Interview: Nikolai Foster

Interview: Nikolai Foster
Posted on 1 Aug 2016

Heather Kincaid talks to Leicester Curve’s Artistic Director about his ‘fresh and contemporary’ spin on Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy...

In the preface to The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” However astute the observation may have been, it's unlikely that Wilde would ever have envisaged its literal realisation in a production of a play of his own. Led by Curve Leicester's Artistic Director, Nikolai Foster, in co-production with Birmingham REP, a bold new staging of The Importance Of Being Earnest uses a dazzling mirrored set to prompt reflection on the play's complex themes.

“One of the very first productions I assisted on when I was at drama school was The Importance Of Being Earnest.” explains Foster. “It was very traditional, with nice sets and posh frocks, and I just remember dreaming about what I'd do with the play if I was ever lucky enough to direct it. What we've come up with is something quite conceptual and expressionistic, which notionally takes place in the 1800s, but is set in this environment which is basically a world of mirrors.”

Developed by Isla Shaw, the production's arresting design taps into ideas around identity, deception and the disconnect between appearance and reality which are not only central to this play, but recur time and again in Wilde's work. Though Wilde was writing over a century ago, these concepts remain just as relevant in today's world of social media and carefully curated online profiles.

“It's a very witty, intelligent play that uses language in quite an exciting, subversive way. Wilde writes a lot about the hypocrisy and double standards of the times he lived in - Lady Bracknell, for example, wasn't born into this society, but has married into it and sort of clawed her way to the top. So I started thinking about that and about mirrors, and the question of whether or not, when you look in a mirror, you actually see a true reflection of yourself.”

As Algernon would have it, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” and “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” Foster hopes that this high-concept design will offer something “truthful to the period, but with a contemporary twist.” For his initial inspiration, he turned to the world of high fashion - a world bubbling over with the kinds of big ideas, exclusivity, excess and obsession with appearances that Wilde himself would doubtless have found familiar.

“Just by accident, about a year ago, I found this image of a fashion shoot in New York on Twitter. It's basically just a box of mirrors with a table and a door at the back, and clever lighting. Then we found these wonderful photographs of fashion now - these sort of country frocks and Dolce and Gabbana suits that look like they could absolutely be from Gwendolen's day.” 

Composed by Curve Associate Artist Dougal Irvine, the score will similarly straddle past and present to produce something fresh and dynamic, with what Foster describes as a very “Curve feel”.

“Dougal and I talked about a composer called Steve Reich who creates these kind of electropop-synth-classical compositions, and that's the sort of sound we're starting with. It might be that the play starts with a scene in a nightclub where the lads have been the night before and so we have something very aggressively 'now' to get us into the world of the play, and then we'll have more of a contemporary-classical crossover sound to link scenes together and underscore it all. But it will all be tastefully employed to support what we're trying to do tonally - we don't want it to be a barrage of contemporary nonsense for the sake of it.”

For Foster, this is crucial: Wilde's writing speaks for itself, and there's no intention of updating or interfering with the text as written.

“We're not messing with genius. People who know and love the play are going to get a very fine reading of it. Hopefully it's the best of both worlds: I think young people coming to see it for the first time will love the anarchy of these young people telling porkies and creating alter-egos to escape their overbearing parents and guardians, and people who are a bit older and know the play will get to see something very glamorous and unlike any production they've ever seen before.”

Alongside major, award-winning talent like Cathy Tyson (Mona Lisa, The Serpent And The Rainbow, Priest, Band Of Gold), the cast will also include local actor Sharan Phull, who has previously performed with the Curve Community Company.

“At the launch of my very first season, Sharan was an usher at the theatre. She'd just come back from drama school in London after having been in Rent and other community shows here. I saw her in Bend It Like Beckham when she was on for the lead role which she'd been understudying, and consequently we auditioned her for Cecily and she was amazing. She absolutely captured the sort of innocence and exuberance of the character.”

In his capacity as Artistic Director, Foster is passionate about nurturing links with the local community, and since taking over from Paul Kerryson in January last year, he has actively sought to bring new people into the theatre, both onto the stage and into the auditorium. So far, his development work has been hugely successful, with several community performers going on to be cast in professional productions at Curve and elsewhere.

“Mark Peachy, who played the title role in our Community Company production of Richard III last year went on to be in A Streetcar Named Desire here. We also offered him a part in Breakfast At Tiffany's but he couldn't do it because he'll be in Birmingham doing Mamma Mia! Nick Read, whose stage name is Nicholas Alexander, has been involved with the young company and then was in A Streetcar Named Desire, and he's just got a place at drama school from September. But it goes both ways: at the moment we're rehearsing Bugsy Malone, and one of the kids in that played one of the Adrian Moles, so he's been in a professional production and has now come back to be in a community production. I love that crossover. There's no barrier between professional and amateur here - it's all about genuinely engaging, and there are so many ways that people do that here, whether it's being part of a company or just coming in, putting on some music and practising your breakdancing in the foyer.”

From a literary classic to a popular musical, Foster goes from The Importance Of Being Earnest to directing Grease later in the year. Thanks to some last-minute rescheduling, he'll also be working on a National Youth Music Theatre production of Spring Awakening while Earnest is still in rehearsals.

“I think we really pride ourselves on having something for everybody here at Curve, and as an artist, I do feel like it's important to have that variety. It keeps you on your toes. One of the things I was worried about when I came to work in this building was that I'd get complacent without the rough and tumble of moving around as a freelancer, but we're always so busy and working so hard to challenge ourselves here that it's never going to become static.

“There are times when you miss the privacy and the chance to have a break. I have just said to myself, you're constantly going to be tired and a bit stressed now because there's always something to worry about - but in a good way. Even after you've had a press night, you've got other things to work on, whether it's your learning department or a new communications strategy or looking at the Arts Council grant. It's a really full-on, full-time job, but I love it.” 

The Importance Of Being Earnest shows at Birmingham REP from Fri 9 to Sat 24 September and at Curve Leicester from Thurs 6 October to Sat 5 November.


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