Kirsty Besterman (Lady Teazle) & Tom Berish (Joseph Surface); pic: Nobby Clark

Creative Force

21st June 2013

Jill Glenn meets writer and theatre director Jessica Swale and reviews her latest production…

When I meet her, in between the morning and afternoon rehearsals for The School for Scandal, Jessica Swale looks both exhausted and enthused. We’re huddled on sofas in a side street café, and she’s trying to eat and talk at the same time. Talking is winning. She takes the occasional bite from her chicken salad wrap, but mostly she raises it almost to her mouth and then waves it away as another thought – too significant to sacrifice for food – strikes her.

She’s an excellent conversationalist, funny and thoughtful, and surprisingly coherent, given the amount that she’s currently trying to pack in to her life. Described by Michael Billington as ‘rapidly becoming our best young director of period comedy’, and a nominee for the Evening Standard Best Director award in 2011, she’s rather in demand just at the moment, both as a director and as a playwright: a combination that isn’t always easy to achieve – and, by certain theatrical types, not always approved of. That’s probably why she does it; my guess is that she likes to subvert expectations, and refuses to be bound by conventional expectations.

At 31, with an MA in Advanced Theatre Practice from the Central School of Speech & Drama, and as Artistic Director of Red Handed Theatre which she co-founded in 2006, she takes a particular and surprising delight in period pieces. Her eyes light up when I ask why; Jessica is one of those people who love to share what they love, and her pleasure is infectious. “Oh… because there’s a huge canon of brilliantly written classical plays that don’t get done often.” Pause. “And they need playing with energy, with a modern sensibility, so they don’t cut people off.” Pause. “And with respect, too, of course. I really enjoy honouring the period sensibility and getting the rules right.” Pause. “And a classic play gives you a much more creative hand.”

Jessica loves the research; indeed, it was in researching the life of a daughter of Dickens that she stumbled on the subject matter of her first play, of which more later. She had what she describes as “a text-based upbringing”, with an English teacher mother, and writers in the family, but experience as a dancer and a love of “the language of choreography” means that she takes a very holistic approach to a production. She and Laura Forrest-Hay – “my fave composer” – have developed exciting musical content for recent productions, interspersing it with the text and adding a whole new dimension. It’s a measure of how flexible Jessica is to different ways of exploring a play. “I never intended to be ‘period comedy girl’,” she says, “but the joy of good writing is that it’s open…”

She’s increasingly becoming what she describes as “a writerly director”. Recently she took on Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth for the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, and while she describes it as “so fun,” she also found herself a little startled by the fixed nature of the text. “I thought: Oh… You mean I’ve got to do the words that are on the page?” and she shrugs her shoulders, laughing at her own frustration. With Red Handed she has a lot more freedom to take on projects that both challenge and invigorate. Hence the general trend towards period work, where “you have to do all the imagining yourself. The writer trusts you.”

Clearly it’s the interpretation that gives her the buzz. “I’m not really interested in directing some of Sam Becket’s work, where the instructions are so specific, right down to the last eyebrow movement. It’s lot more fun being inventive.” She admits, though, to being guilty of over-prescription in Blue Stockings, her play about female students at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1896. Blue Stockings opens at the Globe on 24 August, and on top of her Scandal rehearsals Jessica has been spending evenings going through the script with director John Dove. “He’s making me take out all the detailed stage directions,” she laughs, “so it’s much more simple.” She found it quite terrifying handing the play over to him, but the whole process of working with him is proving exhilarating.

Despite her successes on the London stage, the theatrical experiences that she recalls with the most fondness took place half a world away: directing Shakespeare on the Marshall Islands in the Northern Pacific, on behalf of Youth Bridge Global, a non-profit organisation that facilitates youth theatre in developing communities. Jessica spent some weeks there in 2009. “It’s the country with the highest GDP from foreign aid,” she explains. “They’re in a permanent state of emergency. There’s no trade, no industry. Vodka is cheaper than water.” She shakes her head, and goes on. “Theatre can’t save lives… but it can help lives, it can deliver confidence.” She’s directed similar projects in Bosnia, in 2010 and 2011, and there’s talk of Romeo and Juliet in Rwanda this year, although she can’t be sure yet whether she can commit. “But these are amazing experiences,” she says. “It’s hard to give them up. They’re as important as anything I’ve ever done, one of the things I’m proudest of in my career. They’re like fuel, you know? They keep you grounded.”

That there may not be enough space in the diary isn’t surprising. Along with everything else, she’s also developing her next play, a comedy based on the life of Nell Gwyn; at weekends she works on the screenplay for Blue Stockings. Taking a break is not in her skill set. “When you have an imaginative world,” she explains, “it’s really hard to stop. I tried having a holiday… but I just ended up writing.” She is, though, intending to be “a bit more selective” about new projects, in reluctant recognition that “you can’t do everything well…” If anyone could, though, she’d be in the running…

The School For Scandal

Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, London N4 3JP

020 7281 8813 •

There’s something unexpectedly delicious about being in a virtually brand new theatrical space (the Park Theatre, a stone’s throw from Finsbury Park Station, opened in May), and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, produced by Jessica Swale’s Red-Handed Theatre Company, is an excellent choice for one of its first productions.

This is a neat, intimate theatre with seating (just two or three rows deep) on three sides of the stage, and it’s ideal for this vibrant, lively and very, very funny performance. The set is minimal: three mirrors, a couple of chairs, a chessboard table and a painted floor which I rather covet. It’s the perfect backdrop to allow the story to flourish.

And flourish it does. From the perfectly choreographed and wittily executed ensemble entry, all the way through to the untangling of its scheming, intricate plot, the cast invest thought and energy and belief into recreating a world where gossip and slander are units of everyday currency… Oh, yes: Scandal certainly has resonance for a modern audience.

While honouring the spirit of the original, and respecting the complexities of Sheridan’s rich characters, Swale isn’t afraid to make the piece her own, updating his text with modern references, and cutting in musical interludes, written by Swale herself along with Musical Director Laura Forrest-Hay. These amuse, add energy and turn up the topicality.

Swale relishes the laugh-out-loud moments, extracting the maximum humour via great timing and pace. Her familiarity with, and love for, the piece shines through. The whole thing is light and frothy, funny and playful. Perfect for summer.

Scandal is a great play, although not without its flaws, and it’s rare to see it so brilliantly brought to life.

Continues to 7 July

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