Polly Findlay interview - 'Beginning portrays an experience everyone has in their bones'
Director Polly Findlay has just opened the first production of hers to transfer to the West End, only three months after premiering at the National's Dorfman. Her tender, intense and beautiful staging of David Eldridge's intimate two-hander play Beginning is now recreating its bruising brand of romantic magic at the Ambassadors. When I meet her, however, she's in the thick of rehearsals for a very different project: a new production of Macbeth to open on Stratford-upon-Avon's main stage in March, starring Christopher Ecclestone in the title role.
It's not the first time she's worked for both of our major national companies, even though she's just 34-years old. "But it’s the first time there's been a complete Venn diagram overlap in terms of the schedules for both," she notes. The confident, charming yet unassuming director sitting opposite me is undaunted, however: hers has been a steady ascent through the theatrical hierarchy since graduating from Oxford University, and following the traditional path of assistant director (first at the Almeida for the great, late Howard Davies, then at the National for Nick Hytner, Conor McPherson, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris) on shows that have included McPherson's The Seafarer ("still one of the top five plays I've worked on") and War Horse (whose transfer to Berlin she oversaw).
So she's hardly beginning herself now, but the play that bears that name has itself made a big leap from the National to a commercial run. David Eldridge's Beginning tells of the aftermath of a party, where the host and the last remaining guest skirt tentatively around each other in the early hours of the morning: not whether simply to have sex, but whether this could be the start of something bigger for them both.
"There seems to be something about the play that speaks very directly to audiences," she states. "What I love about David's writing is that there are two things that seem to define it. He's so good at what I always think of as iceberg writing; he's very good at suggesting a huge depth of feeling or misplaced intention underneath the lines. In some ways, though theirs is a very different style, that is what Rattigan and Chekhov are so good at. Why they break your heart is that you are invited to feel the thing under the line and David has come up with a way of doing that brilliantly in a contemporary register."
She goes on, "The other thing that he has done so brilliantly is to identify where the highest stakes are in most people's lives. I've just come down from a fight call where Macbeth and Macduff are fighting and the stakes couldn't be higher - one of you is going to die! - but what David has managed to do is make whether I pour you this glass of wine feel like there’s just as much at stake. To really pull that off is genius!"
There's a tentativeness about the relationship that's very recognisable to audiences. "That's been the thing – it’s unusual, an experience everyone has in their bones. I really enjoy when that blind goes up at the top and there's a pause; you can hear people starting to get the situation. In about preview three, I heard someone go NOOO! It was pleasing – it’s intravenous in that way, we've all had that experience but it’s not something that is dramatised very often really."
Eldridge, whose previous plays include Market Boy (seen on the National's largest Olivier stage) and Under the Blue Sky (that was premiered at the Royal Court in 2000 transferred to the West End starring Chris O'Dowd), wrote it, she says, "entirely on spec, which is unusual I think in terms of the birth of a new play. But it had been cooked in David's brain for the best part of ten years. He always had this idea of writing a play about two people at the end of a party. He then had a TV job that didn't come off, so he ended up with a gap in his schedule and just sat down and wrote it in two weeks."
A big part of the pleasure of seeing it are the two wonderful performances from actors Sam Troughton and Justine Mitchell, who have both appeared regularly at the National but are not 'star' names. "In the case of this play, it's important in the end that they're not. It’s really valuable that neither of them are known off the telly; there's a sense of being able to lose yourself in the creation of that character, rather than refracting it through a personality you are already aware of."
Findlay's own star, meanwhile, as a director is fast-rising. She's part of a new generation of prominent theatre directors that have emerged in the last few years that are rapidly shifting the axis of British theatre, among them Carrie Cracknell, Lindsey Turner, Nadia Fall, Robert Icke and Michael Longhurst. Fall has recently taken over as artistic director at Theatre Royal Stratford East and Icke is associate director to Rupert Goold at the Almeida, but all the others, including Findlay, are freelance. Would she be tempted to run her own building? "It's a question that often comes up, I can see the advantage and joy of being able to think in a five year loop, rather than a more short term one, but I feel that in last 18 months I've been able to say this is the kind of work I want to make or this is the play I want to do. I've started to get to the stage where those conversations are now possible."
She enjoys the flexibility of being able to work for both the RSC and National - currently at the same time - and for being able to work equally on new plays and classics, big and small. "I'm really fortunate in terms of not finding myself in a niche. They each inform the other. Working with Derren Brown [on his 2012 Olivier-winning show Svengali] was 100% the single most useful show in terms of the lessons it taught me in practical dramaturgy. I think about that all the time doing Macbeth now. The cross-fertilisation between different things has been part of the joy of it."
Right now, she's about to go into direct competition with the National, as her production of Macbeth will open in Stratford just as Rufus Norris directs another at the National. "The fact that both productions are happening at the same time is in some ways an event - there's something exhilarating about those productions being in conversation with each other. We completed our design and conceptual processes separately, and once we knew we'd both done it, we had a cup of tea. It was interesting to see that though have similar thoughts about individual scenes and what the play might mean, when we talked about what is going to end up on stage, they are going to be radically different."
Beginning Tickets are available now.
Rehearsal images credit Johan Persson, production image credit Manuel Harlan