(Above: Actor Matthew Spencer as Winston in 1984, a production by Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company, created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, with set design by Chloe Lamford. chloelamford.co.uk. Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Set in 2050, the play presents a chilling vision of the future of the internet: it focuses on the interrogation of a man named Sims, who has set up a digital realm where people can abuse and murder virtual children without consequence via an avatar. The subject matter is sensitively handled (there are no explicit scenes), but the play poses some unsettling questions for viewers. Can, and should, virtual environments be policed in the same way as the real world? And is a crime still a crime if no-one is hurt in real life?A disturbing tale of people committing gruesome crimes in a virtual reality isn’t the kind of play you’d expect to be a commercial hit in London’s West End. Nor is it one you’d expect to be visually stunning. But The Nether, by theatre company Headlong and London’s Royal Court theatre, was just that.
Since launching at the Royal Court in February this year (and later, the Duke of York’s theatre), The Nether has received five-star reviews from critics and several awards, including an Olivier and one from the Critic’s Circle for Es Devlin’s set design. It’s a beautiful production: the virtual world is an idyllic place filled with poplar trees and a quaint wooden manor house, while the interview room is dark and drab in comparison. Interrogation scenes are carried out under fluorescent lights, wireframe projections (see p66) and photographs displayed like negatives, a visual representation of digital artifice.
The play addresses themes that many theatre companies would be reluctant to tackle but for Headlong, it’s business as usual. Founded in 2005, the company’s mission is to produce “exhilarating, risk-taking and provocative” work for audiences in the UK and abroad, and it has earned a reputation for successfully taking on challenging topics and texts.
The company’s first season included an adaptation of Faustus which placed Christopher Marlowe’s religious epic alongside a contemporary satire about the Chapman brothers set in an art gallery. In 2013, it staged a musical based on Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel American Psycho and in 2011, took over a disused financial trading floor to stage a series of short plays marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Its most successful production to date, however, is a reworking of George Orwell’s 1984, which has so far sold over 240,000 tickets.
Previously named the Oxford Stage Company, the company rebranded after Rupert Goold took over as artistic director (he left to join the Almeida Theatre in 2013, and was replaced by Wolf Hall director Jeremy Herrin). Before re-launching as Headlong, the company’s output was mainly traditional adaptations of classic texts, says executive director Henny Finch.
“[When Rupert took over], we wanted to focus on something more contemporary and do more new plays and projects, and Rupert and I thought we should change our name to something a bit more dynamic,” she explains. “We went through a lot of discussions about the sorts of qualities we wanted to reflect, and eventually, someone suggested Headlong, which was a word in our first production, Paradise Lost. It was quite strange going from this very factual, Ronseal-type name to an adjective with these strange literary connotations, but it summed up who we were – we wanted to be very reactive and exciting and fast moving,” she adds.
Headlong works with established writers, directors and actors as well as new talent, and Herrin says it looks for a mix of new takes on classic texts and contemporary productions inspired by modern life. This year, it staged a new adaptation of the Absence of War (about the fall of the Labour party in 1992) in the run up to the general election and this summer, will launch a contemporary play about addiction and social media alongside a new version of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie.
“There needs to be some creative force or event around a production – something that will draw actors and audiences and artists to it,” says Herrin. “With The Glass Menagerie, it’s about taking a really great play that no-one has done for a while, and giving that to an exciting new voice who can say something new with it. With the Absence of War, it was more about ‘what does that play say about what’s happening in the country, and how does this reflect real life?’ [With contemporary work], it’s difficult to pinpoint, but … in an ideal world, the subject matter is punchy, and looks at the contemporary world in a fresh way,” he adds.
While Headlong enjoyed success with early productions such as Faustus and Paradise Lost, its breakthrough was Enron: a 2008 play written by Lucy Prebble and based on the financial scandal which led to the bankruptcy of the Enron energy company, one of the biggest bankruptcy cases in US history. Co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre and the Royal Court, it won multiple awards for direction and writing as well as lighting, sound and set design, and eventually transferred to the West End and Broadway.
“The script for Enron landed with us in 2008, just before the international banking crisis,” says Finch. “We were lucky in terms of timing because it made it relevant, but we had actually got ahead of that before it happened, by being very engaged with the outside world and not just talking to ourselves as an industry. I think it was a turnaround project for us, because that’s when we went to Broadway, and the company started to get name-checked for its style of work,” she adds.
