Q and A with Andrew Breakwell, Director of ‘The Underground Man’
Nottingham Playhouse has long been established as a world-class drama venue; the theatre’s diverse productions have been performed all across the globe from Hong Kong to London’s West End.
The subject of upcoming play ‘The Underground Man’ however, comes from much closer to home. Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Mick Jackson, the play follows the life of eccentric Nottinghamshire aristocrat, Duke William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck.
Born in 1800, the Duke lived a reclusive life at Welbeck Abbey, where his major building operations – including an elaborate maze beneath the site – captured the imaginations of Victorian society and generations afterwards.
Director Andrew Breakwell tells us more.
William Cavendish is known for being an eccentric but elusive figure. How much of what we know about him is really founded on rumours and speculation? Is this reflected in the play?
Well we know he built the tunnels and had the door with two letter boxes (which was exhibited at the Harley Gallery last summer). Remember this play is an adaptation of a book which is itself a fictionalised account of the Duke’s life, however, the text alludes to the reactions of people on his estate and in the nearby villages. In our version he is an eccentric in the best of British traditions but he is also a man of our time struggling to accommodate an explosion of knowledge and fighting to control his life and memories as he approaches old age.
Was it difficult to cast such an enigmatic central character?
In some ways this production is built around the skills and talents of the actors who make up AJTC (Iain Armstrong & Mick Jasper and their long time musical associate Nigel Waterhouse). Nick Wood has seen their work before and in our intensive script development week used their natural inflections and voices in the editing of his fourth draft of the play. I suppose I had to decide which of the two of them was the most eccentric! However, having worked with them both over a wide variety of projects for well over thirty years it was still a difficult decision and I did muse for a while on them alternating the roles performance by performance. Indeed they may well decide to try that out whilst on tour. Casting is always one of the most difficult and fascinating aspects of a directors job, each actor bringing something of themselves to any part. In the end it’s a bit of a leap in the dark but I hope that the challenges of the two roles they find fascinating and engaging at this point in their careers.
The Duke did, however, leave quite a legacy in his ancestral home, Welbeck Abbey. Did the creative and production teams look to the Welbeck Estate and the Portland Collection for inspiration?
We spent a whole week at the Harley Gallery in early June, where the staff were most helpful and we were able to get something of a feeling for the location. We read a couple of their books and looked at the Portland Collection in its new home up there. However, it’s probably true to say that we weren’t able to see as much as we would have liked of the area itself and sadly nothing of the tunnels or the Ballroom which is supposedly quite spectacular. But we did notice that the guided tours which took place throughout August were sold out by the time we arrived, maybe next year?
Was it a challenge trying to create the underground tunnels and grand house on the Neville Studio stage? We read that ajtc have experience in playing to non-theatre venues, was this helpful when thinking of ways to best use the studio space?
Our designer Harriet Clark who has just graduated as the Playhouse Prize winner from Nottingham Trent has done a wonderful job in finding simple but evocative ways of locating the play in its era and suggesting the variety of locations. The play is a journey of discovery for the Duke as he grapples with his visions but it is also a story simply told. By that, I mean that the quality and style of the writing and particularly the dramatic conventions we use challenge the audience to come on the journey into the past with us, we help them with what they see but we also need to engage them through what they hear and most importantly feel. Lastly, of course for the touring version, the set has to go into and out of a van every night and has to be flexible for the wide variety of venues.
The Underground Man has its own specially commissioned score. How does music come into the production?
Since I came to Nottingham in 1999 music has always been an important element in my productions and I’m really grateful to my musical associates who have helped me better understand the power and function of music in a dramatic context.AJTC as part of their house style have also been great advocates of the use of music to heighten and deepen the emotional experience that is a play. Because Nigel’s chosen instrument is an Accordion, the texture of the sound immediately gives us a key into the period. The instrument also provides a wide variety of other sounds, not always musical in the accepted sense, but useful for creating and underlining the content of a scene or dramatic moment. We also have the luxury of Nigel being in rehearsals all the time and being able to compose on the spot, so that everything you hear as audience has been tried and tested on the rehearsal floor and is tailor made to suit our production. The trick is, of course, to be selective in matching the music to the words and actions to create a harmonious and satisfying narrative.
Do you enjoy coming back to Nottingham Playhouse and are there anything other upcoming productions you can recommend?
Well yes, I am a Nottingham resident and it’s always satisfying to return to an organisation that works to the level of the Playhouse and has such a national and international reputation. All the staff and creative departments work extremely hard to mount the productions you see. In that process they ask questions of people like me that require real thought and consideration so that they can do their job to the best of their ability. I think there are some really interesting plays coming up over the next few months and there is an emerging Nottingham theme with plays by John Harvey and Stephen Lowe. Touched by Stephen is a play I know well, having undertaken some work with NTU students on it a couple of years ago. I’m sure all will find it engaging, funny and moving, leaving a question or two to be discussed afterwards, all that a good play ought to be and hopefully what The Underground Man will also be for all our audiences.
The Underground Man runs from 22nd September – 8th October 2016 at Nottingham Playhouse. Find out more here.