Director Alexander Lass has teamed up with producer Debbie Hicks on two major play productions running at The Vaults this autumn: the first-ever revival of David Hare‘s 2003 play The Permanent Way, which opened in September, and, starting performances tonight (17 October 2019), the UK premiere of Sam Shepard‘s 2009 play Ages of the Moon. We caught up with him to learn more about both.
How did you & producer Debbie Hicks meet? What do you like about working together?
I first met Debbie in 2014, when she was producing the London transfer of Holes by Tom Basden at The Arcola Tent. I had worked with the director Phillip Breen as his Associate Director on the production’s first outing at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, and he asked me back for the London run despite Debbie’s protestations that I was surplus to requirements!
It was one of my first professional jobs after finishing training at LAMDA and the Orange Tree Theatre and I loved the project. The production was excellent and the critical and audience response was very positive, although it didn’t quite translate to robust enough ticket sales for Debbie to consider it a roaring success.
After Holes, I tried to keep in touch with Debbie, inviting her to all of my stuff and occasionally pitching her project ideas. She ignored every single message I ever sent her. Then, miraculously, in the late summer of 2017, she responded to an email I sent five months previously, agreeing to meet for a cup of tea and a catch-up. We met, got on surprisingly well and, after many cups of tea and coffee and the odd glass of wine, I somehow managed to persuade her to produce a slate of projects this year including these two at The Vaults.
So my advice to aspiring directors who are seeking producers would be to be patient and positive and persistent but resist sending too many pitches or invitations to see work. It’s a fine balance.
I like working with Debbie for so many reasons. She is intelligent, driven, efficient, and passionate about her work. She cares deeply about artistic merit and commercial success. She has a brilliant sense of humour which is never extinguished by the stresses and strains of the job. Simply put, she is a superb collaborator and I hope we might work together again in the future.
Why did you want to revive David Hare’s The Permanent Way in 2019?
We felt that the moment had come to bring The Permanent Way back to the London stage for the first time since its acclaimed premiere in 2003-4. David Hare’s caustic interrogation of railway privatisation has lost none of its potency over the past sixteen years. In fact, what with the ongoing and controversial privatisation of other key public services, it is more relevant than ever.
The play consists of the first-hand accounts of the architects of privatisation and those affected by the chaos of its aftermath. From a series of interviews originally conducted by David and the Out of Joint ensemble, we learn that the scheme was doomed to fail from the outset. The deeply moving testimony of the survivors and bereaved of the four major rail disasters – Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, and Potters Bar – raises profound questions about private profit, corporate responsibility, and governmental mismanagement.
Amidst the current backdrop of political turmoil at home and abroad, we seem to have learned nothing from our own recent history.
Just as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t actually about asylums, The Permanent Way uses the institution of the railways as a lens through which to explore universal themes of timeless resonance. How much individual and collective suffering do we need to endure before our shared humanity motivates us to take action?
How involved has David Hare been?
David has been brilliant. Before the production was announced, he agreed to meet up with me and Debbie to chat about the play. We spoke for over an hour, much of it with him protesting that “I honestly can’t remember anything about it, it was so long ago and I haven’t looked at the script for over 15 years” followed swiftly by yet another eloquent and insightful piece of advice.
He came to visit the company during rehearsals and once again was very generous with his time, speaking to the actors about the play, the characters, and the process of creating the play originally. He also took questions from the actors, which everyone found immensely helpful.
He attended an early preview and was very encouraging, although he thought it was too long. We spoke on the phone the following morning, and he proposed some cuts to the Prologue section. I agreed they were great improvements – we removed some very specific references to the transport situation in London in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which don’t quite resonate so clearly anymore. We also agreed that 1 hour 45 minutes is the maximum amount of time you can expect audience members to sit without having an opportunity to go to the loo!
How did you come across Sam Shepard’s Ages of the Moon?
