Interview: Young Vic artistic director David Lan

The artistic director talks about overseeing successful productions in 2014 and his New York plans
David Lan, the Young Vic’s artistic director, has overseen a stellar year of acclaimed productions and box office success

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The posters outside the Young Vic’s cleverly revivified building announce the triumphant story: everything that passes this way, it seems, turns to gold. One announces the return of Juliet Stevenson in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, rapturously received last year. Another promotes Bull, Mike Bartlett’s spiky, scabrous comedy, already granted an extended run. Add to that the West End transfers of two stellar productions from 2014: The Scottsboro Boys, playing its final nights at the Garrick, and A View from the Bridge, about to open at Wyndham’s.

That was quite a year that was, I say to David Lan, the Young Vic’s artistic director of the past 15 years, and he superstitiously bangs two palms on a wooden table. “And now we are going to do it all over again,” he says with a mixture of resolve and God-willing humour. Lan’s intention has always been to make the Young Vic a place for experiment, hoping the box office would at least support him. It has, instead, outpaced him.

“I don’t know what avant-garde means any more,” he says cheerfully. “I am not sure what we are in front of.” He says he learnt plenty from Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s acclaimed production of A View from the Bridge. “I brought Ivo here for that particular play because I wanted his first London show to be one that people knew, so they could see what he could do with it,” he says. “I loved what he did with it. But I thought some people would resist it. ‘You can’t do that to Arthur Miller!’ But actually, everyone loved it. The audience was ahead of me. I need to do the catching up.”

There is another collaboration with van Hove in this year’s programme, announced on Friday: he is directing a new play by Simon Stephens, Song From Far Away, for its UK premiere. The monologue will open in Amsterdam next month, and Lan is a keen advocate of the new internationalism that is sweeping world theatre.

“[Britain] has had quite a conservative and inward-looking theatrical tradition,” he says. “In the last 10 years, we have tried to do something about that. I travel a lot.”

His impulse, when he sees a promising production, is to see every piece of work he can by that particular director. “The way it happens can be very haphazard. It can take years before the relationship comes to fruition.”

After such a successful year, I say, he must feel very confident of his sureness of touch.

“Now that’s a deliberate provocation, isn’t it?”

I take the point. What has he learnt from his failures?

“I am getting better at seeing the warning signs.” He touches wood again. “The lesson I have learned, and it is not foolproof, is something like ‘trust yourself’. If you really like something, go for it. If you think there are problems, then say so.”

We run through more highlights of the theatre’s forthcoming season. There is the relatively obscure (in the UK at least) Ah, Wilderness!, Eugene O’Neill’s 1933 comedy which Lan describes as “working drawings” for the playwright’s later masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Lan talks about the evolution from the first play to the more famous one: “Writing a play is difficult. Often it comes from an unresolved contradiction in your life. And you don’t know what that is, and the only way you can find some peace with it is by writing the play. There is a depth of revelation in Long Day’s Journey which is not yet there [in Ah, Wilderness!]. It comes from the same place, but [O’Neill] had not gained access yet to that deep pit.

“This is a dangerous thing to say, but I often think the writer is the least helpful person in understanding how to produce a play. He is the last person to understand its power.” To produce a play feels a little like an act of psychoanalysis, he says. “It’s a bit of a cliché, but if the writer could have told you what was disturbing them, they wouldn’t have written the play.”

Other productions planned for the new season include Richard Jones directing Franz Kafka’s The Trial in a new version by Nick Gill, starring Rory Kinnear; Measure for Measure starring Romola Garai; and a dance-theatre production of Macbeth, co-directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin.

On the more experimental side, World Factory is an interactive “moral game” — audience members will pick roles from packs of cards — which Lan describes as “a way of thinking about this curious thing people talk about called globalisation”.

Theatre, he says, is more “special” than ever, in an age in which people’s lives are so full of digital technology. “The deeper you go into cyberspace, the more you want to see and be with other people. There has been a huge increase in the opportunities for people to gather in the flesh: festivals, gigs and so on. That doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. In the theatre, we are saying to our audience: ‘We will give everything. We won’t hold back. And if you respond to that, we will meet you.’ But they have to feel that.”

The same considerations, says Lan, are shaping his duties as consultant artistic director of the Performing Arts Center which is planned for the World Trade Center in New York. As with many plans concerning what he describes as a “complicated” location, there have been polemics and casualties in the process: architect Frank Gehry’s involvement came to an abrupt halt last year, and the original plan to build a 1,000-seat theatre on the site have been changed, in favour of three smaller, more flexible spaces.

The theatre, he says, will become a “producing house”, rather than just a presenting one. “Artists in Manhattan feel under enormous pressure from what Americans call real estate. It is very hard to find studios, rehearsal spaces, workspace. It is progressively harder to make art. So it is essential that we should produce work.”

The other imperative guiding the centre is that it should be a space for international collaboration between American artists and artists from all over the world. “It is the World Trade Center. It is one of the places on the planet where people come together.”

Co-operation with other cultural institutions within New York will also be high on the agenda. The spirit of competitiveness between them is overdone, says Lan. “It is not a zero-sum game. We need each other. And there is no shortage of audience. The appetite is endless.”

His experiences at the Young Vic have inevitably informed the project, he says. “It is important to have a building that says ‘Yes,’ he stresses. “Some buildings say ‘No.’ Others say ‘Yes, but.’ We want one that just says ‘Yes.’”

youngvic.org, wtc.com/about/performing-arts-center

Photograph: Anna Huix

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