Gareth Machin is the artistic director of Salisbury Playhouse in Wiltshire. He is also the director and writer of Moonfleet, a new British musical based on the well-loved novel by J Meade Faulkner. Set amongst the cliffs and caves of 18th century Dorset and is the story of a young man’s search for adventure and fulfilment. Haunted by the ghost of the marauding pirate Blackbeard, Moonfleet is a village of intrigue and drama where shadowy smugglers lurk. “Writing musicals is clearly very complicated because so many elements come into play,” he explains. “Also, generally they are very expensive to produce. Russell (Hepplewhite) and I have been working on it for an awfully long time and there have been a lot of challenges to adapt it for the stage.”
During rehearsals for Moonfleet an international espionage drama has played out in the narrow lanes and shopping precincts of the small cathedral city, after the recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. It must have been unsettling; how would he describe the mood of the city? “It has been a challenging few weeks and there has been a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “But there has also been incredible resilience and we have been able to continue the work that we are doing here. Our audiences have remained very loyal, for which we are very grateful. There is a mood in the city that although this isn’t over by any stretch of the imagination, there is a desire to keep demonstrating that the city is open for business, that it’s moving on and that it doesn’t want to be defined by what’s happened here.”
Following a successful bid for joint national portfolio funding from Arts Council England (ACE) the merger of the three arts organisations in the same postcode: Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury Arts Centre and Salisbury International Arts Festival have collectively become ‘Wiltshire Creative’, and will commission, develop and produce cross-artform. What does this mean for the identity of the three – very different – organisations? “It’s a huge opportunity for the arts in Salisbury,” he says. “With public funding inevitably being very challenging, it is an incredible vote of confidence from the Arts Council, in the quality of the artistic offer, in what is a relatively small city like Salisbury. The level of investment that had been going to three organisations has been retained and consolidated in one large pan-arts organisation. It feels like we now have a more sustainable model, in terms of finance. But it also means artistically we will be a far more resilient company, artistically in so far as we will be working across different art forms, commissioning artists across different art forms. We will create a much more coherent and straightforward offer for Salisbury and the wider region.”
Unsurprisingly, at the 2011 census the population of the civil parish was 95.73% white. To his credit, he doesn’t subscribe to 50/50 gender quotas; when it comes to selling tickets, choosing suitable artists must continue to matter more than gender? “Sometimes the most obvious ways of defining diversity are not necessarily the most interesting way to define diversity, in a city like Salisbury,” he says simply. “But we want the broadest representation of voices and people within this organisation that is genuinely reflecting our wider community. We will never get this absolutely right because it will be a continual process. I think the fact that it is so high up the agenda now is incredibly useful.”
On the subject of the ongoing revelations of abuses of power and sexual harassment within the industry he muses: “We have had to look at the procedures and processes that we have in place, so that if ever a situation arose here, we are confident that our systems are robust enough to be able to properly deal with a situation should it ever arise. It has been a very useful opportunity for us to review and have that conversation with our wider staff.”
What, I ask, are the qualities that make a good artistic director? “That’s the hardest question you’ve asked,” he says. A pause. “It’s not that far away from what qualities you need in a rehearsal room. You need to be comfortable bringing people in who are a lot cleverer than you, know a lot more than you and be comfortable with managing them and their ideas and be able to listen and be able to respond. Your job ultimately is to bring the best out of other people and to shape a lot of people’s different ideas and shape them into something that is coherent and strong. That’s what you do in a rehearsal room and that is how you are running a building. In terms of vision and ego it is a balance because you have got to have a bit but if you have too much, it’s a problem.”
More than most, Machin is aware that his theatre can’t live on past glories. “I think there are a lot of lazy preconceptions about Salisbury audiences,” he says defiantly. “One of the great joys being here as long as I have, is that the audience still consistently surprise me at what they are up for. When I started here, the idea of doing new plays on the main stage was pretty scary. Whereas actually Barney Norris’s Echo’s End or Worst Wedding Ever, which we did a couple of years ago, are two of the best-selling shows in the time that I have been here. That in itself is hugely encouraging; we are allowed to swear on the main stage and people don’t walk out,” Machin says, smiling.
“With Moonfleet, I feel like we are developing a piece that we are all very proud of and we want to tell everybody that it is happening.”
Moonfleet runs at Salisbury Playhouse from Thursday 19 April to Saturday 5 May. The production is supported by Salisbury Playhouse’s Commissioning Circle.