Terrorism is very much on Debbie Hannan’s mind just now. While the Glasgow-born theatre director can’t help but be aware of today’s world of highly organised attacks, she’s looking more at a time when assaults on culture were more ad hoc and DIY.
This is the backdrop to The Angry Brigade, James Graham’s 2014 play, which Hannan directs this week in the Citizens Theatre’s suitably intimate Circle Studio with a cast of final year BA acting students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The play is named after the group who, for a year beginning in 1970, orchestrated an estimated twenty-five bombings on targets that included banks, embassies, the homes of Conservative MPs and the 1970 Miss World contest.
The Angry Brigade’s key players were arrested after being holed up in a top-floor flat in London, and the trial of what became known as the Stoke Newington Eight went on to become what was then the longest criminal trial in English legal history.
Graham’s dramatic study of the era is a fascinating enough reimagining of a crucial time in late twentieth century history. For a group of students who have come of age in a much slicker political age to get to grips with such potentially alien material is an education. Hannan too has had her eyes opened by the experience.
“I’m interested in plays that talk about how we can change things,” she says, “and the question The Angry Brigade is asking is how do we enact change. In the play, neither side is right. It’s really interesting as well, because in the play, the police behave anarchically, and the anarchists end up imposing lots of rules. It’s set up like a rehearsal process, with the police trying to get inside the anarchists’ minds, and the second half is like improvisation, and is actually about how you live, and how you organise yourself in society.”
Drama students taking on such weighty themes isn’t unusual, and enabling them to step into the recent past has opened up a world of possibilities.
“Sometimes at drama school students can end up doing plays they’re the wrong age for,” says Hannan, “but in The Angry Brigade the characters are in their twenties like the actors are. That’s been interesting because of the different relationship with politics people in their twenties have now compared to the time the play is set in.
“Everyone in the cast is really conscious of what’s going on today with LGBT, gender and race politics, so to go back to the 70s, when women police officers were called WPCs and if they got married had to leave the police force is really strange. At the same time, for all we might be more politically conscious, no-one’s taking to the streets right now in the way people did in the ‘70s, which was a really vibrant time for politics and protest.”
Hannan’s production of The Angry Brigade comes shortly after she was announced as the winner of the Young Vic theatre’s Genesis Future Directors award, designed to nurture and develop emerging directors by giving them a fully resourced production at the theatre. Hannan will direct a revival of American writer Naomi Wallace’s play, Things of Dry Hours. First seen in the UK in 2007 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre following a New York run, Wallace’s play is set in Alabama during the 1930s, and explores race, class and the impact of the Communist party on the lives of ordinary people.
“It’s another play about wanting to change things,” says Hannan. “It’s all about power dynamics.”
Hannan’s award comes at a crucial time at the Young Vic, with Kwame Kwei-Armah having been appointed in February this year as the new artistic director of the London-based theatre founded by former Edinburgh International Festival director Frank Dunlop. With Kwei-Armah taking over from David Lan, who initiated the Genesis scheme, Hannan’s production of Things of Dry Hours will form part of Kwei-Armah’s first season.
“It’s perfect for me,” says Hannan. “I’ve been in London for four years, and this is a real chance to make a statement, especially with Kwame coming in. I’m thrilled to be part of it.”
Hannan first came to prominence by way of Notes from the Underground, an audacious reimagining of Dostoyevsky’s novel of existential despair which played in the Citizens Theatre’s Circle Studio while Dominic Hill’s production of Crime and Punishment played on the theatre’s main stage. Hannan returned to the same space in 2015 to direct Howard Barker’s similarly provocative biblical-inspired play, Lot and His God.
Hannan’s first professional job was with the National Theatre of Scotland, as assistant director to John Tiffany on Enquirer, a verbatim play about the state of the press. Given that Hannan’s dad is sports journalist Martin Hannan, this seemed like an appropriate way to start. Hannan is also related to playwright Chris Hannan, although she’s not quite sure how.
“I think he’s my dad’s second cousin, but I’m not sure,” she says, having never actually met him. She has read all his plays, however, and knows that he’s aware of her work too.
Hannan was born in Glasgow, but grew up in Edinburgh, where as a child, inspired by her family’s love of TV drama and blockbuster films, she spent her days writing stories. With the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on her doorstep, Hannan was attracted by theatre in pubs and gig venues. She is a graduate too of Holyrood High School’s drama department, then led by the remarkable Frances Paterson. Paterson was given a Herald Angel award for her work opening up her students’ minds to the possibilities of theatre. Playwright and performer Kieran Hurley also came through Holyrood High, as did actress Pauline Knowles, who appeared in Hannan’s production of Lot and His God.
“Mrs Paterson changed my life,” says Hannan. “She clocked that I loved making stuff, and let me do it. I remember writing and directing something, and seeing people acting it out, and Mrs Paterson would be really encouraging.”
Hannan went on to study English Literature and History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, and, under the guidance of professor of drama Olga Taxidou, discovered the work of Peter Brook.
“I remember seeing Marat/Sade and thinking ‘This is it’,” Hannan says.
Hannan went on to do an MA at the RCS, and worked with writer Pamela Carter on developing a show, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, for the RCS’ New Works season. Prior to directing her own work, she assisted on Stewart Laing’s production of The Maids, and has been championed by Dominic Hill at the Citz and former National Theatre of Scotland artistic director Vicky Featherstone. With Featherstone now in charge of the Royal Court in London, Hannan has recently worked as trainee director there.
As well as The Angry Brigade and Things of Dry Hours, Hannan is working with writer Sarah Kosar on a play about Monica Lewinsky, and will be reviving a show called Latir, which she produced in Mexico. Having recently directed Anthony Neilson’s play, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, at the RCS, Hannan’s production of The Angry Brigade should add to an already provocative body of work.
“Protest and activism are such different things now,” she says, “but at the same time you have a Tory government putting in austerity policies. In that way, it’s very much a reflection of now.”
The Angry Brigade, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 30-June 2; Shame: A Double Bill, Pleasance Theatre, London, June 26; Things of Dry Hours, Young Vic, London, August 15-25
The Herald, May 29th 2018