Just over two years ago, the theatre director Nick Bagnall discovered, as did many others, that plays and pandemics don’t mix.
His production of Jonathan Harvey’s Our Lady of Blundellsands – his swansong as associate director of Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse – was about to come to a sudden Covid standstill. Plus, he was just two days into rehearsals on David Harrower’s Blackbird when that too was cancelled. Its cast and company, the Southport-based Roots Theatre, never even enjoyed the pleasure of a first night.
“We just stopped,” recalls Bagnall. “Everything stopped.”
Since the spotlights were extinguished in March 2020, we’ve all changed. Our perspectives have shifted and our priorities have shuffled around. Unsurprisingly, Bagnall is no exception.
“Lockdown was an interesting reflective period after going freelance again,” he admits. “I started to think about the ‘essence’ of what I do. I’ve never done anything else apart from be involved in theatre, and I was just trying to work out what it is that I enjoy – because if I’m honest, I was starting to not enjoy it very much.”
But when it came to reawakening that abandoned production of Blackbird ready for its upcoming life at Liverpool’s Royal Court Studio (July 13-16), Bagnall realised there was a way to reinvigorate his professional passion.
“We had to recast it because Paul Duckworth, our male lead, was no longer available. I hadn’t acted for about 13 years, but I looked at the part and read it out loud to myself, and it really intrigued me. I thought, if I’m going to do anything, I may as well throw myself into something incredibly dangerous, something capable of exciting me in a way that I suppose I haven’t felt for a while.”
So did he get the part?
“Yeah, I’m acting in it,” laughs Bagnall. “After saying for 13 or 14 years that I wouldn’t act again, it’s bonkers.”
So what kind of challenge does Blackbird present to Bagnall and the rest of the company, which includes Roots Theatre’s artistic director Bex Culshaw and Coronation Street star, Harriet Bibby? As a play which focuses on an encounter between a man of 55 and a woman of 27 – who was just 12 when their relationship began – it can’t be an easy ride for either the cast or their audiences.
“I think it’s really problematic as a play,” says Bagnall, “but I mean that in a positive sense. It’s fascinating how you can create tension when one of the characters is really horrible, but when you’re into the meat and potatoes of the rehearsal room, you have to play each moment for its own truth. It’s a beautiful piece of language, and there’s the subtext within it – 95 per cent of what’s being said is never really said. Moment by moment, it’s a really intriguing play.”
Originally written in 2005, and having enjoyed runs starring heavyweights including Roger Allam, Jodhi May, Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, much has happened in the field of sexual politics and relationships since Blackbird first took flight. There is a new context for what was already an award-winning play, and today’s audiences may experience it even more viscerally than before.
For Culshaw, there’s an urgency to Blackbird that makes it a must-see event. “The power dynamics, the way it’s written and the fact that it’s a single scene – they’ll keep people gripped from start to finish,” she explains. “An unfortunate number of women will relate to this story in some way, so it’s crucial to me that we tell it. It’s important that women feel heard and seen.”
Talking to Bagnall, it’s obvious that he feels gratitude towards Culshaw and Roots Theatre for giving him this revitalising opportunity. He’d already made many of the key creative decisions back in 2020 so will still be co-directing this revived production alongside Sasha Georgette, and his gutsy theatrical style has been popular with Everyman audiences over the past few years. But Blackbird is a chance for him to reconnect with his theatrical past, and for audiences to see him in a whole new light.
Although he admits to feeling “terrified”, Bagnall is far from a nervous newcomer when it comes to treading the boards. Asked about his last professional acting role, he recalls a production at Newcastle’s Live Theatre in 2008 before remembering that he also stepped up to replace an injured actor during his production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse a few years back. Hardly am-dram heroics at his local church hall, it turns out.
It seems that both Blackbird and Bagnall’s Liverpool reputation are in safe theatrical hands.
Main image: Nick Bagnall
Blackbird is at Liverpool’s Royal Court Studio July 13-16, 2022. Book online here: https://liverpoolsroyalcourt.com/whats-on/blackbird/