Interview: Hannah director Simon Evans on Faustus, iambic pentameters and close-up magic
What would you do if you were offered power over the entire world? But the deal came with one little request - your soul. A teenager is given that very choice in Hannah, a modern-day re-imagining of Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus being staged at the Unicorn Theatre.
LUCIA BLASH talks to director Simon Evans about the challenge of writing in verse... and the fact he's won Close-Up Magician of the Year - twice!
Can you tell us a little bit about Hannah.
Simon Evans, pictured below: The piece follows a 13-year-old girl who has one of those mornings where it feels like everything has gone wrong and, in the heat of the moment, screams that she'd give anything in the world to feel like she's at the centre of it.
Someone appears and offers to give her just that in exchange for one little thing. It's a really wonderful fable and expresses something so true about us all. It's about the conveniences of modern life and whether they propagate laziness in society. It's about the role faith plays in young people's lives. It's about growing up and taking responsibility for the choices you make. And it's got magic and a lizard.
What drew you to the piece?
Top of the list would be that it explores some of the big themes. I am lucky enough to read a lot of new plays and sometimes get disheartened when they choose to focus on the immediacy of life rather than the more epic questions. I find myself drawn to plays which explore more eternal themes - and Hannah has plenty of that.
There's also something incredible about how crafted the play is. Chris Thorpe, the author, has followed in Marlowe's example and written the whole thing in blank iambic pentameter.
It's a remarkable thing. It's like music, connecting to us almost sub-consciously in ways we didn't anticipate, but also containing ideas which need to be pulled apart and analysed. It's a thrill to think we might be introducing an audience to that kind of language.
How do you begin to take verse and craft it for the stage?
There's a misapprehension that verse is confusing and hard to follow and I think that comes from a lack of time spent ensuring the narrative is made clear. My first job, on whatever I'm directing, is to ensure the story is told clearly. That's no more challenging in verse than in any other kind of writing.
Once we've done that, my second job is to ensure it's thrilling. That's where I get to bring in some visual aspects if I think they're required. If, however, I can use a more theatrical moment to support or give a nudge to Chris' writing; if an audience can understand how it connects to the rest of the story; and if a moment like that can get one of those golden reactions: a spontaneous laugh or (even more gloriously) a gasp, then I think we've got the balance right. I'm hoping we'll have a couple of those in Hannah.
You're a professional magician. How did you go from that into directing?
I took up magic when I was 13 years old and have won competitions as Close-up Magician of the Year twice. I've performed my own solo magic shows in Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and London and, when I was 18, made my way from LA to New York performing magic on the streets. It's always been a fascinating hobby and a very satisfying source of income.
I came to directing at university. I acted a lot there, too, but started to enjoy reading up and around directors and other theatrical practices then play around with them in shows. This led to terrible work as I was keen to show how much I knew about "theatre" and not how much I knew about audiences.
I left university and started directing wherever I could, first in Edinburgh then on the London fringe. I slowly came to learn that, if the play was a good one, then I should get out of its way.
I was always happy to talk about magic in all of the places I've worked so was delighted when Howard Davis invited me to put some magic into his NT production of The Cherry Orchard. I followed that with a little work on Josie Rourke's production of The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar and Michael Grandage's Privates On Parade. It's a fledgling career branch, but it's lovely to be able to combine two of the things I love like this.
What are some of the biggest challenges on Hannah for you as the director?
I've had to be incredibly mindful of the age range we're getting in to see the show. The play explores some heavy ideas and I don't want to have to pick my way through them so slowly that we alienate and patronise the upper ends of the range, but I don't want to whip through them quickly.
It also influences how we approach some of the more threatening moments. As the play reaches its conclusion and Hannah begins to realise the impact of the choices she's made, there's real opportunity to show her fear. I don't want to shy away from that, but also don't want any of our younger audience members to leave never wanting to set foot in a theatre again.
There's also the more pragmatic challenge of how we deliver the ambition of Chris' narrative. As you can imagine, when given the power to do whatever she wants, Hannah makes some fairly lofty requests.
I don't want to spoil any of the steps she takes, but her journey is certainly a global one, leaping from place to place and creating/destroying at will. There are so many theatrical forms out there that we could have drawn from in telling the story visually, but I wanted to ensure that the language was always at the forefront.
You must be thrilled to be working with Andrzej Goulding?
Andrzej is, as far as I'm concerned, the most exciting projection and video artist working in theatre at the moment.
It's an absolute thrill to have him involved and it's become a little treat in rehearsal breaks to see an email from him with a link to the next animation he's created for us. As projection is a relatively new tool in theatre I had no idea at all what its limits were. In the event, I'd massively underestimated what we could do so it was a huge thrill for him to talk us through some of his ideas.
It would be so easy, with a box of toys like Andrzej has, to use them everywhere. Instead, we're being careful with our choices.
Where do you hope to take the audience with this production?
I want them to follow Hannah. She's their guide and, through her reactions, I hope we can form our own opinions. She's the first person we see and so, if we pull off that connection, she'll be our avatar in that world. When she's confronted by the decision of whether to make the deal or not, I hope that the audience will give the question due thought as well. What would they do in that situation?
I want our audiences to lean forward, I want them to work a bit at it. It's the kind of show that says, we can't do all the work for you - you've got to engage and form an opinion and then analyse the opinion you've made. I hope we take the audience on that journey.
We're not dumbing anything down, or patronising our audience. It's a difficult play, with difficult themes and you'll get so little from it if you sit back and wait for us to tell you what to think.
If, on the other hand, you lean forward and connect with it, then our audiences will discover something with Hannah about the world around them and the important of rolling up your sleeves and getting involved. I hope we do that.
• Hannah, Unicorn Theatre, Tooley Street SE1 2HZ, Feb 25- Mar 9, various times and prices. unicorntheatre.com or call the box office on 020 7645 0560
Image: Kae Alexander as Hannah and Ian Keir Attard as Dave at the Unicorn Theatre. Picture: Manuel Harlan