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In conversation with…Gwenda Hughes

Gwenda Hughes gives the low-down on putting Talking Heads on the New Vic stage…

What appeals to you about the work of Alan Bennett?

It’s very very good! He is such a good writer. I directed Office Suite here at the New Vic in 1999 and I’m in the middle of something of a Bennett season - I’ve just done his adaptation of Wind in the Willows for Birmingham Rep. 

Alan Bennett is obviously and for very good reason a national treasure, but I feel it very odd that there is this sense about him that he is cosy. If you look at the whole body of work of this radical playwright, I think he writes incisively about people and he does celebrate language. It seems to me that he has an absolute thrill and joy in how people speak, particularly working class people from Yorkshire.

Also, a lot of his plays structurally have been radical, challenging, new and extraordinary.  

Every single word in Talking Heads is absolutely perfectly the right word and they are a joy because they are funny and moving. I think the three stories we are doing are akin to a generation which is dying out as they speak of a period that has now gone.

 

How hard is it to balance the comedy and more poignant parts in Talking Heads?

I don’t think it is that difficult because the writing is so precise and so truthful to the people he is writing about. People are funny and people do have difficult situations in their lives. People are unintentionally funny even when talking about something quite painful. It is this balance that gives these characters their dynamic and their energy in these stories.

 

Why do you think people find Alan Bennett’s characters in Talking Heads so intriguing?

I think they are very recognisable; they could live in your street, you could know one of them at work or you could be one of them yourself. I think people are drawn to these characters because Bennett writes with such a love for them even though not all of them are particularly attractive and they have all got their flaws and difficulties.

 

What are the challenges about staging Talking Heads in-the-round?

There are two issues, one is practical and one is psychological. They were written for television as monologues and the actors were able to talk to one person with a camera pointing in their face - there are never any sightline issues. For theatre, particularly in-the-round, that means we have had to look at ways to make sure the characters live in such a way that they can talk to the whole audience.

Psychologically it means something different to talk to one person via television than it does to talk to 400 in a theatre –different both for the actor and also for the character when you are sharing intimacies with a group of people rather than just one.

Monologue is a delightful but tricky form because you don’t have other actors coming into the scene changing the dynamic, you don’t have back and forth dialogue – it’s just you alone and so it’s a very intense process for the actors . The lights come up, you open your mouth and you’re away for 35 minutes with no help.

 

How did rehearsals work with three separate stories to tell?

It is unusual but it has been great as we have three very fine actors. We had individual rehearsal sessions but still made sure we all came together every couple days to share where we were up to and to keep a sense of the fact that we were all in the same production. It is actually more tiring than working with a conventional play as there are no bells and whistles, it is just an actor talking and that is quite an intensive process.

 

What is it like returning to the New Vic again? 

I’ve come back to direct pretty much every year since I stepped down as Artistic Director and it really does feel like coming home. It’s delightful, even though I’m not here all the time I still feel part of the New Vic team. It can be quite an isolating job being a director and even though months will go by and I’m not here, I always feel like part of the family when I’m back.

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