Some say that the best time to take over a company is when it’s struggling, when the only way is up. If that is the case, Jeremy Herrin has a raw deal. As new artistic director of Headlong theatre company, he inherits an outfit that has just completed an extraordinarily successful period.
Under Rupert Goold, the touring company gained a reputation for tackling ambitious, contemporary subjects, and staging them with dash and flair. The last few years have included Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, examining love from the perspective of neuroscience, and Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, exploring the influence of China and the US on geopolitics. Chimerica is up for Best Play at this year’s Olivier Awards, as is the company’s version of 1984, which moves to London’s West End next month.
Goold left last summer to run London’s Almeida Theatre, and Herrin took the reins at Headlong in September: his first season is just about to hit the boards. Taking over a hugely successful project can bring headaches – so is the company’s reputation a help or a hindrance?
“It’s brilliant to inherit such a hot theatre company,” Herrin says. “A company that has a really good profile; an audience that will come and see the work; artists that really want to work for it.”
In style, Herrin is very different from his predecessor. There is a swashbuckling touch to Goold, even down to his trademark abundant hair. Sitting in Headlong’s office in Soho, Herrin – tall, genial, rather bearlike in his jumper, cap and scarf – cuts a less debonair figure. And on stage, where Goold’s best productions are often marked by a clear aesthetic, Herrin’s hand is harder to identify: his finest productions tend to be subtle and he has talked about trying to “disappear into the work”.
Most recently, Herrin staged a sensitive revival of Julian Mitchell’s 1981 play Another Country, which is about to transfer into the West End. He also directed the superb RSC adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which are likewise coming to London this spring. But much of his work has been with new writing – sometimes by very young playwrights. How might his personal approach to directing affect Headlong?
“Certainly, in terms of directorial style, Rupert and I are different,” he agrees. “I’m much less of an auteur … [But] the platforms are still the same: bold new work; reinventing classics; taking work to the regions. The season I have announced is an evolution of those ideas. I think if there is a house style [for Headlong] it’s this: does this drama move the discussion on about what life is like today, or about the way in which we do shows? Unless an idea has got something to say about the way the world is or the way the form is, then it’s not really a Headlong show.”
So where might the company head under Herrin? His first four plays might, at least, put down a marker. They promise formal daring and contemporary concerns: there’s a new play about addiction from Duncan Macmillan and the UK premiere of Los Angeles-based playwright Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, about virtual reality and morality. And two of the shows focus on young people. Herrin seems to have a knack for working with young writers and actors. At the Royal Court, he staged Polly Stenham’s debut That Face, and Spur of the Moment, written by novice playwright Anya Reiss when she was only 17.
“I suppose there’s something about characters of that age that tells you a lot about what’s going on [in society],” he says.
Indeed, the first show in Herrin’s inaugural season is a new version by Reiss (now 22) of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s 1891 shocker about sexual repression in 19th-century German society and its damaging impact on a group of teenagers. The new version, Herrin says, will examine the same issue but from a 21st-century perspective.
“I figured you could almost do a 180-degree flip: that it’s now a surfeit of information and too much sexual imagery that leads to the same confusion. So Anya’s written a version that makes it clear that this play is still bang up-to-date – that these kids are messed up because no one is talking to them properly. There’s something brilliant about Wedekind’s punky spirit being completely freshened up and properly honoured.”
Plays concentrating on the experience of young people in a society can illuminate patterns and problems in that society. That’s true of Spring Awakening and very much the case with Another Country. Set in an elite English boys’ school during the 1930s, it concentrates on two young outsiders who are to become spies, and suggests a link between their sense of exclusion and their destinies. Though specific to that period, Herrin suggests that its depiction of the British establishment still resonates.
“That system is still fundamentally in place,” he says. “Those guys, that class, occupy most of the berths in the [British] cabinet. The educational policies about access to higher education aren’t exactly reversing the trend. So it feels like a really timely analysis.”
Herrin is keenly aware, as a white middle-class male, that his own appointment continues that tradition somewhat, and he has always sought to broaden his perspective. He studied in Glasgow and, although certain that he wanted to be a director, he trained as an actor with a view to getting a practical understanding of the craft. He is intent on supporting emerging directors (to that end, Headlong will collaborate with the JMK Trust to train directors), on co-producing with regional theatres and on “banging on”, as he puts it, about the importance of artistic life in the regions.
“Those places should be artistic hubs,” Herrin says, “yet they’re having to work really hard to keep their heads above water.”
In Bristol later this season, Jack Thorne’s new play Junkyard, about the impact of austerity, will be created with Bristol Old Vic. Audience and cast will help to construct, then dismantle an adventure playground during the show. That is, perhaps, the combination of innovation and seriousness that Herrin hopes to foster.
“It’s about being bold and contemporary – not just for the sake of it,” he says, “but as a way of producing these shows we believe are important.”
‘Spring Awakening’, Nuffield, Southampton, from March 25, then touring until May 31, headlong.co.uk. ‘Another Country’, Trafalgar Studios, London, from March 26, atgtickets.com. ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, Aldwych, London, from May 1, rsc.org.uk