Keeping the faith both on stage and off

After a run of successful shows, Sheffield Theatres artistic director Daniel Evans is ready for a break. He talks to Arts Correspondent Nick Ahad about the new autumn season.

Daniel Evans, far right, during rehearsals for This Is My Family earlier this year.
Daniel Evans, far right, during rehearsals for This Is My Family earlier this year.

Shakespeare’s “problem plays” – the ones that escape easy categorisation are hardly packed full of quotes, but one of them does feature a quote that is not only famous, but seems particularly apt now.

It is the final scene of The Winter’s Tale and the handmaiden Paulina is about to reveal magic. Before she does so, she tells the audience “it is required you do awake your faith”.

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“If ever that line was appropriate, it is now,” says Daniel Evans, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, who hopes audiences will continue to have faith in the venues he runs.

Evans is a passionate advocate of the need for public funding for the arts and is leading his theatre through some of the choppiest waters the arts world has ever seen in Britain. He has been at the helm of Sheffield theatres for four years and when we meet is about to take “a week off – a whole week – I’m even switching my phone off”. 
The gleam in Evans’ eyes reveal it’s likely to be the first time the phone has been off since he landed what he called “the best job in regional theatre”.

Four years on, is he glad he took the job?

“I am tired, ready for a holiday,” he admits.

Little wonder. He recently returned from a seven week training stint at the Royal Opera House. He wanted to work with another organisation and see how it worked, so that he could bring back good practice to the Sheffield theatres he runs – the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum. Spending the time away was all part of a Clore leadership programme Evans has been following, to improve his own leadership skills.

“I’d been here for three years and had never had a day’s training – but how do you train someone to run a building like this? I felt there were things I wanted to do to learn and become better, take myself away and get some more knowledge and practice.

“Getting to see an organisation like the Royal Opera House was really interesting and to see what I could bring back here was very informative.”

It’s fair to say that, four years into the job, Evans has not got bored. There are always new challenges, he says, and there has never been a more challenging time than right now.

“I think, if I’m being really honest, I’d have to say that it’s pretty grim right now,” he says.

“We’re in the third consecutive round of cuts, a third round of redundancies. The easy answer would be for us to do less work, but we refuse to do that and we won’t take this lying down.

“It would be easy for us to bring back My Fair Lady and The Full Monty (two major hits of the last year), but why would we do that?”.

The answer, from the outside, seems pretty simple – they would make lots of money for the theatre.

“True, but it’s not just about selling tickets. We have to keep moving forward, we have to have faith that our audiences don’t just want the easy option and we have to keep trusting that they want us to put on interesting work.”

That interesting work continues in October with one of the “problem plays” of The Bard. Evans doesn’t understand why people have any issue with The Winter’s Tale.

“Its actually one of my favourite plays – it’s Shakespeare at his most experimental and I also think this is the apotheosis of his exploration of the themes of forgiveness and redemption.”

In recent years the Crucible has played host to big Shakespeare tragedies – Hamlet with John Simm, Othello with Dominic West and Macbeth with Geoffrey Streatfield. While autumn 2013 will not bring another tragedy to the stage, it will bring Daniel Lapaine, known from the hit movie Muriel’s Wedding, as Leontes.

The Shakespeare makes up a season for Sheffield that includes two “major classical revivals” and two new plays. The first of the new plays opens the autumn season and is unusual in that it is a collaboration with a festival – the first time the theatre has worked with such an organisation.

“We’re collaborating for the first time ever with HighTide festival, on a production of Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards,” says Evans.

“It’s a really brilliant story about a Cambridge graduate who becomes obsessed with a homeless man. It’s all about how well we can know another person and about the nature of obsession, it’s a really brilliant new play.”

Richard Wilson, known to TV audiences as Victor Meldrew, but known in theatre circles as one of the best directors of new plays in the country, will be directing a play by actor Robin Hooper called Love Your Soldiers. Split between Afghanistan and Britain, it is about two soldiers serving abroad and the girlfriend one of them has left behind.

Evans says that Hooper, who is in his sixties, bucks a trend in new writing in theatre.

“We’re always talking about the Bright Young Things when it comes to new writing in theatre – but what about the older bright things? This is a really brilliant new play by an actor and writer in mid-career – and it is as important to support those voices as any other in contemporary theatre.”

Last Christmas 40,000 people visited the Crucible to see one of the biggest hits the theatre has staged in years, My Fair Lady playing to almost 100 per cent capacity every night. Evans is not going to try and repeat that success. He’s going to try and beat it.

“The thing about that show, at Christmas, was seeing all these families in the theatre and just a huge amount of joy,” says Evans.

“Oliver! is another show that we think is perfect for Christmas time and I think – I hope – we will find something similar with this as a piece. The music is amazing, we have 60 local young people 
in the show. I think it’s going to be quite something.”

There’s plenty to have 
faith in.

Highlights of autumn season

Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards: Written by BAFTA award-winning playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne (Skins and This Is England ‘86). September 11-28.

The Winter’s Tale: Starring Daniel Lapaine and directed by Paul Miller, who directed The Daughter-in-Law at the Crucible earlier this year and John Simm in Hamlet. October 2- November 2.

Love Your Soldiers: World premiere by Robin Hooper in the Studio theatre. October 31-November 23.

Oliver!: Lionel Bart’s musical features British actor Phil Davis as Fagin.

Tickets/Details: 0114 2496000.