Tuesday 28 March 2017

Theatre: Fancy frocks and adding heart to costume drama

Tragicomedy: Mary Lou McCarthy and Karen McCartney in The Heiress at the Gate Theatre, directed by David Grindley
Tragicomedy: Mary Lou McCarthy and Karen McCartney in The Heiress at the Gate Theatre, directed by David Grindley

Chris McCormack

David Grindley is surprisingly lively. In one of the Gate Theatre's plush meeting rooms, the London-based director tells me he's emerged from "a very unconventional rehearsal period".

The theatre's artistic director, Michael Colgan, phoned him at the end of the summer with a mix of good news and bad. Grindley's storming staging of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was to return for a second run. The catch? Rehearsals would start the same day as his next project, the Gate's Christmas production: The Heiress.

That has led to a tricky juggling act, rehearsing one play in the morning and another in the afternoon and evening. "Since Woolf ended, there's been a lot to catch up on," he admits, still hopeful.

If Grindley shows no sign of sweating, it's probably due to the confidence gained from an accomplished and robust career. Eyeing a future in professional theatre, he enrolled in York University and fell in with a crowd: the playwright Simon Stephens - whose Punk Rock and Sea Wall were recently seen in Belfast and Dublin respectively - and director Sean Holmes, who staged the Abbey's contemporary Plough and the Stars earlier this year. Increasingly, they seem to be staging a takeover of Irish theatre.

Though Grindley hasn't been one to stay in the same place for long. Since serving a stint at the Chichester Festival Theatre in the late 1990s, he has zigzagged throughout the UK, worked at the West End and Broadway, getting his break with a timely revival of Mike Leigh's comedy of manners, Abigail's Party, in 2002. He's been fortunate as a freelancer.

"You are held hostage to certain imperatives," he explains. "You have to pay the rent. But there are very few shows I've done that I didn't want to do. The issue is if you don't have a connection to the material you're working on, it's very difficult for you to enthuse the actors about the material if you don't have any enthusiasm yourself."

But that hasn't discouraged him from taking on a challenge. Colgan was searching for someone to direct Tom Murphy's play The Gigli Concert when he first offered Grindley a job. "I couldn't make hide nor hair of it," he tells me.

Murphy's drama, an immense meditation on depression and transcension using the Italian opera singer Gigli as a conduit, is difficult to pull off. Colgan and Murphy had a history of conflict between them. Add the out-of-towner Grindley to the mix, and the production was already raising a few eyebrows.

"Me being English was actually very helpful," he explains. "I could be an outsider and ask stupid questions." That's helpful for sorting through what's presumed or 'sacred' about an Irish classic. Grindley's fresh and rigorous production garnered a five-star review and a second run due to popular demand.

The Heiress will be his third play at the Gate, and is less obvious fare for a theatre that in recent years staged adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights at Christmas. Based on Henry James's 1880 novella Washington Square, this tragicomedy concerns a searching young woman in New York and her widowed father who is overcome by cynicism and grief.

What are the pressures of putting on a play during the festive season? "There's an expectation that it will be a bit cosy. At the end of the day it's not going to be a three-act show". Regardless, Grindley believes the play will have teeth, despite belonging to that conspicuous genre: the costume drama.

"It brings a certain reaction from outside," he says, "in terms of the value of that work. I wanted to show that The Heiress could be as potent and compelling as the evenings I presented Woolf and Gigli."

The suspicion is that the action will be smothered by glamorous frocks. Grindley, whose staging of the period play Journey's End won the Tony Award for Best Revival in 2007, doesn't buy it. "The common misconception about period plays is the fact that they're all a bit frosty, they're all a bit emotionally disengaged because of the etiquette of their time. But when you're in scenes with two people speaking in private, that etiquette goes out the window.

"Obviously it's gorgeous to look at; it's set in the most wealthy area of New York at that time, and the furnishings need to reflect that. But by the same token, the hearts that beat beneath the characters' clothes are the same hearts that beat in our own breasts. What you want to do is show the humanity that exists onstage, despite the period and how less connected it is to contemporary society."

Speaking about his long-time collaborators, the set and costume designer Jonathan Fensom and lighting designer Jason Taylor, Grindley says that the work is sometimes described as understated. That sounds like a polar opposite to the Gate's new incoming artistic director, Selina Cartmell, who is known for her flashy stagings. I ask him if they've been in contact. "I haven't, no," he says, "not that I wouldn't be open to that."

Is it possible Grindley finally wants to stay put? "The 18 months and three shows I've done here is one of the longest running relationship I've had with any theatre," he tells me before bouncing back to work. Time will tell.

The Heiress runs at the Gate Theatre until January 7

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