National Theatre blog

Ten Questions for… Aaron Neil

Aaron Neil is currently appearing in Richard Bean’s fast and furious new play, Great Britain.

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Aaron Neil in Great Britain. Photo by Johan Persson.

Who do you play in Great Britain?

Sully Kassam, Metropolitan Police Commissioner

Describe your character in 3 words.

Well-intentioned, honest, ‘unlucky’ (there are some more unkind words to describe him, but I’m playing him, so I’m his biggest fan).

Is there a scene you particularly enjoy performing?

There is, but I can’t tell you about it because it’d spoil the surprise. But if you’ve seen the show, it’s the last scene I do.

Who is your backstage hero?

Our stage manager Shane Thom. No matter how crazy the technical rehearsals got, or how hectic things are backstage, he has always been scarily calm with a huge smile on his face. Stage management at the National are amazing. They know the building inside out and make you feel very secure.

What’s the most memorable on-stage moment you’ve seen or been part of that has made a lasting impression on you?

There are so many. Watching Mark Rylance play Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem. He seemed to take acting to another level. Seeing Stephen Dillane in The Real Thing at the Donmar had a similar effect. Katie Mitchell’s Uncle Vanya at the Young Vic with Stephen Dillane and Linus Roache, was the most complete production of that heartbreaking play that I have ever seen. And for sheer joy, Richard Eyre’s production of Guys and Dolls in the Olivier which I saw four times. I could watch Clive Rowe singing ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ for ever. And Imelda Staunton shimmied over to where I was sat in the second row and dropped her garter belt into my lap. I still have that somewhere, which is possibly a bit creepy.

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Clive Rowe in Guys and Dolls during 50 Years on Stage in November 2013. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.


What’s your favourite spot at the NT?

Oooh there are so many. The balcony of the backstage bar after the show is wonderful; always so many people who are buzzing from having seen one of the three shows. And for similar reasons the foyer on the ground floor around 7 o’clock is great. There’s such a buzz of anticipation. There is nothing to match it in any theatre in the world.

If there was one play you would recommend and it was the only play someone would ever see, which would it be?

King Lear has everything in it and is my favourite play, although if it’s the only play you ever see it might give you a very depressing view of what theatre is. If you were only ever going to see one play, then it should be something that makes you laugh uproariously. I think laughing is a bit underrated in the theatre. People always put comedies second to tragedies, even though making a good comedy is fiendishly difficult. So I’d say something like One Man, Two Guvnors or even, ahem, Great Britain.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

I like to get to the theatre stupidly early, maybe around 5pm. I am a bit superstitious about warm ups, so I make sure I have time on the stage. And I always need a shower. That makes me sound terribly precious about it all, but it’s really just that I find some sort of routine to be very comforting.

What would be your dream role?

I used to get a lot more attracted to roles when I was younger – these days I’m just glad to be offered anything at all. The best roles are the ones that creep up on you, where you don’t realise how good they are until late in rehearsals, or until you get it in front of an audience. I feel that way about Sully Kassam. But I suppose if you were to hold a gun to my head, I’d say anything in a Chekhov, especially Uncle Vanya. I love that play.

If you could watch a play with anyone – dead or alive – who would it be?

I’d love to watch a great modern production of a Shakespeare play with Shakespeare himself. I’d like to think he’d love all the innovation, but I’d be just as entertained if he was a grumpy old man, sucking his teeth and tutting at what those whiny upstarts were doing to his beautiful writing.

Great Britain is playing at the NT until 23 August and transfers to the Haymarket in the West End from 10 September.

Magic, horror and Medea: a disturbance in nature

Ned Bennett, staff director for Medea, on the production’s themes, designs and inspirations.

There are disturbances in nature: animals, birds and the elements recognise something is wrong in the universe. Rather than Medea flying off into the heavens on a chariot drawn by dragons, the forest shakes and the heavens open. Her two young sons are endowed with animal senses, a strange awareness of what is going on around them without necessarily being able to articulate it – drawing on the sense of fatalism experienced by doomed children from classic horror films.

Set somewhere between now and the Ancient World, this production of Medea has a contemporary feel recognisable as our own time. Ben Power’s adaptation of Euripides’ powerful tragedy is based on several literal translations but the play has been re-written to make the language muscular, the story clear and accessible. A primary focus with this version of the text is on making the characters’ actions psychologically driven. There is a drive away from the overly poetic whilst retaining the scale of the magical world.

