Shortly after moving back to his home town of Leeds from Dundee, where he’d been a very successful artistic director of Dundee Rep, James Brining told Northern Soul that “Leeds is a really brilliant city. And it feels like quite a different city from when I left. I feel like its finest hour is waiting to come. It’s changing in a rapid way. It’s hard to be completely objective about it. A lot of things are poised to make this place really, really exciting.”
In the couple of years since Brining took over the reins of the West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP), part of what’s been really, really exciting is the work at the theatre, including an award-winning version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and an enormously popular stage version of Maxine Peake’s “love story on two wheels” Beryl.
Does he feel as if, at least in the world of theatre, there’s recently been a significant power shift away from London?
“I can only speak for myself,” he says after gathering his thoughts. “But I want to work in a place where the theatre can genuinely connect with people and all different kinds of people. In a city that’s absolutely huge, like London for instance, it’s harder to do that so you tend to become a theatre that serves a particular group of the community. Whereas a place like Leeds is a sizeable city but still compact enough to be able to genuinely build a relationship with audiences, with the local community, and with artists. That’s the kind of theatre that I want to run.
“I don’t want to go to London to work, although I’ve nothing against it. This is a rich enough pool and a fertile enough environment to draw all the stories we need, not just from here but stories from elsewhere being told here. This is where I want to be and where I’m happy to be. It’s a real privilege to be here running this fantastic theatre.
“The ambition we have for the work we make shouldn’t be limited by the geography of where you are,” he contends. “You can make huge shows, or you can make tiny shows, and sometimes the smaller shows are the hardest and most challenging. Scale doesn’t necessarily denote quality or importance. I think what’s brilliant about this theatre in this city is that we work here across a range of scale and that’s what makes it exciting for me. I’m just as passionate about hearing Amy Leach talk about our Christmas family show Night Before Christmas as I am hearing from the company Common Wealth from Bradford about their site-specific show The Deal Versus The People or hearing Reece Dinsdale talk about playing Richard III. They are three hugely different pieces of work and the challenge for the Playhouse is to be able to contain all of that and not become diluted.
“It’s about relationships and about building those relationships. Somebody like Headlong, I really respect their work, what they stand for and how they approach stories. So I wanted to bring their aesthetic to WYP.”
Which, happily, is just what’s happening with a Headlong co-production, along with the equally-resurgent Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Opening in Leeds on September 12, 2015 before transferring to Liverpool and then touring, the cast will feature Greta Scacchi in the iconic role of Amanda Wingfield and is directed by Ellen McDougall.
Award-winning actor Reece Dinsdale continues his creative relationship with associate director Mark Rosenblatt, which began with Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, as they explore one of history’s most controversial figures in Shakespeare’s Richard III from September 25, 2015. A dark and sinister exploration of one man’s desire for ultimate power, and the terrible crimes committed to achieve it, Dinsdale says, “this production asks how far can you go before your conscience gets in the way?”
On a lighter note, the theatre’s biggest-ever Christmas show hits the stage in December. Directed by Brining himself, it’s a brand-new production of the much-loved Sherman Brothers musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. After opening in Leeds from December 2, 2015 and running until January 30, 2016, the show will tour the UK and Ireland throughout 2016 and into 2017
At the same time, Darwen-born director Amy Leach returns following the marvellous Little Sure Shot to direct Robert Alan Evans’ tale of friendship and elves, The Night Before Christmas, running November 20, 2015 to January 2, 2016
Meanwhile, following its success at the Playhouse in 2014 and just a few weeks ago, Maxine Peake’s Beryl will be touring the UK, visiting theatres such as Birmingham Rep and The Lowry as well as community venues throughout the North on the rural touring circuit.
Later this month, the Playhouse hits the Edinburgh Fringe with Blake Remixed, joining forces with Leeds-based producers Little Mighty and world-record-breaking artist Testament to slam together his love of hip-hop with his passion for the poetry of William Blake. That show is also touring later this autumn, while award-winning Common Wealth have created the immersive and site-specific show The Deal Versus The People, which transforms Bradford’s Town Hall Council Chambers before touring to the European Parliament in Brussels.
In October and November, as part of Welsh National Opera’s 70th anniversary season, Brining recreates his award-winning Sweeney Todd with an outstanding line up of world-class performers and internationally acclaimed musicians. The Playhouse and Opera North have also announced their co-production of Sondheim’s fantastical fairy tale Into The Woods for 2016.
“The programme we’ve put together and the people who are making the work you could never describe as boring or bland or beige,” Brining laughingly asserts.
“It is quite an eclectic process choosing collaborators, but it’s always about relationships, not about cherry-picking. It’s having a conversation with artists or producers that enables them to make work that feels right for them and for us. Even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for instance, has come about because of my relationship with the guy who runs Music & Lyrics who, when I did a show called Sunshine On Leith in Dundee, developed a model of getting money from the big venues in Scotland that enabled us to make that show and tour it. That’s exactly the model with Chitty, just on a bigger scale.”
Speaking of Chitty, he is adamant that, unlike a previous touring version, it’s not all about the flying car.
“I’m not doing it like that, no,” he insists. “The material’s amazing and it’s a real privilege to work on it. But as I have worked on it, I’ve got to know that the piece is about celebrating creativity and imagination and the connection between human beings. I hope that the way we tell the story will be about those kinds of values, not just about a flying car. We need to give the audience something that delivers that kind of experience but the car represents something, it’s a metaphor for repairing a damaged family, for the imagination. It’s really brilliant to be able to release that part of the story.”
The importance of stories is paramount, he insists, and that’s one of the reasons that Peake’s stage version of Beryl has proved so popular.
“That is a really important story and the response to it has been extraordinary,” he reflects. “People have such warmth for Beryl and the reason it resonates in a place like Leeds is because she’s genuine and has humility. She’s not self-publicising, she’s rooted and down to earth and yet she was extraordinary. I think people feel that it’s a very important story and the way it’s told is generous and warm. That’s why it works, because what the story’s about and the way it’s told really meet, which delivers a great experience for the audience.”
Finally, what precisely are Brining’s thoughts about a possible Leeds bid to become Capital of Culture?
“I’ve been a very open, public supporter of that,” he says. “Even if we apply and don’t get it, I think the process of talking together as a cultural sector in Leeds and developing the relationship with the council can only be a good thing. I see no reason why a city like Leeds cannot deliver that kind of programme to the highest standards imaginable. Leeds has got everything it needs to be a European Capital of Culture and we should definitely be pursuing that with real energy.”
So, as he sees it, it would specifically be a Leeds bid, not a West Yorkshire one?
“I think so. Leeds is a city and it could quite easily become Capital of Culture. We are called the West Yorkshire Playhouse, of course, so we do see our constituency as broader than Leeds, actually as broader than West Yorkshire as we’re going all over the country.
“The new season has been put together to showcase West Yorkshire Playhouse’s artistic excellence, not only on its home turf in Yorkshire, but also on the road. We’re doing that in a huge variety of venues, in major theatres, in rural community centres, and at festivals from the Edinburgh Fringe, the oldest of them all, to the cool and cutting edge Latitude. We’re even at the European Parliament in Brussels.
“But I do think there’s enough in Leeds for us to focus on that entity as a Capital Of Culture, although of course it would have benefits for a much wider area.”
By Kevin Bourke
You can find more details about the upcoming programme at the West Yorkshire Playhouse at www.wyp.org.uk/about/whats-on