Nick Bagnall sits down in one of the many chairs that regimentally line the ground floor café at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. A look of wide eyed humour that always seems to bring out the very best in who he is in conversation with fills the room and somehow, as if by some Shakespearian magic, manages to drown out the world surrounding him. The sound of the music that had the ears flapping in enjoyment before hand is now silent, the sense of nerves one feels when meeting someone who has done so much for the city’s artistic front in the last couple of years, is dissipated and sent packing into the ether as if carried by the Tempest or the heavy hand of Bottom.
Knowing Nick Bagnall is to feel art breathe, a man of generous quality in his approach to making theatre, he has the touch that balances between the mischievous Puck and the stately Oberon, the hand that offers the actors under his direction positivity and the touch of madness that makes theatre alive, passionate and dedicated to the very cause of enlightenment.
The Everyman Theatre has been a second home to this charming man of Scarborough, yet there is without doubt the anger, welcome and desired, that bubbles under the surface, a man to whom would have been surely proud to sit in the pantheon of the angry young men of 1960s cinema and to whom the greats would have acknowledged as one of their own.
In the comfort of the Everyman Theatre I ask Nick about taking on the task of showcasing William Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, how a generation of school children were subjected to the Bard’s work through the inadequate and dull strains of teachers that simply did not care enough and on working with the likes of Colin Tierney and Simon Armitage.
Congratulations on another Shakespearian masterpiece!
NB: “Thank you, mate!”
Where you a huge fan of Shakespeare?
NB: “There are two points to this story. I remember being at school and not being a particularly… what’s the word? I was a naughty kid at school, I was in a class where this crap teacher started to read Macbeth to us and it took him about three weeks to do it and he read at us and it was the most boring experience of my life and I remember thinking I hate this Shakespeare because of the way it was taught to me. Then when I was 16, I went and saw Mark Rylance play Romeo in a gym in Ripon and I left going home, going oh my word, theatre can be sexy, it can be bold, it can be beautiful and that sort of set me going. After that, I realised that it wasn’t just tights and ruffs, it could be inventive, imaginative and really bold and sexy.”
That’s exactly what you’ve done with the Two Gentlemen of Verona. For me and a lot of others, this is probably the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays.
NB: “I think it’s Shakespeare’s weakest play if I’m honest and when I first read it, I didn’t want to do it, I did give it a lot of thought and when I decided to do it, I decided to rip it apart. I was always really keen to take a band on the road, that was a passion of mine and I wondered if the narrative could be led by a band and it felt that as the play was so naïve and to have so many holes in it and yet there were still bits in it where they later become great and embrace certain themes within Two Gentlemen of Verona – such as in Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, that sort of theme becomes really rich and robust, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, he just touches on them so what I did was that I took those bits, those themes and made a musical approach to them. You can’t really do that with any of his other plays because most of his plays are so robust that actually you need to be careful that you’re not just reimagining something that’s already a truly imaginative piece of work, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, you can throw anything at it as it’s very robust as a play.
With Two Gentlemen of Verona I cut the fourth act in the play and it’s two pieces of music, that’s all that is so yeah it was really important that I smashed it apart and the big thing that I keep on saying is that it was really important to me that it was accessible to young people and that’s a kind of passion of mine, the demystifying of Shakespeare is really important to me. I think music does that far quicker than anything else as you know, it just felt right, the play needed a number doing on it, so I did!”
If I may be bold, it is a rather wonderful play! There is a beauty to the direction that I don’t usually see. It’s not a million miles away though from your days as an actor though!
NB: “Yeah, absolutely!”
I’ve had the great pleasure of knowing you for a while now, in that time there seems to have been an explosion of thought going on there, perhaps you might not have been aware of it when you were acting?
NB: “I’m glad you said that, it’s really interesting, I got bored with being an actor, I’m one who likes a challenge and its all connected with Two Gents… as well. I made Two Gents… in a very different way to when I made The Odyssey and Midsummer Night’s Dream here. As an actor, I felt I wasn’t being challenged, I was getting great parts , I had a really lovely career but I wasn’t challenged and I wasn’t steering my own ship and I always knew, as you said, there was an explosion inside me that was kind of being tempered and I needed to get rid of it. The directing – I always knew it was going to happen and it was running side by side with my acting career but I couldn’t do both and I made myself very unhappy and very unhealthy if I’m honest and I’m a lot happier and healthier now though because I made the decision to give up the acting. Never, say never but I just can’t imagine going on a stage and being an actor again.”
You were a very good actor though!
NB: “Thank you very much!
I’ve seen you on television, you were very good actor but you are a great director too.
NB: “I think being an actor helps too and I also understand that in the theatre, actors are in the frontline and if you don’t understand the process then you just become directors’ theatre so I always put the audience first and I always put the actors second and without them we’ve got nothing so I understand the process of being an actor can only help but that’s not to say that people who haven’t acted can’t be exceptional directors.
