People, Places & Things is a play about addiction and identity. Written by Duncan MacMillan, it tells the story of Emma, an actor addicted to drink and drugs who checks into rehab after having a breakdown.
The play closed in June after a nine-month run in two theatres. It was praised by critics for its innovative set design (action takes place inside a clinical white cube, which comes to represent multiple locations via a clever use of props) and actress Denise Gough received rave reviews and an Olivier Award for her powerful performance as Emma. It’s a compelling production and one that addresses a difficult topic with both style and substance.
Headlong and Herrin have experience of taking on challenging themes – in 2014, Herrin directed The Nether, a co-production between Headlong and the Royal Court, which used a chilling narrative about child abuse to address questions around the future of the internet and whether we can and should police online environments. Like People, Places & Things, it proved both a commercial and critical success.
Herrin and Gough carried out extensive research into addiction while working on MacMillan’s play: the pair spent time with people in recovery centres and healthcare professionals, and many scenes are inspired by real life stories and events. Herrin believes this has been key to the play’s success, helping create a more authentic and thought-provoking production.
Speaking at the National Theatre with MacMillan last year, Herrin said: “We were incredibly careful to back up Duncan’s hard work with proper research and the involvement of several people who’ve gone through [the recovery process], with all its challenges.”
Talking to CR, he adds: “That research is really important … in my experience, it’s real life or facts, or stuff that isn’t just made up, that provides the work with longevity,” he adds. “People, Places & Things is one of those plays that people tell me they’re thinking about long after, and I don’t think that would have been the case if we had short-changed the experience of addiction.”
MacMillan says the script went through several revisions, with dialogue, settings and even the character’s job title changing (Emma was initially a musician). Herrin worked closely with him to refine the script throughout the production process and again after its first run at the National Theatre (it later moved to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End).
Speaking about the editing process, Herrin explains: “With some writers, you have to be much more precise and prescriptive, but with Duncan, it was just a case of having several long, in-depth conversations about what the play was doing and how it was functioning … and then Duncan going away and refining things.” The process varies with each production but when working with writers, Herrin says his role is always to reflect back to them how he feels a play is coming across – “just telling them what’s clear and what isn’t [in the script] is as good a service as you can do in dramaturgy,” he says.
“Once you start working on the design and production, the refinements become more about clarity and logic, so you’re in much more specific territory, and the refinements just get smaller and smaller,” he adds. “The process never finishes, and it will keep changing the longer you work on it … you’re always discovering new things about how to play it.”
The role of Emma was a demanding one: Gough had to portray both the giddy highs of addiction and the frightening lows experienced in rehab. Powerful female leads are a rare thing in theatre and film, and her performance has been described by critics as ‘superlative’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘astounding” and ‘superb’. When working with actors, Herrin says it’s important to both supportive and encouraging and create “a safe environment” where they can share their thoughts – “because it is scary [for them],” he adds. “It’s also about pushing them … encouraging them to go further and again, like with writers, reflecting honestly back on what they’re doing and being up for a discussion about it.”
With any play, Herrin believes it’s important to have a clear vision of what a production should sound, look and feel like, providing a flexible framework that still allows actors, designers and writers room to experiment. “As a director, you’re essentially editing other people’s choices, so it’s about deciding what the production wants to be and really framing [the team’s] work within that. There are several multi-dimensional conversations going on at once, and it’s quite demanding to keep those conversations alive and corresponding with each other. That comes from having a very clear idea of what you want a play to do – how you want it to function – and being flexible about how you deliver that,” he says.
Herrin has worked with b some talented and innovative set, video and sound designers – for The Nether, he collaborated with Es Devlin (another of our Creative Leaders who has designed sets for Beyonce, Kanye West and the Olympics) and for People, Places & Things, he worked with Bunny Christie, who also designed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and was the first female set designer to win an Olivier Award. When recruiting creatives to work on a play, he says he looks for people who will push and challenge his ideas.
“If you choose the right people, then what you’ve got to do as a director is much more interesting. Rather than pushing people away from their instincts, you’re encouraging them to express themselves,” he says. “My limitations are imposed by my own understanding and knowledge, but [hiring the right people] means I can go beyond that.”
“With designers, I’ll choose someone based on what I think their aesthetic will bring to the work,” he continues. “That’s not to say there won’t be a departure from that, but with someone like Bunny, for example, I thought she would apply something really great to the play based on her previous designs.”
The play was a challenging one to represent visually but Herrin and Christie’s clever design captures the ‘generic, blank, institutional’ feeling of rehab, with props added for group therapy sessions or scenes in the family home. “The key concept of the design in this case was creating a box that the audience sees from both sides – whenever the audience sees Emma, they see her in front of an audience, so however real and immersive the experience is, the audience are always subliminally aware that the piece is being performed,” he explains. As well as encouraging audiences to think about deeper themes of identity and role playing, Herrin says the design aims to add another layer of excitement by highlighting the ‘theatrical’ nature of the play.
“It excites the audience because it is theatrical – the sort of thing you can only do in the theatre as opposed to a more realistic set design that makes a play feel filmic. Headlong should always be an argument for the medium of theatre, so we grab any opportunity to do that,” he adds.
Headlong has built a reputation for productions with a bold use of sound and visuals – it’s something Herrin has embraced in both The Nether and People, Places & Things, though he is keen to avoid becoming defined by it. “I’d hesitate to make any rules about it – it would feel quite reductive,” he says. “I wouldn’t like to define the company’s work by design principles. As a company we’re used to solving quite difficult design challenges though – it’s in our make up to do that,” he adds.
Herrin is keen to continue staging ambitious and challenging plays – but maintains that what is most important with each new production is the integrity of the work. Speaking at Soho Create Festival in London last month, he said that new directors were often too focused on advancing their career and becoming successful, and not enough on integrity. “Yet ironically, not thinking about that stuff and concentrating on the integrity of the work is the way to open all those doors,” he said. Wise advice indeed.
headlong.co.uk; Headlong’s website includes interviews with directors, actors and designers and thought pieces on issues addressed in the company’s plays
In the July 2015 issue of Creative Review, we spoke to Jeremy Herrin and Headlong’s then executive producer Henny Finch about the company’s remit to produce “risk-taking, exhilirating and provocative new work”. Read it here.