Interview: Hamish MacDougall

Director Hamish MacDougall talks to Tom Wicker about reviving Howard Korder’s The Lights in the aftermath of the London riots and the importance of theatre as a communal experience.

Hi Hamish. So, what is The Lights, which you will be reviving at The Spring from next Monday, about?

The Lights, which is written by Howard Korder, centres on a young couple called Lillian and Frederic who live in an American city the foundations of which are crumbling. She works in a menial job to survive, and he is unemployed and owes money to the wrong people. During the play they split off from each other and we follow them into a dark urban underworld where they encounter, among others, corrupt businessmen, loan sharks and a host of dispossessed locals.

The Lights is set in an unnamed American city caught in the grip of civil corruption and unrest. Do you think its themes will translate for a London audience – particularly in light of the recent riots?

I think the play is universal for anyone with experience of living in a city. Certainly, there are characters in the play that I’ve walked past in London. It focuses on that sense of urban isolation, of people trying to find their way in a massive metropolis. What I find particularly interesting in The Lights is the lawlessness of the city – there’s absolutely no sense of any authority. During the London riots there were a lot of complaints about a lack of communication and authoritarian presence, which is equally evident in this story. So there are definitely resonances with the recent troubles; in a way, the play presents an exaggerated version of how people felt at the time.

The Lights has not been performed in London since its original production at The Royal Court in 1996. Much of your recent work – Tennessee Williams’s I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays and Edward Bond’s The Under Room – has been first revivals or UK premieres. Do you prefer to direct lesser known or new works? If so, why?

It’s not that I necessarily prefer to direct these plays – there are lots of shows that are done all the time that I’d love to direct. However, for me, what’s most interesting is to present an audience with something that they may not have seen before. With regard to The Lights, it’s fantastically written and should be up there with some of the major American plays. To be able to bring it to a new audience is an extremely exciting prospect.

In general, what do you look for in a play?

A great story, interesting characters and fantastic dialogue – that generally does it for me!

What does staging The Lights at The Spring bring to the production?

The Spring is an exciting new performance space, in a great area of London. Architecturally it’s fascinating, and we are using the whole of the building. This gives a new dimension to the play that you couldn’t get in a conventional theatre.

Could you tell us about Define Choice, the company which is producing the show?

Define Choice is a really interesting new company, which is led, unusually, by actors. They approached me with this project. I like the fact that they have very few limitations – they just put on plays that they love. I was inspired by their passion and, also, felt comfortable working with a company led by actors. To me, they’re the most important part of a production because they’re the ones who have to go on stage every night.

What – if anything – do you think distinguishes off-West End from West End theatre?

I think there’s more potential to follow your interests in off-West End theatre, because there are fewer pressing commercial limitations; you have to be more resourceful and, in many ways, more creative. With The Lights, we’ve created a show that’s probably starker than its West End counterpart would be – which I think pushes the audience to focus on the story and characters. It also means we can use an incredible warehouse space rather than building a £40,000 replica.

What role do you see theatre as playing in today’s society?

For me, theatre is exciting because you’re watching an actor push themselves into new situations, which is a very private experience. Plays can also present aspects of our society that are often left untouched. However, I know that many people feel alienated by theatre; that it’s an exclusive club. I’ve worked on a lot of outreach projects and I think it’s incredibly important to change this perception. Theatre allows people to lose their inhibitions, to see and do something they may not during their daily life. For this reason, I really admire venues that do community and participatory work. With some of the bigger theatres, who just present shows and don’t open their doors any further, you find yourself asking: what role do they play in society?

You started out as an actor. What inspired you to make the shift to directing?

I worked as an actor for a couple of years and started to feel frustrated. I couldn’t work out why for ages, until I suddenly realised that I was analysing everything the director was doing, understanding it and wanting to make those choices myself. So, I started directing and I definitely get more of a buzz from it. I love the feeling of having five thoughts in your head at once, and the challenge of focusing on a piece as a whole rather than on one part of it. I actually think that starting as an actor has helped me a lot; I understand what my cast is going through and I enjoy nothing more than helping them make their performance the best it can be.

What do you hope audiences will gain from seeing The Lights?

They’ll see an exciting story that they most likely will have never heard of before. They’ll also discover Howard Korder, who now writes primarily for American television [for shows such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire], but whose plays are fantastic. It should be a great theatrical experience.

What’s next for you? 

In October, I’ll be directing a rehearsed reading of new play The Mad Women of England, by Judi Daish, at Soho Theatre. It looks at female mental institutions in early nineteenth-century England. I’m also directing for The 24 Hour Plays at The Old Vic, which should be an intensely exciting experience. I’ll also be carrying on with my role as Associate Director at The King’s Head Theatre, presenting exciting new writing in a stark environment.

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