New season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new season has a global theme. Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad discusses some of the highlights with artistic director James Brining.

A scene from Maxine Peakes play Beryl. Picture: Keith Pattison
A scene from Maxine Peakes play Beryl. Picture: Keith Pattison

James Brining is a man of his word. When he arrived at the West Yorkshire Playhouse two and a half years ago, he said he wanted to inject something of the essence of Leeds into the theatre.

Plays by Alice Nutter, set in Armley and a whole season of the work of Alan Bennett followed. He wanted to make the Playhouse more “porous”, to see the city’s – and the region’s – artists using the building much more. A whole host of artists have started going through the doors of the building.

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He also told me at the time that the Leeds outlook was the start of something. The theatre wasn’t going to suddenly become introspective and navel gazing – it would begin looking close to home, but it would then start to widen its views in concentric circles beginning at the theatre on top of the hill in Leeds and spreading out.

That journey continues with Brining’s just-announced latest season.

“As we were pulling together this season two themes emerged and the strongest one was the idea of a big, global perspective,” says Brining. “We’re bringing to Leeds, next season, plays and stories from around the world. I think it’s come from the politics of the time we are living in. At the minute there seems to be a real emphasis on Britain and its identity and who belongs here. Well, Leeds is a diverse city with people, and therefore stories, from all over the world. That has inspired us to tell some of the stories we are putting on our stages in this season.”

That global perspective includes a tale of a Northern town, a story of the American West, one of Russia’s greatest plays and a piece of work that has a fusion of two separate but connected cultures.

Zodwa Nyoni is a Zimbabwe-born Leeds playwright, whose first full length play is being produced in the Spring season in the courtyard. Boi Boi is Dead will be at the theatre in February.

“It’s an exciting thing for us, having worked with Zodwa a litte bit, to be staging her first full show. It’s a play we’re staging in the Courtyard written by a young woman from Leeds and Africa – that’s a really exciting prospect and encapsulates that idea of having a perspective that is global, but also rooted in Leeds,” says Brining.

The biggest show of the coming season, I expect to be The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. The Jim Cartwright-written play made a star of Jane Horrocks and has been successfully restaged over the years. It does seem a surprisingly mainstream choice? “You have to look at everything else we’re doing and balance the whole thing,” says Brining. “I am aware that Little Voice isn’t radical programming but if everything I did was radical programming, I wouldn’t have an audience. Plus, this play for me has a huge amount happening in it. It’s about the effect of poverty and the relationship between a parent and a child. The mother is seen as a monster, but she has this amazing speech towards the end of the play and you realise she’s not a monster, she’s Clytemnestra, she’s Boadicea.

“It’s set in a Northern, multi-cultural, quite fractured town. It’s about identity and that’s something I am really interested in exploring.”

The other flagship show of the coming season is a new version of Uncle Vanya, which will be directed by Brining’s associate Mark Rosenblatt. It’s another big title. “It’s a great, classic play, but that doesn’t mean it’s all samovars. Directors have started doing Chekhov and Ibsen in a way that doesn’t treat them like period plays with French windows. I think once you start doing that, you realise that they are looking at some really big themes. In Uncle Vanya there is a real sense of being in the country and life passing you by, so you don’t tell the person you love that you love them and how you live like that. It’s full of these big emotional arcs.”

A new play represents a lot of the other things Brining is determined to tackle at his theatre. Little Sure Shot is a telling of the story of Annie Oakley, the woman whose story inspired Annie Get Your Gun. The play, once it has been at the theatre, will tour out to communities across Leeds, including Armley, Gipton, Seacroft and Middleton. “We did that with the Talking Heads this year and it’s really important to build those relationships all around the city. It’s important for us to go to into the city where we don’t traditionally draw an audience from. To be a theatre that is truly for the people, you have to be front-footed and actually go to these places.”

There is a second, important theme that has emerged from Brining’s latest season, but it’s one that he is actually reluctant to shine a light on too brightly. “I don’t want to make it a big thing, but we have committed to rebalancing the work we stage in terms of gender,” says Brining. “Through a theatre programme called Tonic, which is about trying to address the gender imbalance in theatre, we’ve committed to employing more creators who are women. When you have two men running the theatre, it means we have to actively look at having women involved creatively in most of the other shows and it’s too easy to say well there aren’t enough good parts for women or there are not enough good stories with women as the protagonists, but that means we have to do something about it.”

To that end the season includes a number of women-written or directed shows, including an adaptation of Anna Karenina (there’s that global theme again) by a transgender writer called 
Jo Clifford and a new play by Eve Ensler, the woman behind the phenomenon of The Vagina Monologues.

He said he hoped to keep building on early success. Brining is definitely a man of his word.

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