From the Front line – 12/5/14

Piecing Together Johnny Got His Gun

I came across Johnny Got His Gun because I wanted to do a show with actor Jack Holden, who I worked with when I co-produced Fiesta at the Trafalgar Studios last year. It is very rare that I approach a project with the specific aim of working with an individual; the script is the most important thing, and usually I like to find that first and build the rest of the production around it. I struggled finding something that would do justice to Jack and an opportunity to demonstrate his range. Having played Albert in War Horse for quite a long time he was looking for a piece that would allow him to stretch himself in a different direction.

It was Stewart Pringle, now artistic director at the Old Red Lion, who first mentioned Johnny Got His Gun to me. I was immediately both intrigued and wary. Intrigued because I spent some time living in America a few years ago, and the book is a massive part of that nation’s cultural identity. Dalton Trumbo is a legend (and soon to be played on film by Bryan Cranston), every child reads the book in school, viewing of the film is a rebellious teenage right of passage. I found it fascinating that the book could be so important in the States and yet people in the UK were barely aware of it. Plus there was the draw of a theatre pedigree. This was the play that launched the career of Jeff Daniels, winning him an Obie when he first performed it off-Broadway. I was attracted to the idea of introducing such a great piece of work to a UK audience. Wary because I knew 2014 would mark a massive outpouring of events around World War One, and I feared that the show could get lost among the noise.

And then I read the script and within about 12 seconds put my reservations aside, because it was just great and relevant and beautiful and I wanted to do it. This was a piece that would require every ounce of skill from Jack, would need such precise and clear direction, had the ability to mesmerize an audience. At that point it also looked very much like we as a nation would be invading Syria, and I felt that the narrative of that discussion had been sanitized to the degree that the loss of innocent human life was being bypassed. I wanted to produce a play that spoke to the incredible loss associated with war, and of the inevitability of those who are most vulnerable also being those who lose the most. This was that play.

Now I had the play and the actor, I needed a director. I had not met David Mercatali at that point, but was aware of him, and particularly that he had directed Dark Vanilla Jungle, a brilliant one-person show written by Philip Ridley. I sent the script to him, and was delighted to get a quick and positive response. Dave has all the things you would expect from a top director; charisma, an innate understanding of the emotional rhythms of a text, an appreciation of the relationship between physicality and character. On top of that he has an extraordinary ability to ratchet up the intensity in a performance without on the surface changing much at all. I have no idea how he does it, but I am very grateful to it. Like most things that are not theatre producing, it probably comes down to hard work.

Of course, David wanted to read with Jack, and vice versa. I had never met David and had not read with Jack at this point, so in the back of my mind I also wanted to check they were both up to the task. What proceeded was a three-way audition in which each of us was attempting to scope out the other two and work out whether we wanted to commit. Thankfully everything went fine, and the venue fell in to place soon after.

David and I knew we wanted to strip back the production and let the text and performance speak for themselves. In a way, this actually makes a production harder rather than easier, as it means that what is there needs to be absolutely brilliant. I always want to provide value to my audience, and that means that if a production has less set, for instance, I want to ensure that those three items that are on the stage are perfect. Thankfully these things are often a case of getting the best people for the job, and we soon lucked out. I foolishly assumed that Christopher Nairne would have bigger and better things to do than this show – by chance we had a conversation where it transpired he lives two minutes from the Southwark and was available, and he was soon signed up as lighting designer. As exciting was having Max Pappenhiem come on board as sound designer, with his incredibly ambitious plans for multidirectional sound. His drawing skills leave something to be desired, and I was initially worried at having speakers attached to an audience members’ head, but he soon came through with some even more exciting suggestions. David also brought on board Mark Dominy to assist him, and he immediately set about getting invaluable research about the period to better inform the rehearsal process.

The final piece of the puzzle was Martha Rose Wilson, who joined me as associate producer. Her job is essentially to do all the work and give me all the credit. As I wander around spouting ideas, Martha Rose is the person who either puts them into action (the good ones) or quietly shelves them (the bad ones), all the while supplementing them with her own. She has been so efficient at this that I have basically ceased to function on my own, but I have been careful to give her the impression she is terrible at her job in the hope of keeping her for a while longer.

The situation in Syria has since changed, but the ambition that first drove me to produce this play remains. To highlight the cost of war to the common man, to introduce one of the great pieces of American literature to a UK audience, to give a platform to demonstrate the extraordinary talents of my team – oh, and hopefully the people watching might have a good time too.