John Tiffany interview: 'Road was written from a place where it didn't seem things could get worse'

John Tiffany

“People get very annoyed when I don’t respond to emails, but what can I say, I’m busy.” ‘Busy’ is putting it loosely. Between staging a new adaptation of the Disney classic Pinocchio at the National this Christmas, and the mammoth task of taking the biggest play in the world over to Broadway (that’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by the way), director John Tiffany’s latest venture, Jim Cartwright’s Road, has just opened at the Royal Court.

It’s a piece that’s close to Tiffany’s heart. He was studying for his A Levels in Huddersfield in 1989, two years after Road first moved into the Jerwood Downstairs at the Court, when the text first landed in his lap. He was on track to become a doctor, opting to read maths, physics and chemistry. But along with his friend (now Tony Award-nominated choreographer) Steven Hoggett, he discovered a love for plays by contemporary writers. The likes of Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond and one Jim Cartwright.

"Road was an epiphany, realising that a play could be written in my voice and have that vision of theatricality about it as well". The play takes place on an unnamed street in northern England as we meet the neighbours, door by door, and listen to the different struggles they face living under Thatcher’s Britain. "It seeded from the fact that the rich were going to get richer and the poorer were just going to get poorer."

Tiffany was asked to look at the Court’s seminal plays by the building’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone, to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary. While he was exhilarated by the piece’s form, he says he was “taken aback” by the fact its characters felt they had hit rock bottom. "It seemed to have been written from a place where things couldn’t get and worse."

"Margaret Thatcher’s policies were all coming home to roost and unemployment was at its highest ever level. People were really trying to carve out a day-to-day existence. There was a depression that had sunk in as those financial systems and strategies that were introduced by her and her government, that haven’t really changed since then."

Tiffany lived through this change, as a Yorkshire lad in the ‘80s, but he didn’t necessarily understand the bigger picture to these political shifts. There was simply a mind-set that “Thatcher was just a c**t”. In terms of Road, this feeling doesn’t just manifest itself in Tiffany’s direction, which also touches on the hope and optimism these communities had, but it was important that the cast too have an understanding of that frame of mind. “I’m not going to claim that any of the cast are working class, but it is important that they understand the world in which the play is set. They’re no strangers to the world we show on stage.”

Tiffany is no stranger to this either, although now, chooses not to describe himself as ‘working class’. "I’d be on Question Time, and my mum would be quite upset if I referred to myself as ‘working class’, because she and my father had worked so hard so I wouldn’t have to do that".

But that’s not the only way she reminds him of his class. "She always tells me: ‘you can’t call yourself working class John, you’ve got a cafetiere’."

A scene from Road at the Royal Court

Despite being responsible for some massive West End hits over recent times (including an Olivier Award-nominated production of The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones, and the Tony Award-winning musical Once), Tiffany’s proudest moment came working in the Scottish Highlands. The small town of Thurso, to be exact. Whilst working with the National Theatre of Scotland with collaborator Steven Hoggett, he was tasked with creating a piece of work with the community.

“It’s like Huddersfield but in the north of Scotland. There’s a lot of unemployment, there was a power station but it’s closed down. We were based in the local high school and, with their drama department, created a piece of theatre with about 120 folk in it. It ended up being a big promenade piece that went around the whole town because there wasn’t a venue big enough.

“It was amazing because it wasn’t just about seeing the kids engaged in theatre, but it really challenged us as theatre makers. It made us think about what theatre really was, and when it can have that incredible community feel about it, but still feel like high art.”

This kind of work is something Tiffany spends a lot of time thinking about. He saw how it affected the children of the town, boosting their self-confidence in a way only the arts could. He remembers his similar experiences, such as free music lessons in school, for instance. But there’s an increasing frustration for creative subjects being discouraged in favour for those more scientific.

“It terrifies me the amount of people we’re losing because we’re telling the world that physics is more important than any creative subject. It’s not true. We’re telling people that if they are being creative and expressive in that way, then they’re not as important.”

Tiffany is a case study into why these subjects are so important, and how they shape our creative world. He took up Classic Civilisation at GCSE (which is no longer available on the curriculum) before choosing to focus on the sciences. But while at university in Glasgow and engaging in theatre groups, he decided being a doctor was no longer for him, deciding to study Theatre and Classics instead. That’s how a working class boy from West Yorkshire became the director we all know. Had it not been for that initial spark back in school, we may well have been without the great director we have today.

Road runs at the Royal Court until 9th September.

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