Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin: “Men in positions of power certainly have to be conscious of the privilege their gender gives them.”
Headlong artistic director Jeremy Herrin slopes into our meeting at the Southbank Canteen looking like a man who has just popped to the shops. I ask if he can tell me what is in the bag. “No,” he says drolly.
“It’s for a particular project that I can’t talk about… So, like the great journalist that you are -you’ve ferreted out the story and I can’t talk about it. I just can’t.”
This has been another ripe year for Herrin; a west end transfer of James Graham’s This House and a collaboration with the Michael Grandage Company for Labour of Love. A Broadway transfer & UK Tour of People, Places & Things. He also directed Jack Thorne’s Junkyard at Bristol Old Vic and The House They Grew Up In, at Chichester.
We talk about Sarah Lancashire pulling out of the world premiere of Labour of Love on doctor’s advice – during rehearsals. “When you consider the terrifying challenge of losing Sarah to illness, then you could say we really landed on our feet to get the magic Tamsin Greig,” he says.
“I am really delighted with how it’s all worked out. The commercial pressure when producing in the West End is enormous. Actors fall away because of certain problems but Labour of Love is very much an ensemble and a great company, so we survived. Tamsin & Martin are on stage at all times. You could argue that Jean is the emotional heart of the story so it was challenging to lose Sarah but we overcame it.”
Earlier this summer, DC Moore’s play Common was critically mauled and opened to terrible reviews at the National’s Olivier theatre. I ask how he feels about the show, a few months on.
“What I felt about Common at the end of an undoubtedly challenging experience was that it was worth a go; it simply didn’t come together as a show,” he explains. “That was obvious as soon as we put it in front of audience. I’m sure it would have been less exposed in another space. It’s easier to learn a lot on the ones that don’t entirely work. If it had happened earlier in my career then it may have upset me more.” Does critical seal of approval still matter?
“I’ve directed shows that haven’t worked and yet have got really good reviews – I’ve directed shows that have worked but have got really bad reviews and I’ve directed shows that haven’t worked that got bad reviews,” says Herrin.
“Just because a show gets bad reviews doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. We’re in hock with the critical community; we’ve made a deal, which is we get free publicity but we dance the dance and we gamble that they will like the shows well enough to shout about them. Common, in that way sort of fell through the gap… The advice to pass on, if there is any, is to be absolutely certain about where you get your validation from.”
He continues: “I’m very clear about my relationship with my work, I know better than anyone how successful it is or not. Well before press night, I’d already worked out that Common wasn’t hitting the target. There is that phrase: ‘success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’ that’s so true,” he says.
He is, though, very clear about his craft: “Directing is finding a language of performance – finding a bridge between an audience and a dramatic work. Allowing that synthesis to create something completely new,” he says.
“Sometimes the most invisible bit of directing is the most important. Beginning by David Eldridge is brilliantly directed – I loved it. Apart from a couple of sound cues – I couldn’t see Polly’s (Findlay) hand in it. Obviously, a design process had taken place and really detailed character work but I wasn’t aware of any direction – that is sometimes the best sort of directing.”
Jeremy inherited Headlong from Rupert Goold, now artistic director of the Almeida. Coincidentally, two of James Grahams plays (Labour of Love & Ink) are playing on St Martin’s Lane – directed by both men. Herrin is a bit older than Goold, I ask if they have a competitive relationship. “Are we friends? We’re really friendly,” he says.
“I’m not really close to him and we don’t get in touch much, just every now and again. I have a lot of respect for him. I don’t feel like I’m competitive with him because I feel like what we do is very different.”
“I have to admit that when I watched Ink I thought about what my production of it would be like because James is a writer that I was lucky enough to get hold of first. I just did This House, so Ink is like a little brother or sister to This House,” he decides.
Headlong has no venue (it is based in a small office in Waterloo) but partners with theatres around the country and internationally working with regional venues, and brings exciting new plays to cities all around the country. “The first thing you realise when you run a touring company is how wide the economic gap is between London and the regions,” he says.
“In London there seems to be plenty of people with plenty of money willing to spend it on plays. In the regions it can be more challenging, even with enlightened policies and subsidised ticket prices. What’s initially galling, and ultimately inspiring is the fact that people go to the theatre at all. My feeling is that when they do, the work needs to be of the highest possible quality and as meaningful as we can make it. That’s where Headlong comes in. It’s our mission to provide that.”
What are the biggest challenges of leading a touring company in the current climate? “When we tour shows we are basically spending our subsidy. It’s a question of how much we are going to lose. So, PPT on the UK Tour is doing really well – creatively, it does what I want it to do – which is that it makes an argument for what the medium of theatre is – but that costs a fortune because it’s an ambitious and technically daring show,” he says.
There are moments in our conversation where he loses me completely. It is almost as if he talks the way he makes theatre happen – inspired, dynamic, associative and extremely concise. But he also has a rare ability to return to ground and answer questions unflinchingly.
When asked about the bullying and sexual harassment crisis engulfing the industry, he responds directly. “Headlong were very pleased to sign up to the joint statement, which says there can be no place for sexual harassment in the world of theatre,” he says.
“It’s true to say that there is an inherent systemic sexism in our society, and internationally, and of course that is going to filter down and become an expression of male power in every industry. Our industry happens to be theatre, male power has been expressing itself like that forever. Collectively the people (women and men) that feel that they have been victimised by this imbalance now have negotiated a safe space in which they can call it out.”
We talk about Weinstein, Spacey and names that have come up. “It will probably be a bit turbulent for a while as stories come out and these voices are heard,” says Herrin.
“Men in positions of power certainly have to be conscious of the privilege their gender gives them and it’s appropriate for them to consider their behaviour and audit their past. Any human being has a certain amount of unpicking to do, to think about relationships and consider what those relationships were based on, and how power plays into it.”
It must be hard to choose one thing that he is most proud of, so I ask what production he would most like to revisit. “This House and PPT are the most visible ones, but two from the last year that were excellent shows that haven’t yet exhausted their full potential are Junkyard and The House They Grew Up In – I feel like I have unfinished business with those shows,” he says, smiling.
“The House They Grew Up In did something remarkably potent and political to that audience. There was something significant happening in that space – it really infuriated them to start with and as it went on it was really cathartic and ultimately transcendent. The audience battled with feeling for those two difficult characters and eventually Deborah’s writing seduced them and they fell in love with the characters and it was a joyous and hilarious and uplifting occasion. And Junkyard was pure pleasure: a great young cast and an evening of politics, jokes and charm. It’s a huge hit waiting for the right home.”
People Places Things is at Liverpool Playhouse and then Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 November
Labour of Love is at the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 2 December. Box office: 0844-482 5141.