Anthony Biggs, Artistic Director Jermyn St Theatre: “Much though I hate to admit it, I would say Trump and Brexit are indirectly a good thing for the arts, or more specifically the making of us. It challenges us to respond.”

Anthony Biggs

Anthony Biggs

Anthony Biggs’ is well into his final season as Artistic Director of Jermyn Street Theatre. He has been in charge at the venue since 2013, and has produced work by British authors such as JB Priestley, Terence Rattigan and A.A. Milne, as well as musicals including See What I Wanna See, Closer Than Ever and I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road.

Anthony, it turned out, fancied doing an interview about Gorky, Jermyn St Theatre and more.

Modern drama owes a huge debt to Maxim Gorky. (See: Eugene O’Neill’, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter). The Last Ones by Maxim Gorky is a strikingly relevant and vivid portrayal of a family and a country in the grip of revolution. Biggs’ farewell production is the UK premiere of Maxim Gorky’s The Last Ones, which is set in 1908 in a Russia following the October Revolution and has been translated by Cathy Porter. The 1907 play has a bullying Russian patriarch at its centre and there is certainly a timeliness about it. “The striking thing about Gorky’s work is that he started writing relatively late in life having had a pretty tough childhood – he famously walked over a 1000 miles from his home along the river Volga to go the university in Kazan – Lenin went there – and having walked all the way there they told him to bugger off,” he says. “He became a beacon of the anti-establishment. In the play, there is this remarkable Donald Trump parallel – it’s clear that the main character Ivan, a retired Police Chief, believes in alternative facts – everything he says is fiction. He states at the end: “We must fight against our enemies”, like a mobster out of the Sopranos.”

The tiny Jermyn Street Theatre succeeds in its mission to revive classics and develop new musical theatre work with big ambition. But does he ever worry he’ll run out of quality old plays? And where does he start to look for the hidden gems? “I usually find these plays by searching through public libraries, trying to find work that provokes me,” he says. “When I read O’Neill’s The First Man they were about to do his famous play The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic which was written at the same time. I thought that was interesting – here was this other play that had been forgotten about, but felt equally relevant, and I had to do it.”

Rather excitingly, Biggs will soon be co-artistic director of The Playground Theatre, London. A new space with a seating capacity of up to 200 with a flexible stage and two dressing rooms. “The Playground Theatre is a huge space which used to be a bus garage. It’s a completely immersive space so it could be transformative,” he says. “The West End has its bonuses but it is like a goldfish bowl. We are in discussion with European companies who are making theatre that is so far away from anything going on in this country at the moment. And the foreign productions we do see here are usually don’t represent the level of experimentation that is happening abroad, or are watered down versions of what is going on elsewhere.”

Does he think Trump and Brexit are good thing for art and culture?

“I was a teenager under Thatcher and I know how awful it was then for the Arts community,” says Biggs. “I couldn’t afford to go to drama school in the late 80’s –there were hardly any grants then. But a lot of talent emerged in the eighties and early nineties that came out of a period of appalling arts funding. Maybe because those artists felt they had something important to say. Under Blair’s Labour we had the Lottery which changed everything – suddenly we had all these new buildings and literary and education departments – but I’m not sure the work improved. Much though I hate to admit it, I would say Trump and Brexit are indirectly a good thing for the arts, or more specifically the making of us. It challenges us to respond.”

The Last Ones is at Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 1 July. Box office: 020-7287 2875.