Theatre Critic and Journalist

Interview: Natalie Abrahami

Interview: Natalie Abrahami

Published in The Stage, 09.01.2014

Last year, Natalie Abrahami was buried alive. “Just to see what it’s like,” she says nonchalantly. To look at the 34 year-old director, all poise in her Peter Pan collar dress, you wouldn’t necessarily think her the type. “Actually, it’s quite warm and cosy; almost foetal. What’s interesting is that everything’s relative. You want things in relation to what you had before.” In other words, buried up to your neck, you long to be merely waist-deep again. It’s at that point, she reckons, that “you realise that we’re all in denial;” that to be human is to be blinkered.

Blasé burials can only mean one thing in theatre: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Who can forget its iconic protagonist, Winnie, waist-deep – now neck-deep – in sand; so hopeful, yet so stumped? For Abrahami, currently directing Juliet Stevenson in the role for the Young Vic, where she’s the current Genesis Fellow, the play “feels more prescient and pertinent” than ever. Its imagery is of climate change: Winnie bakes under a relentless sun and Beckett likened her to “a bird with oil on her feathers.” Abrahami believes it challenges “the denial that we have any impact on our environment.” Or, indeed, that it has any on us. “It’s a really poignant reflection of where mankind is at the moment.”

She’s fully aware, however, that Beckett’s plays aren’t reducible to pat allegories, having written her undergraduate dissertation at Cambridge on his ultra-innovative demands on stage lighting. The academic tendencies remain in place. Her rehearsal room has a shelf of background reading and Abrhami uses several annotated scripts: her own self-typed “score” with spacious stage directions and “added emoticons”, since published editions make her “eyes fizz over;” several of Beckett’s original drafts and his own directors’ notes from his 1979 production for reference.

“The nerdy part of me does all these footnotes,” she says. “His plays are very rewarding when you probe into them. He writes these notes to himself. He invented this verb: to vagan. He’s trying to abstract things. It started much more naturalistic. He had an alarm clock and time was passing. Willie was more present. As he hones his stage metaphor, he abstracts it. The environment becomes more hostile.”

Abrahami sees her directing style as straddling these three modes: pragmatic, literary and contemporary. “What’s useful for performers is different to what’s useful for directors,” she explains. “I like to know as much as I can about the subject, to see as much in the script as possible, then use it quite lightly in the rehearsal room.” Bringing a text to life, she says, involves “finding our own associations” and it’s that process that refines the resonances of a classic play.

That’s crucial for Abrahami, who started assisting at the Royal Court post-university and ran Notting Hill’s tiny Gate Theatre with Carrie Cracknell, where they introduced cross-arts work, much of it dance-theatre. This emphasis on new writing and new work has led to the central tenet of her practice. Since no playwright intends their work to drift into irrelevance, she sees the director’s job, somewhere between “a séance and a ventriloquist act,” as knitting their writing into today’s world without betraying its essence. “What would Chekhov want now? What would excite Beckett?” she asks rhetorically. How do you recreate the “arresting quality of watching a curtain rise in 1961 to see someone submerged to their waist in sand?”

“You don’t want anything to feel like you’re watching a museum piece, because it used to be important. If it was important then, it should still be important and, if it’s not, it shouldn’t be on.”

This is her understanding of the term auteur – one that she’s previously advocated in print – rather than as a director’s personal “signature.” If anything, she wants to avoid a hallmark style in the interests of flexibility and versatility. “I love seeing work and almost not knowing who directed it, as long as it feels right…As a director, I’m an interpreter, not a writer – but there is artistry in the act of interpretation.”

Photograph: Johan Persson

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