I first encountered Ages of the Moon in 2014, when it was on the list of set texts for a directing award which I didn’t win. I had put in a lot of time and effort and care into conceiving a possible production and I thought: regardless of the award I’d love to direct this play anyway.
Since then I had been looking for a home for it, and I was thrilled when it was one of the ideas Debbie agreed to produce. We were keen to get it on in 2018, to time with the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century, but it wasn’t to be. It is fitting that we’re mounting the UK premiere in 2019, as it is ten years since Sam wrote it [and two years after Shepard’s death].
I actually met Sam Shepard a bit before I came across this play. In November 2013 Phillip Breen was directing Shepard’s True West at the Glasgow Citz and I went up to see an early preview. I chose the right night because the playwright happened to be in attendance.
Sam had never been to Scotland before; he had been over in Dublin to collect an honorary degree from Trinity College, and Phil or someone at The Citz had invited him to cross the Irish Sea and visit. So I found myself sitting in a windowless backstage office, having a pint with Phil and Shepard himself. Dressed in dark blue jeans and cowboy boots, Sam’s presence, like his work, embodied the eternal struggle between speech and emotion, restraint and impulse, aesthete and man-of-the-earth.
Ages of the Moon features Byron and Ames, two old friends in their mid-sixties, who are reunited after Ames’ wife discovers he has been unfaithful. Through seventy minutes of rambling whiskey-fuelled recollections, coarse observations and raunchy humour, we are taken on a journey where fact merges with fiction, beginning with youthful optimism and ending with mournful nostalgia.
Shepard has created a lyrical chamber piece of timeless universality: two souls adrift on the tide of life, yearning for meaning and connection, struggling with failing mental health
As each man begins a fresh anecdote, covering a gamut of topics including sex, betrayal, loneliness, country-western music, Kentucky Derby horse-racing, astronomy and mortality, the other claims involvement in his friend’s past experiences. The result is a thrilling skirmish of wits and fists as the pair grapple with how ageing and booze have affected their minds, bodies and relationships.
Like Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir or Pinter’s Hirst and Spooner, Byron and Ames amuse us with their homespun conversation, disturb us with their apparent memory loss, and warm us with the enduring power of their friendship. In Ages of the Moon, Shepard has created a lyrical chamber piece of timeless universality: two souls adrift on the tide of life, yearning for meaning and connection, struggling with failing mental health. Indeed, the lunar eclipse that concludes the play, which “could be one of those once-in-a-lifetime deals,” is an eloquent visual metaphor for the transience of human existence. Who wouldn’t want to direct that?
Why choose The Vaults for these two plays?
James Seabright offered Debbie the opportunity to produce something in The Vaults, and we thought The Permanent Way would be a perfect fit. To hear the real trains of Waterloo Station rumbling overhead throughout the play gives it an added atmospheric piquancy that no other venue could provide. Ages of the Moon isn’t quite as “site-sympathetic,” but as we have been looking for a home for it for some time, we thought it might be interesting to have these two very different but brilliant plays running next to each other in different auditoria within the same unique venue.
How difficult has it been getting both of these shows on simultaneously?
There have been challenges, but broadly speaking, it has been a pleasure to create these two productions. The shows share some key personnel aside from Debbie and myself – our excellent production manager Ryan Funnell and his stalwart team of carpenters, electricians, programmers, our costume supervisor Molly Syrett, and our PR guru Arabella Neville-Rolfe – but we have also very much enjoyed our collaboration with different people across each project.
What’s next for you? More with Debbie?
A large glass of Woodford Reserve and a lie-down. Debbie and I are indeed developing some other projects, but my diary for 2020 is pretty clear right now so if anyone is looking for a director please do not hesitate to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Permanent Way runs until 17 November 2019, alongside Ages of the Moon from 17 October to 24 November 2019 at The Vaults, Launcelot Street off Lower Marsh, London SE1 7NN. Performance times vary. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!