Interview: Carl Heap

KIERAN CORCORAN talks to expert director CARL HEAP, who is directing The Marlowe Society’s production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. And has a bit of an obsession with oranges.

ADC Cambridge Arts Theatre Carl Heap kieran corcoran marlowe society much ado about nothing national theatre Shakespeare

Director Carl Heap certainly has credentials. With some 30 years’ experience behind him, he’s worked with The National Theatre and adapted the World Cup 1966 victory for the stage. He returns to Cambridge this term to direct Much Ado About Nothing for the Marlowe Society, and at 9.30am, bright and early (for a thesp, anyway) I catch him for a coffee outside the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Although his experiences here helped get him into theatre, he wasn’t your typical haunter of the ADC bar: ‘I was a bit… outside the establishment. The pattern I’ve set in Cambridge has pretty much been the pattern my career has followed since. What really got me hooked, strangely, was a production of Much Ado About Nothing. It was for what was then known as the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company, which was three names combined to most impress Americans. We did this wonderful six-week tour of America. We had a professional director; I had such a ball as an actor that in a way that’s what first got me hooked.’ He is reflective about his current cast:  ‘I’ve been on a journey some of them hope to go on.’

But the introspection vanishes when I ask him if directing amateurs is different to working with the pros. He’s keen to break down the distinctions: ‘It’s only matters of degree, really. I’ve worked with professional actors, I’ve worked with trainee actors in drama schools: it’s a very patchy thing. The line between amateur and professionals is protected by professionals who are feeling threatened; they use the word ‘amateur’ dismissively. I use it as a positive word – it means you love what you’re doing and you put some passion into it.’

Speaking of passion, Carl’s looking for a way to squeeze some more into his Much Ado. I probe him a little about the prominence of oranges in the publicity for the show (serious question). Born from a few citrusy references in the play, the elevation of the orange ties is part of Carl’s plan to give the play a Mediterranean feel. ‘Shakespeare throws in these geographical names: Messina or Padua or whatever. I’m not sure he could  have pinpointed them on a map, but I think he was projecting his world onto a hot, Mediterranean country where people behave in more passionate ways.

‘It releases the performers if they think a bit Italian. It makes people wave their arms around and be a bit more expressive generally. They stop being the stereotype of the English actor, the stiff-upper-lipped talking head, which doesn’t express emotions and passions very explicitly. So we don’t understate. It gives us a broad style and I think it fits the material.

‘I don’t look for an interpretation to impose on Shakespeare. My interpretation is very much about revealing what’s there. I’m not about to stick a relevance on or a topicality or whatever you call it.’

Some of Carl’s most admirable work has been adapting and performing Shakespeare for children in conjunction with the National Theatre. When I ask about what sort of changes he had to make to get Shakespeare across to the kids, his key point is intriguingly simple, and actually applicable to any audience:

‘You arrive in a school in their space: if you switch the lights off and pretend they’re not there, you’ll die on your feet. If the light’s on and you’re looking at them the message is ‘you’re a part of this, you’re doing the imagining with us. You make a difference. We can see if you’re getting bored, we can see if you’re not understanding, we can adjust our performance around that.’ It’s all about communicating the story. I didn’t think there was ever a significant difference in performing to primary school age children and performing to the general public.’

To the sceptic, this talk of imagining and togetherness might seem more Barney the Dinosaur than Shakespeare, but I think Carl’s got a hold of a fast-receding quality in modern theatre. When I suggest that the trappings of technology and professional budgets – lighting boards, costumes, sound effects- are taking the imagination out of being an audience member, Carl agrees quite solemnly:

‘I keep going back to the Chorus of Henry V:

Let us on your imaginary forces work…

Think when we talk of horses that you see them…

Into a thousand parts divide one man

And make imaginary puissance.

‘That’s really my guideline for tackling Shakespeare: we don’t need this extra stuff. We’re hooked on technology, a bit like a drug, and we don’t question it enough. I think it puts a barrier up between the audience, it blurs the line between theatre and television or film. If you’re sitting in the dark looking at the square of light, you feel obliged to sit in judgement from a slight distance looking at these moving images in front of you rather than get the signal you’re a part of this.’

I can see what Carl’s trying to do, but when so much theatre is fascinated by ‘classic’ texts over hundreds of years old, does it have much hope of really connecting with people? Should reinterpretation be so central, or should theatre be more concerned with staging new material?

‘That’s a huge question. Theatre should do all of those things. There should be new writing dealing with contemporary issues and that’s a great thing – but something I don’t happen to deal with very much myself. But the problem with new writing, if there is one, is that writers know that most of their money is to be made in TV and film, so quite often they’re writing in a style which isn’t distinctively theatrical and isn’t about connection with audiences in direct ways.

‘Why do we go back to the past? Because we are up against a huge, commercially-led, technological wonder which is at risk of taking away some very special things that shouldn’t be left behind. It sounds very worthy and very grand, but these things do matter to me.

‘What I like to do for an audience is reconnect them with something that they had as children, which is the pleasure of make-believe and ‘let’s pretend’. It’s bringing that element of your childhood imagination and saying as adults it’s still important to have that with you; and it’s a great pleasure, it’s good for you – it makes you feel good.’

And with that, he disappeared back into The Arts Theatre to return to finding that honest and passionate breed of theatre which has got him this far.

Much Ado About Nothing runs from February 1st to February 5th at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, (