As Finch points out, Headlong has become known for its use of visuals, lighting and sound, as much as its desire to tackle difficult themes. Several of its plays have received awards for their set design, and in 2013, it won Oliviers for set design, lighting and sound with Chimerica, a co-production with the Almeida Theatre about a photojournalist who tries to track down a protestor he photographed in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (also designed by Devlin, it used a rotating cube device and large-scale video projections to present the two continents). Its plays are often highly stylised, with visuals and technology as much of a focus as the actors on stage.
“We always said we want our projects to have real intellectual rigour, but also loads of bells and whistles on the stage,” explains Finch. “We don’t want to make plays that are starkly intellectual – they must be entertaining, too, and try and break through to new audiences who might need something visually stunning to draw them into a story,” she says.
Herrin agrees: “It’s something that was established under Rupert, but feels like ‘our thing’ – that if we can be theatrical, we will … with Headlong, it feels like that’s something people go to enjoy, particularly that marriage between set design, video and sound, and it’s important we push those boundaries and encourage artists to push them, and aren’t in the business of worrying that it might be too much or will put off a middle-aged audience.”
Reaching a broader demographic with theatre is one of Headlong’s key aims, and Herrin sees technology and bold visuals as key to achieving this. “We put money into design, and that’s one of the things I think partners like about working with us,” he says. “The perfect Headlong show is provocative and challenging but also technically daring, and possibly quite brash and loud. I hope it’s the kind of thing you could take someone who says they don’t like theatre to and they’d have a really good time.”
This bold approach to visuals worked particularly well in The Nether, where Sims’ sinister digital retreat was presented as an alluring, beautiful place in order to highlight the moral complexities of the play. “The brief I gave to Es was to make the audience love the virtual realm – make them enjoy being in this place. Because if it looks creepy or horrible, then the argument is too weighted, and the play is predetermined,” he adds. “By the end of it you find yourself really divided, you feel sympathy for characters that you wouldn’t within the first two minutes, and that complicates people’s knee-jerk responses,” he adds.
It was also evident in 1984, which was designed by Chloe Lamford and offered a modern take on Orwell’s dystopian tale. Exploring the concept of identity and surveillance, the play featured a mix of period and futuristic set design, combined with large-scale typographic projections, surveillance-style video footage and some visceral sound design – particularly in its final moments, which feature a clinical white setting, generous quantities of fake blood and a chilling soundtrack of scratching rodents. Co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida theatre, it performed sold out runs in the West End after its debut in Nottingham and is now heading to the US and Australia.
“We got the rights from the Orwell estate after a lot of persuasion to let us do something funky with the book, and initially we thought ‘we’ll just do it in Nottingham then a do a little tour and that’ll be great’. But it was just brilliant,” she adds. “The staging was extraordinary, it’s really modern and completely not what you’d expect from this kind of title. It’s been our most successful project to date, and that’s 80% due to quality, but also because we exploited it cleverly, and priced it appropriately. A third of the tickets we sold for less than £20, which meant we were bringing a whole new audience in to the theatre as well. When you look at the stats [of people who went to see it], a lot of those people were first time visitors to that theatre.”
Headlong has also adopted a clever approach to promoting itself online via its website, which features slick trailers and production photos from plays alongside articles, video and audio content from writers, directors and designers, offering users a glimpse into the making of each play and discussing some of the themes and issues raised in its productions.
“The website has been a massive part of creating our identity,” adds Finch. “We made a conscious decision to set up a content-filled site, so you feel like you’re accessing the brains of the organisation and can have a root around and read about all our plays, then come back and read about things you noticed after watching it.
We sell a lot of tickets through it, which is usually unheard of for non building-based companies, and as well as boosting our income, it helps us build a direct relationship with our audience, which you don’t usually get,” she says.
In the decade since Headlong was founded, theatre has changed enormously – the success of companies such as Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema have led to a growing demand for immersive theatre and site specific performances, and audiences expect increasingly sophisticated productions. But as Headlong’s success has proved, there is still a demand for a good old-fashioned sit-down play, particularly ones which use technology, design and plenty of “bells and whistles” to deliver narratives in an exciting new way.
“I think the whole Punchdrunk phenomenon has been really interesting, in terms of pushing where you can do work and who you do it for. The definition of theatre now is really elastic, which is great, but for me, I think it’s about trying to combine sensory experience with a depth of narrative engagement,” says Herrin. ‘I’m working with filmmakers at the moment to work out how you can use things like video and VR to play with a bit of that immersion, but in a linear way, because just practically, making stories is about giving people information in a particular order,” he adds.
“Theatrical performances can be expressed in a multitude of ways now, and it’s really exciting to be given permission to experiment with that, but there’s always a good old play to go back to. Getting 500 people in a room, sitting them down with the lights off and, if the play’s good enough, providing a really meaningful experience,” he says.