For me though, I feel that the open-hearted quality of my work is connected to the fact that I’ve been an actor and I don’t question the process, if the actor needs space, an actor needs space and I understand that from being an actor and I know when to put my foot on the gas and I know when it’s crap and I know when to tell them it’s brilliant. I also know about timings in a rehearsal room, because there’s nothing worse than a director badly timing something whether that be rushing towards the end of a scene without an actor getting there, there’s nothing worse than a director giving up on a scene and there’s also nothing worse than you thinking got the scene before you’ve got there and I think actors appreciate that in me.
I’m a real grafter but I also think the room has to be enormous fun, so there’s a phrase that I use which is ‘firm fun’ – which is exactly what it is. I get my results because we have a bloody laugh and I think that shows in the shows that I do which are very generous I feel.”
Do you think they have an expressly Northern attitude? It’s the first time I’ve heard it done so succinctly, I’ve not heard it done anywhere else.
NB: “I don’t know if it’s Northern but I definitely do feel that it’s to do with that – I’ve got a chip on my shoulder because I left school without any education or qualifications, all I’ve done is acting, football, judo or cricket and I’ve never done anything academic so I think I’ve got quite a good work ethic in the sense that you’ve got nothing unless you graft and whether that’s a Northern thing or a working class thing I’m not sure but yeah, I don’t know.
There’s something about the way we are creating actors in this country at the moment, because there’s a generic actor that’s coming through at the moment and it’s no fault of theirs but they are well educated, they’re usually of money as they can afford to go to drama school. I didn’t I was in the last year of drama school where I was supported by local government, try and find a drama student who has that anymore, who doesn’t come out of drama school now and be in £25,000 worth of debt. I think politically, there’s a real change that has to happen so I feel very lucky where I’ve got to and I kind of translate that into the room I think.”
Do you tend to see people like the angry young men of the 1960s television, like Peter O’Toole and the ethos you have when you’re trying to put it across on the stage?
NB: “May be I am, I’ve never really thought about it like that. I feel really flattered by that actually. I do have a feel for that. You know the cover of the book ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ where the boy is putting two fingers up? I kind of feel like that every day but I’m really fortunate as I’m coming into work each day and feeling like that in a place that I love, in a theatre that I love with an audience which I love, which is one of the best on the planet and I’m able to anarchic and naughty and mischievous all of which I’m not allowed to be in real life. I do believe though that there is a part of us that in life, we have to tick boxes – we have to be good, we can’t cause any trouble, well I think there’s a massive part of us as human beings that need to invest in those other things like being a trouble maker, the mischief maker, the shape shifter, anarchist, which is the punk. Punk was there for a reason and I think we look around the theatre world and it’s as if punk never existed, it’s like did that happen for nothing? So I’m glad that you think I’m an angry young man, I couldn’t be happier!
When it comes to theatre though I’ve got a responsibility to bring young people in and it can be anarchic and we can stick two fingers up to the world and we can challenge people and if we can’t do that, what’s the bloody point? We may as well do a Rattigan, as good as Rattigan is but I may as well. Shakespeare was as anarchic as they come. He wrote for actors on the hoof, there are so many mistakes in Shakespeare’s work as someone scribed it down wrong because he’s called an actor a character’s name. For instance, in Henry VI, part three, which I did, I think Somerset dies four times in it but has six different entrances, that’s because he just kept calling the actor Somerset, the scribe at the time just wrote Somerset – love those mistakes and academics spend hours and days going over them – what’s this about Somerset? You just think it was just a mistake that’s gone through 400 years!”
Having done Shakespeare at university, I did that play and I know what you’re talking about.
NB: “Just like that teacher I was talking about when I was 13, he thought the best way to read Macbeth was to sit at the front of the class and read it very loudly to us and not allow us to read it and I thought I can’t believe I went through that. I do this a lot of workshops and drama schools but what I do is that I say I’m not sitting here talking about it otherwise it just turns into an intellectual exercise. People were quite surprised by my approach, I opened up the rehearsals on the first day as you know, the actors came in and said what the hell is happening here? We never sat around a table once; we just got on our feet and did it, that’s the way it should be done. You can’t sit and analyse Two Gents…, you’d go mad! It’s a really simple story about a kid who’s young, dumb and full of c**, it’s about a dog, an attempted rape and a bunch of letters there you go, there’s your plot, you can analyse that all you like.”
As it’s perceived at the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s actually quite a good one though.
