Shilpa T-Hyland wants to tell stories differently. This is something that should be apparent when the Glasgow-based director opens her new production of Miss Julie in Perth Theatre’s Joan Knight Studio this weekend prior to a short tour. Zinnie Harris’ version of Strindberg’s simmering piece of cross-class passion was the play chosen by T-Hyland to bring to full production after becoming the first recipient of The Cross Trust Young Director Award. The latter is a new scheme initiated by The Cross Trust, set up by philanthropist Sir Alexander Cross in 1943 to provide opportunities to young men and women to ‘extend the boundaries of their knowledge of human life’.
There are certainly plenty of opportunities for the latter in Miss Julie, a play of extremes which T-Hyland initially kept her distance from.
“I was kind of frightened about it at first,” she says. “I had to choose from four plays, and I’d read the original version, and even Strindberg said it leaves a bad taste.”
Harris’ version, re-imagined in 1920s Scotland during the General Strike, captured T-Hyland’s imagination.
“It really spoke to me,” she says. “It’s set at a time between the wars when socialist ideas were coming to Britain, and with women in particular, with what went on with the suffragettes, it’s a period where it feels that things can really change. Except for the characters in the play, who in their heads have been stuck in the same situation for years.
“That made me think about now, and about how difficult things are in the world just now. A lot of that is to do with a lack of empathy, and in the play there are a lot of difficult connections between the characters, but they can’t move forward without empathy. There are things about each other they kind of envy, but they fail to understand who they are.
“In Miss Julie and her maid Christine, you’ve got two women who aren’t each other’s allies. Then you’ve got John, who’s not an evil man, but he’s caught up in a negative form of masculinity that he’s been taught.
“One of the things I was keen to do when casting the play was to cast relatively young, so the characters are roughly the same age. I think that maybe sharpens the distance they have to travel to understand each other, which, for me, is maybe about speaking to a younger audience who are living through all the things that are going on today.”
Born in London to an Indian mother and English father, T-Hyland moved to Glasgow with her family when she was less than a year old, and considers herself very much “Glasgow born and bred.”
With an artist mother and violin maker dad, T-Hyland’s move into theatre perhaps should come as no surprise. Given that her brother is studying astro-physics, however, familial influences are maybe not as clear cut as they appear. Then again, given that T-Hyland’s grandfather was acclaimed Indian playwright, director and actor Lalit Mohan Thapalyal, whose plays for children written in both Garhwali and Hindi won awards, and are still performed since his passing in 2004, something has clearly rubbed off on her.
“I’ve always had an interest in storytelling in some form or another,” she says, having attended both Scottish Youth Theatre and what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as a child. “I think making stories collaboratively appealed to me, and at the time becoming an actor seemed the most obvious way to do that.”
A short course in directing changed things.
“As soon as I started directing it made sense,” she says.
T-Hyland did a Master’s degree in Classical and Contemporary Text at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Over an intense year, the course put directors and actors together to effectively form a company, developing new work by three writers presented at venues including the Globe Theatre. T-Hyland ended up directing Bubble, a short piece by Kieran Hurley
It was while at the RCS as well that T-Hyland co-founded the Modest Predicament company with producer Jenny Gilvear. So far, T-Hyland has directed two children’s shows for the company, The Dragon and the Whales and Erin, Errol and the Earth Creatures. The company also presented Atlas as part of the Hidden Door festival in Leith. All three shows have put puppetry at their centre. Playing with form in this way goes some way to illustrate the different ways T-Hyland wants to tell stories.
“I’m interested in adaptations,” she says, “re-telling them and re-contextualising them. That’s partly what appealed to me about Miss Julie. In terms of story-telling, I think I’m interested in alternative views of narrative, and what that can bring to a story.”
This attitude stems in part from T-Hyland’s Indian heritage.
“It’s something I think about a lot,’ she says. “There’s lots of work I haven’t made yet, but which I want to make, that will look at what it means to be half-Indian, half-white, or even just a non-white woman living in Scotland at this time. It’s really hard to find information about the history of that, and my big frustration is that we don’t teach anything about Empire in schools.”
Beyond Miss Julie, there are plans to take Modest Predicament’s production of The Dragon and The Whale to the Puppet Animation Festival. T-Hyland also has ambitions to develop a version of Roxana, Daniel Defoe’s story about a young woman and her maid climbing the social ladder. An early version was seen in a rehearsed reading at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. There is also the small matter of potentially doing a PhD looking at how history is put onstage. In a parallel vein, “There’s an alternative history play I’d like to make.”
In the meantime, with her production of Miss Julie being her biggest work to date, T-Hyland aims to cut through to the play’s personal heart as much as its political one.
“On a purely human kind of basis,” she says, “I think it’s about the difficulty of communicating with another person. It’s also about the power of finding a connection with another person, but how fragile that can be.”
Miss Julie, Perth Theatre, February 14-23; Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 27-March 2; The Studio, Edinburgh, March 6-9.
The Herald, February 12th 2019