’Casey.

“But the truth is, genius is genius. I don’t use the word lightly, but working on the play, it is very clear that’s what he is.”

McBrinn’s introduction to Sheffield Theatres came via a working relationship with Michael Grandage when she worked at the other theatre he ran, the Donmar in London.

“I saw two of the Hare season that Daniel programmed and they were great. I think as soon as you see the work of a single playwright in a season, there is something about seeing the body of work that is genuinely great and gives you a real insight into the man.”