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The Medea set designed by Tom Scutt. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Tom Scutt’s design creates a world that combines the contemporary with the magical; the strict patriarchal society clashes with the woodland anarchic. Strong influences include horror films in which there’s a belief in magic and a focus on the other: The Shining, Amityville Horror, Carrie. The imagery of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and its examination of marriage and depression at a time when the world might be ending has become an important reference point for the production.

The forest growing out of the floor captures the emotional turmoil of Medea’s brain as well as her connection with the natural world. Trees grow out of one human environment and support another, highlighting humankind’s dependency with nature; the trees break through the carpet and collide with the roof tiles above as an intervention. Likewise, the carpet of Medea’s home fades out into a muddy extreme. The battered lino floor and squat-like furniture conveys the sense of displacement that has plagued her life. The layout of the space allows for movement, transience and places for Medea’s ill-fated sons to hide and overhear things.

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Helen McCrory as Medea. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Movement and music unlock the psychological complexity and magical core of the story. Music for the production is written by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, and has a melancholic, pure tone with a lack of embellishment. Within the music is a clash of the choric with the discordant extending the unsettling, horror movie feel. The musical moments transcend the action through harmonised, long notes and hymns. Lucy Guerin has choreographed movement for the chorus which abstracts the women of Cornith’s comprehension, comment and pre-emptive response to the events and world around them.

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The Chorus and Danny Sapani (Jason). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Mikel Murfi and Cillian Murphy in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Cillian Murphy in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Stephen Rea in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Enda Walsh (writer) and Cillian Murphy in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Mikel Murfi in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Cillian Murphy in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Stephen Rea and Cillian Murphy in rehearsal for Ballyturk. Stephen Rea and Enda Walsh (writer) in rehearsal for Ballyturk.

Two men. Where are they? Who are they? What is this room, and what might be beyond the walls?

These are the questions audiences watching Ballyturk might ask. Enda Walsh’s ambitious and tender new work is currently playing at Galway International Arts Festival, before touring to Dublin, Cork, then playing at the National Theatre from 11 September - 11 October 2014.

Hear Enda Walsh and cast members, Mikel Murfi, Cillian Murphy, and Stephen Rea, talk about the play and where or what Ballyturk could be.

Have we met before? Medea on screen and stage

By Lucy Jackson, researcher in ancient theatre and Knowledge Exchange Fellow (TORCH, University of Oxford)

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Many of us might not immediately know the plot of the play written by Euripides (on which Ben Power’s new version is based) but we may well have come across the figure of Medea in some form or other. This woman, a mother, an outsider to the culture she lives in and infamous murderer of her own children, has been revived and reanimated hundreds of times in the past century. Her story has been retold in operas, films, art galleries, abandoned warehouses and theatres. More frequently than we’d hope, we also see the story of Medea played out in real life; in mothers who find themselves in the midst of cataclysmic divorce, of abuse, of prolonged isolation or mental breakdown. The number of productions of this particular play in the recent past seems to point to just how hungry we are as a society to explore the forces that compel individuals to commit such atrocities.

Lars von Trier (1988)

The haunting and unsettling film of Medea, directed by Lars von Trier (1988), has made a significant mark on how we think about this story. In this version the natural world dominates; the huge skies, expansive deserts and stretches of water reflecting the heavy clouds above. Medea herself, like most characters in the film, barely speaks. Yet we see her connection to the supernatural forces in the world (she appears to be standing on water at one point) and her isolation is offset by shot after shot of her alone in the middle of a huge expanse of earth, water and sky.


Deborah Warner with Fiona Shaw (2000)

Deborah Warner’s production in London and New York (2000-1) made a clear decision to update the story to a contemporary setting. Fiona Shaw played Medea as a ravaged, volatile and utterly modern protagonist and the psychological damage the character had suffered and was still suffering from was devastatingly clear. While the murder of the boys often takes place off stage, in Warner’s retelling, the youngest son manages briefly to get away before being chased down on stage – a brutal sight for any audience.

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Fiona Shaw in Medea at Queen’s Theatre, London, in 2001. Photograph: Tristram Kenton


Headlong (2012)

Very recently (2012) the theatre company Headlong produced a Medea that toured widely in the UK and presented a broken family in the most updated setting – a bright and boxy suburban semi, a single child, and a friend of the family, Pam, taking on the role of chorus. Mike Bartlett who both wrote and directed this retelling consciously abandoned the kind of language often associated with Greek tragedy and the play was received almost as one would a piece of new writing.


