Tuesday, September 26

Leeds Playhouse’s James Brining talks about staging A Little Night Music with Opera North

Most people have heard the haunting Send In The Clowns but how many could say which musical it is from?

Well, it’s just one of a bunch of brilliant tunes penned by Oscar and multiple Tony winner Stephen Sondheim for A Little Night Music that traces the complicated and interlocking relationships of several Swedish couples at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Inspired by Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, Sondheim’s challenging score and an intelligent book by Hugh Wheeler offers genuine insights into the high and lows of human relationships.

Leeds Playhouse’s Artistic Director James Brining was gearing up to direct A Little Night Music as his latest coalition with Opera North, but then the pandemic struck.

Now the company including the legendary Dame Josephine Barstow are safely staging the piece, and our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke caught up with James to find out how the enforced absence has influenced this revival.

James, I think it’s fair to say A Little Night Music is one of those legendary shows that people have heard of, but when you drill down they don’t actually know that much about it.

To be honest what you’ve just described is my relationship with the piece, I didn’t really know what it was, I’d heard the famous song. When we were talking to Opera North about what we might want to do together again, now three or four years ago, there were all sorts of titles, not just Sondheim. My first reaction when I listened to it was what do I think about it?

What made up your mind to tackle it?

Over the time I’ve worked on it I’ve come to really respect it, and got to like it. Sondheim is an extraordinary writer for the theatre so working on anything of his is going to yield rewards. What I think it is about now, compared to eighteen months ago when I was going to direct it, has probably changed. I think it is about making the most of what life has to offer whoever you are, and the most of the people around you. Trying to make choices about what is good for you emotionally, rather than what you think is right materially.

Do you think it is still relevant to audiences?

It is more of a social piece than I thought it was as I thought it was about privileged people. It is about people who have privilege, but also people who are not privileged, who often serve them. In the production I’m trying to celebrate people who are trying to forge new ways of being in the world. To find ways to pull together personal satisfaction, emotional satisfaction and being the person they fully want to be, rather than being bound by convention.

This is your third Sondheim at the Playhouse so what is different about tackling another tricky piece from a master songwriter?

The more I’ve worked on it, it’s got really beautiful textures in terms of comedy and joyfulness, but also darkness and pain. Having done Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd in the past, it feels very different from those two, but what it has got in common it has huge humanity and a massive heart. The pandemic experience we have all been living through has been about separation, isolation and the denial of what the heart needs, and grabbing hold of that.

Photography: Sharron Wallace

I’m very suspicious about a rush to create pieces about our struggles with the virus, but has the pandemic influenced this work?

I think it has informed the work practically and thematically. Practically we’ve had to redesign the set, and I think the aesthetic is much more interesting to me at least than the one we originally conceived. This is more stripped back, more inherently theatrical and dynamic. There’s still 19 people onstage, and 25 in the band, and we have been staying socially distant in rehearsal and avoiding touching.

How has that very different rehearsal process been?

That has fed into the thematics because it’s a piece that is about people who are often in the wrong relationship, and then being in the right relationships culminating in physical contact. To not do that throughout the whole piece heightens one’s sense of the physical. It resonates with what we have been all going through where something as simple as a hug is not allowed.

This piece does need a strong cast and you’re managed to cast one of our greatest opera singers as Madame Armfeldt.

I’ve never worked with Dame Josephine Barstow before and she is absolutely brilliant, I’m so lucky and so privileged to be able to work with her. She is an extraordinary artist and she brought something to this character, who in all the soundtracks and recordings I’ve listened to is like a wisecracking joker, the piece from her perspective is about mortality, passing on, passing though.

And it must help you as a director that Dame Josephine can bring all that professional and life experience to the role.

There’s that theme where so many people have not experienced loss in such a concentrated way since the war. She has really illuminated that theme whilst being such a magnetic and charismatic performer She is the real deal I can tell you.

This is a co-production with Opera North who you have been building a productive relationship with during your time at the Playhouse.

I think in the past it’s fair to say the relationship wasn’t as cordial as it is now before my time, some of these things are based on personal relationships. The first major work we did was Into the Woods, they were doing the Ring Cycle and there wasn’t much for their chorus to do in a particular part. It seemed like a really ideal relationship as they didn’t have a theatre, and nothing for their standing company to be doing for a few weeks.

So that seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring two Leeds powerhouses together on a big production?

I always wanted to direct Into the Woods and it was a brilliant opportunity as they are paying their performers so we could get a large scale piece on, which is what the Quarry needs, for relatively lower cost. Opera North felt their artists were being stretched and challenged taking principal roles and working with a theatre director in a slightly different way.

We all know shows come in and out fashion and I noticed the last time Into A Little Night Music was done in The West End in 2008 and on Broadway in 2009. So why choose a production that seems to be more than a bit out of fashion?

At times I’ve been accused of not following what is going on in the West End closely enough. Some London based writers of theatre have criticised me for doing shows that are currently on in the West End on the basis of why do it in Leeds when you can go and see it in the Old Vic? To which I’ve said that’s a load of old shite. It’s a anti provincial snobbish attitude as I couldn’t care less if The Crucible is on at the Old Vic, or White Christmas is on at the Dominion. I couldn’t give a shit as most of my audience are not going to see it.

Like so many productions the pandemic has forced you to wait over a year to finally stage A Little Night Music, so no regrets about sticking with it?

Two or three years ago there was stuff I wanted to say, but ironically now it feels the piece has much more to say. It’s about the importance of seizing the moment in human terms of the relationships that you have and evaluating what’s important in your life. That’s what feels to me is resonant about A Little Night Music now.  It’s a piece that looks very deeply into the human heart and asks really profound questions about what do you want? Make the most of what you have because you’re not here forever.

A Little Night Music runs in the Quarry Theatre until 17th July. Book tickets online at www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk or on 0113 213 7700.