Interview with Harry Mackrill, Associate Director on Peter Gynt at the National Theatre: ‘There is an element of provocation and creativity to my job.’

The newest interview in London Student’s series about non-acting roles in the theatre profession, Anthony Walker-Cook talks with Harry Mackrill, associate director of Peter Gynt at the National Theatre.

What does it mean to be an associate director at the National Theatre?
There are two different definitions of the job: you can be associate director of a building or a production. I’m associate director on the play, Peter Gynt, here but I’ve done both: I was associate director of the Kiln Theatre. To explain what it is at the NT, there’s an ‘director’, ‘associate director’ and ‘staff director’. On Peter Gynt, Jonathan Kent is director, I am associate director and Cara Nolan is staff director. How are they different? Essentially how you should look at it is that I have been with the project for a long time with pre-production and have been dropping in and out of design and casting sessions. It’s about how I can store everything that Jonathan and Richard Hudson, the designer, have in mind and filter that to the other departments and keep a track of that and maintain all the new information coming from rehearsals. 

This is a freelance role, so how did you come to be associated with the project – did you apply for it?
As with many things in the freelance world, jobs lead to jobs. I worked with Jonathan just as this was beginning and I had worked with James McArdle on Angels in America – it all came together just at the right time. 

Can you explain your role in a sentence?
It is to support and contribute to the vision of the director whilst always moving forward and keeping the project going.

And if you were to provide a longer definition what would you add?
When you are an associate, you potentially (hopefully) will be offering something to the production. There is an element of provocation and creativity to my job.

What is the biggest challenge to your role when working on such a large production?
At the NT, everything is in house and it’s such a slick operation. I guess on this show, it’s just such a big play – it’s maintaining an objectivity about the whole story whilst focusing on twenty-minute segments during rehearsals. You have to keep an eye on three and a half hours.

Tell me about Peter Gynt.
Peter Gynt is David Hare’s take on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which is kind of known as being almost unstageable. It is such a massive journey and Ibsen does so many things. Here we meet Peter in his early twenties, living with his mum in a small community in Scotland. Then he becomes slightly obsessed with how he will make his stamp on the world. He goes off and tries to become the best version of himself. Eventually you find him back in old age and coming to terms with what he has gained and lost in his life.

Before actors arrive for rehearsals, what will you have already done as an associate director?
It has been about honing and ensuring the play tells the best version of what Ibsen intended. It is very much David Hare’s adaptation, but it is true to Ibsen. He wanted to make it accurate for modern audiences. There were workshops with smaller casts and before rehearsals I was part of casting the 25 people. In the show there are around 100 characters – there has been a lot of excel spreadsheets and a lot of meetings about the logistics of casting different characters to certain actors. I’ve been taking Jonathan’s creative vision and boiling it down to the practicalities.

What does your normal day look like now, a few weeks from opening?
There isn’t really a ‘normal day’. We’ve been in rehearsals for nine weeks, but there’s so much happening. The music and movement directors, Kevin Amos and Polly Bennett respectively, have been heavily involved: the play is interspersed with incredible music and choreography. Now we’re in the theatre my role changes – it is fun working in the Olivier, but keeping it safe and creative is important. 

Can you talk a little of the set?
Peter often gets lost in himself so the set is kind of split between a naturalistic, Scottish world and this space to allow his dreams to be told. It is the split between consciousness and unconscious, or between reality and dream.

What have you learnt from working on Peter Gynt?
I guess I’m always amazed at the dedication and rigour of the actors. Watching James play Peter is an incredible experience. He is heart-breaking and so funny. There are so many ingredients and keeping all the plates spinning is difficult.

What should audiences expect from Peter Gynt?
They should expect to be surprised because it is so not how I would have thought Peer Gynt would have been. It is incredibly funny but also powerful and moving. Jonathan has seen three other productions and he says you can’t spend so much time with one person and not feel for them at the end. Even though Peter makes some questionable choices, James and the writing means you are on team for the whole thing. 

Your old theatre the Kiln has just stage Adamson’s The Wife, an adaptation of A Doll’s House. What is the appeal of taking a text by Ibsen and making it modern?
It’s an opportunity to subvert what people think and challenge audience expectations. There is also something to be said about these works being incredibly plays and the weight of this expectation is intriguing for an audience. 

How should someone try to become an associate director?
It’s really hard. I find more and more, and I was talking with Cara about this, that there is no path, which is unhelpful when trying to make one for yourself. I trained as an actor, but it was not my bag. But from that I put on a play with some of my contemporaries and that was the moment I realised directing allows me to express myself. But I’m still learning how to balance freelance work. Before my last associate director job here on Angels in AmericaI was temping as a receptionist. I became Indhu Rubasingham’s resident director at the Tricycle and that was where I got paid to do my job. I was there for eighteen months and then worked on The Motherfucker with the Hat here, which gave me some connections with the people who employ associate directors at the NT. 

What is the greatest benefit of your job?
I get to work in spaces with people who I have looked up for years and years and have an impact on a production. Getting to make work on this scale is incredible.

Is Peter Gynt posing a single question (and what is the answer?)?
I think it asks us to look at what it means to make choices in life and how you can come to a fork in the path. There are very different results at the end of that path. It asks us to look at the responsibility we have ourselves in a world that is asking us to be many things at once. 

Is there a show you wish you’d seen?
Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic.

What is your dream show to work on?
There’s just so many! I really love new writing and to be involved in the production that gives a play an impressive start in life is something special. Getting to tell stories that are contemporary is an important way to respond to the world we’re in.

Peter Gynt is at the National Theatre until 8th October, 2019.

Photograph credit: Manuel Harlan.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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