James Brining rubs his head and asks: “Remember how dark my hair was when you first interviewed me for The Yorkshire Post?” I do. It was February 2012 and Brining had just landed one of the plum jobs in British theatre, leading a place that had the potential to once again become the “National Theatre of the North”. He also had significantly less grey hair than he does today when we catch up in Rehearsal Room One, deep underneath the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
It’s from here that he is taking on the biggest challenge of his career, directing Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It’s a very big project and marks the first time that the Leeds theatre and Opera North have combined their creative and commercial power. An unprecedented step, it’s a risk for both companies, but one that might pay dividends – if the man at the helm of the vast ship that is this production can hang on to his sanity.
Right now he is tackling the job of getting a cast of dozens to work as a single well-oiled machine.
It’s interesting to watch Brining at work. The company is rehearsing a scene where a giant wants to eat one of the cast members (Into the Woods is pretty dark). First Brining marshals the troops, literally helping the cast walk through where they need to be in the scene. The logistics nailed down, he then turns his attention to the psychology of each of the characters in the scene – why they are moving around the space, what motivates them to take a step here or a move there. It’s an intense and complex layering and, Brining hopes, it will all come together when the production hits the stage on June 2 for a three-week run.
He comes back over to the corner where I have been ensconced to watch the rehearsals. “My next production is going to be a two-hander. With no set,” says Brining. At least his sense of humour is still intact.
Time called on rehearsals, in the Playhouse cafe over lunch, Brining is his usual, honest self. It’s been a feature of his tenure so far as the theatre’s supremo – he’s not the sort to mince his words. In a world where the PR machine spins fast and hard, Brining has always provided a refreshing honesty.
“It’s bloody hard work,” he admits. “It’s insane. It’s been insane for a year. In the last 12 months I’ve directed The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, then straight on to Sweeney Todd which I rehearsed in Cardiff [with the Welsh National Opera]. Then I came back and did Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for Christmas at the Playhouse and I haven’t really stopped rehearsing that, because I did it here, then I had to re-rehearse if for the national tour when the cast changed and Jason Manford came in. I was there for two days this week, just looking after it on tour, and now I’m into this. That’s four big, big shows in a calendar year.
“Oh yes, and we’re currently putting on Sweeney Todd in Brussels. I literally can’t be in two places at once, so I’ve got a staff director on that at the minute and I’ll go out for the last four or five days.”
It’s easy to see why the hair is a little more grey these days.
“This last 12 months has been the most intense directing year of my life and I’ve really enjoyed it, but when you’re responsible for running a building as well, it’s stimulating and a privilege but it does make life incredibly busy.
“I think I need to back off the directing a little bit over the next period. I’m not going to direct anything for the rest of this year.”
He says that, but we’ll see. Brining is the kind of man who likes to keep himself occupied
Staging something as epic as Into the Woods is the kind of challenge that requires a lot of energy. The 1986 Broadway musical takes the characters from fairytales including Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel and weaves them together in an original story. If it sounds like the kind of thing that you might expect from movie studio Pixar, think again.
“Is it for kids? Nah!” says Brining. “I’ve put kids in it, but I’d say it’s for 12-years-plus. It’s about being a child and being a parent – one of the most communal experiences we all have. It’s also dark and complex, I actually think it’s about the nature of evil, it’s about proper stuff. That’s what I’m trying to find in the piece. The tone of the piece can be quite sophisticated and knowing, almost fey, but I’m trying to find the darker parts of the story. The audience will decide whether or not I achieve it.”
That’s what was happening in the rehearsal room. The passage I watched demonstrated the psychological aspects that Brining is searching for. Once the actors had plotted the movements, he then spent a good 15 minutes speaking to each of them about why a giant baby wanting to eat one of them has to have a deeper and darker resonance than something slight in a fairy story.
“The challenge is to take it beyond crowd control. When you see the scene in the theatre, there will be an atmosphere and the story will be taking you to some dark places and that is something we painstakingly build in the rehearsal room with all those little decisions we make,” says Brining.
The director is approaching the project as he does any other production, from Little Voice to Sweeney Todd, but he knows there is a wider significance to Into the Woods as Leeds’s two major cultural players combine forces.
“Opera North are doing the Ring Cycle and there’s something like nine notes for women in the whole nine hours, so the company were looking for a project to do,” says Brining. “They were talking about making Into the Woods and bringing it to our theatre and I said straight away that it’s a show I’d always wanted to direct at some point in my career.
“Realistically it’s quite a punishing show for a theatre company to stage because of the cost of the resources, the fact that it’s such a big show.
“They wanted to make it, I wanted to direct, we could combine our resources: it ended up being a pretty easy conversation.”
An easy conversation, but a difficult task. Lunch is almost over and Brining has to get back to his complex layering. He has a final message. “I think it’s really good for the city. We’re the UK’s third biggest city and we have a reputation for cultural quality, something like this is an important part of sustaining that. If by working together we can achieve something that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to achieve then the value we represent to the city is increased. It’s as simple as that.”
Into the Woods will open at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on June 2 and runs until June 25; www.wyp.org.uk, box office 0113 213 7700.