There are many journalistic fallbacks, those little turns of phrase employed by writers up against deadline or snowed under with work. These common clichés form a list of staples which, if you read a lot of newspapers and magazines, you’ll notice crop up time and again. Travel chaos ring a bell? What about game-changer? Or she fought back tears?
I’m as guilty as anyone of resorting to tried and tested banalities at the end of a long day. However, after chatting to James Brining, the new artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, I feel tempted to dust off one of these taboos and write the following sentence: James Brining will breathe new life into theatre in the North of England. Because, d’you know what, I rather think he will.
Brining is one of a select few in that he runs a large English regional theatre which is known nationwide. He’s possibly the only member of this club who can claim to have moved south to do so. Until the summer, Brining was artistic director of Dundee Rep. During his tenure north of the border, Brining created premier productions of newly commissioned plays by leading Scottish writers such as David Greig, and was responsible for Stephen Greenhorn’s stage production of the award-winning Sunshine on Leith, now adapted for the big screen. Friends of mine in Dundee say he will be sorely missed.
Although Brining’s first complete season for the Playhouse was only announced last week (of which more soon), he has already made his mark in the North of England with a stonking adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Brining first staged the show in Dundee but faced a new challenge this time: a joint endeavour with Manchester’s Royal Exchange meant that the performance had to make sense both on the cavernous Playhouse stage and in the Exchange’s compact and bijou theatre-in-the-round. The production was a triumph, to put it mildly.
“The most important thing is that it went really well with the audience here [in Leeds] and in Manchester,” Brining says. “Most people were very positive about it. Our responsibility is to give them something they don’t expect…We can do what we want if we are ambitious enough. But I am dubious about what people say about their own shows, the audience should make their own mind up.”
There will be time enough for that now that Brining has unveiled his Spring and Summer line-up for 2014. My, my, there are some corkers ahead. A meaty programme includes Refugee Boy, the work of two of the UK’s most revered poets, Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemn Sissay; Beryl, written by the popular actress Maxine Peake and billed as a celebration of the extraordinary sporting achievements of Morley cyclist Beryl Burton (specially commissioned to celebrate Yorkshire’s role in next year’s Tour de France); John Steinbeck’s classic novella Of Mice and Men; as well as Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s seminal work, here presented by cutting edge theatre company Headlong (and the beginning of a three-year partnership to champion the work of emerging directors).
And, AND, an Alan Bennett season. Brining (who was born in Leeds and went to school in the city) isn’t messing about.
“I’ve always regarded Leeds as my home and had a loyalty to it,” he says. “I loved living in Scotland but 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.”
With Brining at the helm and an exciting new series of shows in the offing, the West Yorkshire Playhouse feels like it is teetering on the brink of something special. Brining has picked Bennett’s Enjoy as part of the legendary playwright’s season, for gawd’s sake. Without question, Enjoy is one of Bennett’s rudest plays. It’s a tour de force but don’t take your mum if she’s of a delicate sensibility.
But even with a crowd-pleaser like Bennett on the agenda, Brining knows that heading up a large regional theatre is no picnic.
“As far as funding is concerned, there are really big challenges ahead. We need to be really resourceful about how we relate to the commercial sector and about what we contribute to the society we are part of on a concrete and philosophical level. We will survive…but we need to work to make sure the connection with have the people in the city works.”
Brining is a big believer in using theatre to explore identity. “The closer to London you get, the more homogenised the product becomes. Leeds is a city in the world and people from all over the world are in Leeds. That’s what our work should reflect, specific and universal.
“It’s about creating brilliant experiences for people. Our audience is anybody who wants to come and see a show we are doing. I have got to work as hard as possible to find people who want to come here. And there’s nothing wrong with popular theatre, it’s not inherently shit.”
Brining pauses and reflects. “There is no such thing as a homogeneous Northern identity.” Why not get yourself along to the West Yorkshire Playhouse and see if he’s right?
By Helen Nugent
Main image by Manuel Harla
For more information about the West Yorkshire Playhouse, click here www.wyp.org.uk