The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new season features sequins and a lot more besides. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
Given that the West Yorkshire Playhouse had already announced the big Christmas production of 2016, would the launch of the new season be something of a damp squib?
We already knew the folk at the Playhouse had convinced Hollywood director Baz Luhrmann to allow the Leeds theatre to stage the UK premiere of his mega hit Strictly Ballroom.
The big news was out – could they top that? Well, Strictly Ballroom remains perhaps the biggest show in the theatre’s coming autumn and winter season, but of course it does: it’s one of the biggest shows the region will see all year. The Playhouse has also, however, managed to get plenty of other interesting and impressive shows into its programme, not least of which is a revival of Anthony Shaffer’s brilliant play Sleuth.
Directed by Giles Croft, the man who runs Nottingham Playhouse, the venue which is making the play in partnership with the Leeds theatre, it is proper, grown up theatre. At the launch of the season Croft spoke about the various iterations of the story. Sleuth tells the story of a successful writer who lures his wife’s much younger lover to his country house and plots a series of psychological games.
It began life as a play by Shaffer in 1970 then two years later the playwright adapted the script as a film, released in 1972 and starring Laurence Olivier as the older writer and Michael Caine as his wife’s young lover. Fascinatingly, the film was remade in 2007 with Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair and Michael Caine playing the writer, with Jude Law taking on the role of young lothario.
Croft revealed at the Playhouse season launch he has never been overly impressed by either of the movies and suggested that if audiences want to experience Sleuth as the writer hoped – they should see it on stage.
I’ll be there – it feels like this is the sort of play that has been missing from the region’s big stages in recent years: The Caretaker at Sheffield’s Crucible was a perfect example of the kind of work that our stages are built to present and that was a decade ago. This, I suspect, will be a return to that kind of form.
Some argue that the work we have on our stages should be rooted in Yorkshire, but I think that this kind of programming allows us to see high class theatre that endures because it is quality and there is room for both.
Besides, the Playhouse has also, intelligently, programmed a whole season of work that couldn’t be more Yorkshire if it was a flat cap in the shape of a Yorkshire Pudding.
The Brontë Season is being presented in partnership with the Brontë Parsonage Museum. A month of performances inspired by the Brontës, presented in the bicentenary year of Charlotte’s birth, the season opens with an interesting take on Villette. Linda Marshall-Griffiths has reimagined the ground-breaking novel by Charlotte but stayed very true to the spirit, setting the story in a strange future.
Brilliant Yorkshire writer Emma Adams has created an immersive audio drama called Tiny Shoes which will be presented as part of the season and there will be an exclusive work-in-progress sharing of Wasted, a musical that tells the story of Anne, Branwell, Charlotte and Emily who are “nobodies from nowhere with something to say”.
At the season launch there was a preview of some of the music that will be performed at the work-in-progress in October and it is fair to say the Brontes are not being treated with an overly respectful reverence – only a good thing. There will also be a series of panel events and discussions presented as part of the season.
James Brining, the man in charge of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, says: “Working in partnership with the Brontë Parsonage Museum on the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth, the Bronte season invites artists to create contemporary responses to their body of work as we interrogate the impact of this extraordinary family who are so integral to Yorkshire’s heritage. Stories of local significance are hugely important to our programming.”
While this season is of course about the work being put on the stage at the Playhouse, there is also one eye on the future. Within a couple of years Leeds should, all being well, be able to experience a very different theatre where the Playhouse currently stands. Plans are still in the early stages but with a fair wind within two years the Playhouse will have undergone an almost total transformation.
In order that the newly redesigned and redeveloped theatre has work to put on its stage, the Playhouse is also concentrating this year on building an audience for a more ‘studio’ type of work. Brining says: “Creating a new studio space is a part of the ambitious plans to transform the Playhouse and we’re expanding our artist development programme Furnace in preparation for that. Building on our commitment to developing and championing new work by our most distinctive local voices, we’ll be temporarily creating a pop-up studio in our rehearsal room to bring together our artistic community and audiences, premiere performances, share ideas and spark collaboration.”
The backbone of this kind of work is Furnace, which runs at the theatre from September 27 to October 8 and includes scratch nights, works in progress, script in hand, talks and events. All in all it feel like one of the most eclectic seasons the Playhouse has staged in a while. It really is heading in a very interesting direction.