Theatre Critic and Journalist

Michael Longhurst: Exploding New Plays

Michael Longhurst: Exploding New Plays

Published in The Stage, 05.06.2014

Michael Longhurst arrives with a set of poker chips under his arm. He’s a week into rehearsals for Patrick Marber’s cardshark classic Dealer’s Choice and this afternoon holds a gambling masterclass with his new cast. Longhurst is not confident. “I thought I knew a bit about poker, then I read the play. I’m barely even Grade One.”

The 32 year-old is certainly a risk-taker, though I wouldn’t call him a gambler. His choices are daring, but calculated; his CV, idiosyncratic, but savvy. He spent his twenties “chasing new plays” – some of them rejected by big theatres – with something to say about the world: Iraq, immigration, climate change; the sort of headline topics usually entrusted to established directors and associate artists.

“I used theatre to find out about things that I skipped in the newspaper,” he says with a smile. He studied Philosophy at Nottingham – Carrie Cracknell and Ruth Wilson were contemporaries – and was better with abstract ideas than tangible reality. “The best way to learn about the Iraq war or climate change was to do a play on it, so I got into playwrights who were taking on the world.”

It paid dividends. Putting Lynndie England onstage – scarcely anonymized – in Peter Morris’s Guardians scored him a Fringe First in 2005, while three years later he rescued Adam Brace’s Stovepipe, about mercenaries in Iraq, from the rejects pile. “Stovepipe scared the bejesus out of me. It was very technical on arms and the politics of the situation and it was just sort of immense.” Longhurst’s promenade production – a decision that triggered a rewrite – made the Sunday Times’ ten best shows of the decade.

Rewrites were a regular part of his process. There was usually a reason these scripts weren’t being picked up elsewhere. “My training was learning to get half-finished plays into a performable state. It was about asking the writer to define the nuts and bolts of their scenes and their stories.”

It wasn’t long before the big new writing theatres came knocking – often handing him testing scripts. Dominic Cooke gave him Remembrance Day, a Ukranian play about Latvian independence. “I’d waited all my life for the Royal Court to ring, then this script came through. I read it and just felt sick.”

Yet Longhurst thrives on these sort of challenges, forever seeking out “unstageable moments.” Think of Rory Mullarkey’s Cannibals, with houses that burn down and soliders that drown, or The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, in which a baby is born onstage; even Cooke’s next “gift,” Nick Payne’s Constellations, which hopped between parallel universes all the way to the West End. “I’m just not interested in putting a slice of naturalism on the stage. That’s what TV’s for.”

Inevitably, that places additional onus on design – much to Longhurst’s satisfaction. “The thing I love most about this job is working with designers.” He almost went to art school and “the hours spent round the model box” clearly chime with that sensibility and fulfil his desire for collaboration. Tom Scutt, Chloe Lamford and, recently, Oliver Townsend have proved regular partners. “The best designers make works of art. I love the way that space can express something, pushing a stage space to be a metaphor.”

Hence his flooding the stage with 25,000 gallons of water for his New York debut with Nick Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It. Jake Gyllenhaal had seen Constellations and Longhurst got a call: “‘Can you be in New York in two days to pitch to Jake?’ Er. Yes.” The prospect was daunting, with “the people around the names, managing, that brings the pressure,” but it bolstered his confidence and, after reviews ran the gamut (‘Sensational,’ Time Out; “A pooper,’ NY Observer), made him critic-proof. “I’d never had that divergent reaction to my work before. I realised all I can do is make work I’m proud of.”

Suddenly, though, Longhurst seems to be playing it safe. Dealer’s Choice follows other contemporary classics, The History Boys for Sheffield Crucible and A Number for Nuffield, where Longhurst is an associate. It’s all part of a transition to working on main stages and Longhurst is adamanant that these won’t be “revivals that feel like museum pieces.”

Again, he lets design lead. Lamford fragmented Bennett’s comedy, while Scutt placed A Number into an infinity box of one-way mirrors. Harder to find the metaphor in Dealer’s Choice, I suggest. “The question about the optimum place for a dishwasher, yes,” agrees Longhurst, “but Patrick released us from that. Dealer’s Choice is a play about three tables: a poker table, a kitchen table and a restaurant table.

“It’s a play about control and masculine vulnerability. Six men enslaved to addiction, none of whom have meaningful releationships in their lives, none of whom show vulnerability. That’s what the poker things about: Can I show my real hand? Can I show you who I really am?”

So what’s next? A busy summer: another Payne, An Act of Dying, “a deeply personal account of his father’s death” for the Royal Court, then Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews at the Ustinov in Bath. As for rumours about a New York run for Constellations, they give Longhurst an opportunity to practice his poker face.

Photograph: Robert Day

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