NB: “Absolutely, the introduction of Proteus becomes Iago later on, you’ve got Romeo and Juliet in there, you’ve got the most famous balcony scene ever written but it starts with Two Gents… so he’s trying out all these things he’s also messing about with theatre. He was an incredible soul was Shakespeare, what he did was that he realised that the human condition was riddled with fantastic stories and I think Two Gents… was his attempt to show these. He wrote the Rape of Lucretia before it which was a huge poem which as you know, is a very different art form but he was playing with the whole idea of asides in Shakespeare and he plays with that idea in Two Gents… so that’s why I have the house lights up, I don’t want the audience to feel they are removed or in an auditorium. Number one on the cast list is the audience in this play and I think that’s what opened the whole thing up for me.”
You’ve been here a while now, have you enjoyed your time here so far?
NB: “Yes I have, the first year though was really tough, it was the re-adjustment because I’d been freelance for 20 odd years or more, I’m 44 now, I’ve been freelance since I was 8 so do the maths! I’ve been a free spirit, I’ve made all the mistakes that actors make, I was living a really extreme actor’s life and then I gave it up as I decided that directing was what I wanted to do. I got healthy and happy as I said, never thought for one minute that I’d end up here but I was very sure that I’d run a building at one point, so when this came up, there were also a couple of others that came up but they didn’t interest me, all other theatres. This came up via Gemma Bodinetz through the interview process and it just felt a perfect fit.
So the first year was difficult to readjust but then this last year I think has actually been kind of thrilling and what we’re going into next year is really bold, I’m being allowed to be really brave with the shows that we’re doing, I’m going to push myself even further, so coming into work is a joy at the moment and I feel that I fit in and I feel like I’m starting to understand the audience here. What I love about this audience here is that they will tell you when it’s shit but by god, they will tell you when they love it. If there’s anything in between, then you haven’t got a chance, there’s usually a deathly silence! They either want you to put two fingers up to them or they want you to give them a big, fat hug and I think what a gorgeous thing we’ve got here.”
I know what you mean, I’m not from here but I do find Liverpool audiences are probably the most honest in the country.
NB: “I’ve never met another like it, I’ve met audiences down at The Globe that will tell you when it’s brilliant and when it’s shit but this is a very unique audience here and the word of mouth in this city is what gets me, Midsummer Night’s Dream was selling because of the title but after the first night The Dream went crazy, it sold out for the rest of the run and we could have done more. That’s the power of the word of mouth in this city, that’s because if someone likes something then they’ll tell you. The Odyssey was a very different animal to sell but I was incredibly proud of it but it didn’t hit this city as hard as The Dream did or Two Gents… has so that meant there was a steady sell instead. I think I didn’t I did a very good job in selling what it was going to be either if I put my hands up to it which is why I wanted to make Two Gents… differently. I wanted to make sure that everyone was very clear about what I was doing here, hence the open rehearsals here, I wanted people to know that I was opening my heart, it was a joyous experience.
I think with The Odyssey, I closed the shop a little bit because Simon Armitage and I worked really hard on it and we’ve got something else we’re desperate to do as well and I think both of us agreed that The Odyssey was a huge animal so I needed to close the doors and grapple with it but the process bored me in the end, after the rehearsals, all it felt like was that I was wrestling a lion to the ground. I think also The Odyssey is a hard title to sell. I don’t want to watch The Iliad – I’ve done it and I changed the title. Part of me wishes I’d changed the title, I wished I’d pushed the Missing Presumed Dead title instead of The Odyssey. We didn’t get as many young people in as I thought. You learn don’t you? I’m incredibly proud of the show though and when it went to the Sam Wannamaker Theatre, to the candlelit theatre, it just came alive again, it had body and beautiful language.”
Do you think having Colin Tierney in The Odyssey under your direction was a bonus? He’s such an excellent actor.
NB: “Having Colin in very early on was great as he did the Days of Troy with me and he played Odysseus in that at the Royal Exchange which meant that we always knew we’d need Colin and to continue that journey with him. His work ethic is phenomenal, he’s a real grafter and a real challenger in the best way, he challenges me all the time in the best way in that we pushed each other quite hard and we also felt a responsibility to it as well, it’s a beautiful story about men at war and thousands of thousands of men in this country are still dying because of war that’s unjust and think we felt quite passionate about the human element of that story.
I’m a true pacifist, what excites me about those stories in The Iliad and The Odyssey is that it’s heartbreaking that we are still fighting these wars that are unjust and those are the stories that interest me, those human stories about so many men at war. If you look down Bold Street now and you see all the ex-army homeless, it just breaks my heart because you think, where’s the duty of care for them? It’s quite astounding that even over the two years since I came here, how many are now on the streets so I’m always intrigued by those stories and we need to shout and scream and voice them.”
I’m not going to ask what’s coming next as it’s all going to be officially announced on 3rd November but what’s next for you?
NB: “I can’t wait, as I’ve said, it’s a massive challenge, all eyes are on us, which is great and the industry and the city are really excited by it; there’s nothing that’s not doable, I couldn’t be more thrilled, I’m just need to get on with it now!”
Ian D. Hall