The last time I saw James Brining he was rehearsing a scene involving a hot air balloon in the vast Quarry theatre at Leeds Playhouse. Inside the balloon was a wizard (although it turns he wasn’t actually a wizard, as the good folk of Oz found out).
Brining was at the helm of the Leeds Playhouse Christmas show and to call it a big one would be to wildly undersell the scale of the thing. The cast included a real-life dog, a whole collection of children and a technical crew of several dozen.
I’m back in a Brining rehearsal room and it’s a little different to last time. Today there are six people in the room, seven if you include me. It’s such a different scale to the last project, you wonder if it makes Brining’s head spin. “It’s nice to be in a room doing really forensic script work, I really feel like I’m actually directing again,” says Brining.
To be fair to him, Brining did do some ‘proper’ directing when I spent the afternoon watching him in The Wizard of Oz rehearsals: he and the actor playing the Wizard spent some time analysing the text while he was carried away in the balloon. It is, however, with a small-scale piece of work like this where Brining really flexes his directorial muscles.
"My father lost everything because he was Jewish" - a West Yorkshire family's Holocaust horror story
The play he’s working on now is Dr Korczak’s Example and Brining describes it as a piece that is ‘very close to his heart’ – a sentiment to which we will return. A three-hander by David Greig, it is set in the shadows of the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and its run at the Playhouse is timed to include Holocaust Memorial Day.
A children’s orphanage is the setting and the play highlights the work of Polish educator and children’s author Dr Janusz Korczak, who championed the voices of young people and whose influence led to the creation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.
In the rehearsal room seasoned Leeds actor Robert Pickavance, who starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Playhouse’s pop-up season’s A Christmas Carol, watches two young actors grapple with the text. Pickavance, a well-liked actor, brings a sense of calm experience with him. The actors on stage, Danny Sykes making his first professional stage appearance and Gemma Barnett, more experienced but as fresh-faced as Sykes, bring a youthful exuberance.
“You’ve joined us at a really quite intimate moment,” says Brining as I put myself out of the way in the corner of the rehearsal room.
The only other people in the room are a movement director and a stage manager. Fortunately Brining runs a relaxed rehearsal room so I don’t feel too much like an interloper. Sykes and Barnett rehearse the scene in which they share a small dance and discuss their feelings.
The cultural growth of Leeds isn’t just a moment, it’s a movement - Nick Ahad
The scene lasts all of four minutes, but the discussion of each line, a particular word and how it should be emphasised, what it means, lasts for at least 20. It’s not the kind of detailed work you get to do when you’re directing a cast of dozens on a huge musical like The Wizard of Oz. It’s easy to see why the director feels like he’s getting back to his real purpose in this room. When the actors break for lunch, Brining heads to a senior management team meeting of the Leeds Playhouse; such are the demands of an artistic director of a building.
As I walk with Brining to the meeting (I’m not attending, it’s just that the walk from the rehearsal room to the management offices is one of the few spare moments he has to talk) the director speaks with real feeling about Dr Korczak’s Example.
“It’s really dear to me because I actually commissioned it when I was at TAG (the Glasgow youth theatre) almost 20 years ago. It’s a play written for young people and the first performance was on September 11, 2001. I remember watching the planes hit the twin towers as we were about to premiere the play that afternoon.
“I was thinking about how this play that we had made was about the kind of world we are creating for our children and it felt like it was something really important and resonant to be saying as that was happening,” says Brining.
He first came to the idea of staging the play at Leeds Playhouse when he was asked to do some work with the theatre’s youth group last year. “I was asked to go in and do a reading and I was looking at possible plays to take to them. This was the perfect one because it’s written for young people, but the problem of course is that you need an older person to play Dr Korczak. I ended up reading the part with our youth group and I could barely get to the end of the script I was so choked up and emotional.”
The Wizard of Oz at Leeds Playhouse: A stunning five-star show, says Nick Ahad
Clearly the director wanted the play to have a further life. And since its refurbishment, Leeds Playhouse also now has the perfect space for such intimate, intense work in the Bramall Rock Void. Built into a void beneath the building, Charley Miles’s There Are No Beginnings opened the new theatre space last year, showing that this venue is perfect for intense work like Dr Korczak’s Example.
“I read a report last year which said the number of people who think the Holocaust was exaggerated or even that it didn’t happen is increasing. It’s such a horrifying thought. It’s vitally important that we tell stories like this so that we can combat that kind of thinking,” says Brining.
The Wizard of Oz, of course, is a story with much to teach us, but watching Dr Korczak’s Example, and seeing the director flip between the two wildly different shows, is a perfect example of how theatre can tell us much about the world in such different ways and contexts.
Dr Korczak’s Example, is at the Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse, January 25 to February 15.
Tickets and details leedsplayhouse.org.uk or call the box office on 0113 2137700.