National Theatre, directed by Carrie Cracknell with Helen McCrory (2014)

This summer the National Theatre will be staging the play for the first time in its history and the NT Live screening on 4 September will reach audiences around the globe.

This new production incorporates elements seen in some of these recent productions. It situates itself in a thoroughly contemporary setting while still evoking elements of the supernatural that saturate reimaginings such as von Trier’s film. But there are many places where something entirely new is being done. One rarely gets to see a chorus so fully and imaginatively integrated into the tone and narrative of a Greek tragedy as this chorus of women, here guests at the wedding of Jason and Kreusa. Added to this, Helen McCrory’s Medea is articulate, fierce and controlled, while never shying away from the psychologically bruised depths of the character. For this, the National’s first production of the play, a new Medea has been born.

Medea is playing from 14 July to 4 September. Book tickets here.

Broadcast live to cinemas on 4 September. Find your nearest venue here.

Staging The Elephantom

The Elephantom, by Ross Collins and adapted by Ben Power, opens in the West End this week. The Elephantom had its premiere at the National Theatre in December 2013 and is a wonderfully inventive piece of theatre, mixing puppetry, movement, dance and music to bring Collins’ magical picture book, about a little girl who is unexpectedly visited by a big blue elephant, to life on stage.

How was it staged? 

Directors Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell talk about the creative process they went on in putting The Elephantom on stage from initial idea, to designing and making the puppets and how they pieced together all the different elements which make up the production.

Finally, we give you a montage of video clips from different stages of the creation process – from workshops to rehearsals and, finally, performances in the theatre.

The Elephantom is playing at the New London Theatre until 6 September. Suitable for everyone 3 years and over.

Writing plays for Connections – the biggest youth theatre festival

Pronoun by Evan Placey

Playwriting is a bit like childbirth. (And no, I’ve never given birth to a child so of course I can’t really know.) But you have this thing growing inside you, carry the weight of it around – fragments, ideas, bits of matter – that eventually come out into this living breathing thing. You have hopes and dreams of what it will become.

Normally you continue to nurture it after birth – through rehearsals, and rewrites, and working with actors, director, designer – before you let it go as a fully-formed thing who can independently carry on its way. And while you still think about it, and worry about it, and analyse the things you’ll do differently with your next child-play, you let it be.

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But Connections is a different kind of play-rearing. Because once born, you hand it over. And then you suddenly reappear much later – like the absent parent arriving for the Sweet Sixteen birthday party – trying to make sense of this thing before you. And sometimes it’s achieved all the ambitions you had for it, and sometimes it’s become a different thing, not quite how you remembered it, influenced by the people around it in its development; but you love it all the same.

It’s been a real privilege to be that parent suddenly arriving to see what’s happened to Pronoun; to have 40 different groups of young people putting their own spin on this story; and mostly to know that 40 different young actors are cutting their teeth with the character of Dean, a young transgender man.

I wrote the play because I wasn’t seeing trans or gender nonconforming characters on our stages, and certainly not in plays for young people. I wrote it because I was tired of hearing our government calling for a ‘tolerant’ society, when, in the words of Dean, ‘tolerance is horseshit.’ I wrote it because I want to live in a society that embraces difference, loves people, appreciates their contributions – not one that tolerates them.

Read more

Billie Piper as Paige Britain. Photo by Johan Persson. Dermot Crowley, Robert Glenister and Billie Piper. Photo by Johan Persson. Billie Piper, Dermot Crowley, Ian Hallard and Rupert Vansittart. Photo by Johan Persson. Aaron Neil, Scott Karim and Billie Piper. Photo by Johan Persson. The company. Photo by Johan Persson. Andrew Woodall, Billie Piper and Oliver Chris. Photo by Johan Persson. The company. Photo by Johan Persson. Billie Piper. Photo by Johan Persson. Harriet Thorpe, Joseph Wilkins, Andrew Woodall, Aaron Neil, Billie Piper, Oliver Chris. Photo by Johan Persson.

Richard Bean’s fast and furious new play is an anarchic satire about the press, the police and the political establishment. Billie Piper plays Paige Britain, ambitious young news editor of The Free Press, a tabloid newspaper locked in a never-ending battle for more readers.

Great Britain opens tonight at the NT and is playing until 23 August.