Nicolas Kent: A Partial History (in two parts)

Published February 22, 2012

After over a quarter of a century at the helm of the Tricycle theatre, departing Artistic Director Nicolas Kent is directing his final season, The Bomb: A Partial History, a political cycle of ten short plays split into two parts.

As the man who led the Kilburn-based venue to be described as “the most newsworthy theatre in London” bows out, Official London Theatre challenged Kent to look at his time at the theatre, pinpointing his top five most wonderful, profound, inspirational and downright demanding moments, and then look to the present, explaining five reasons why he chose The Bomb as his Tricycle swan song. With fires, controversy, near-bankruptcy and performances at the Pentagon, Kent’s departure marks the end of an epic theatrical journey.

The Past: 1984-2011

1. I remember vividly the moment in 1984 when I knew I wanted to run the Tricycle. We had brought a production of Mustapha Matura’s Playboy Of The West Indies to Kilburn. It sold out to a predominantly black audience, and one night standing by the box office I heard a woman with a broad Jamaican accent berating the box office manager: “What do you mean you have sold out? You had tickets last night and the night before?” I politely asked her how many times she had seen the production, and her reply shot back: “I come every night, it’s wonderful, and do you know, they say the same words each night.”

2. Two moments of running a building that encompass both the agony and ecstasy: The first being woken at 06:00 to be told the theatre was on fire, arriving to find 20 fire engines and many firemen fighting the blaze that had started in the next door timber yard. Then finding, having lost the building, that Brent, sadly, had failed to insure it properly.

The second, the end of the Lottery project when, after three years of planning, building and exhaustion, the moment came that the projectionist took me into our newly completed 300-seat cinema and projected a glorious dance sequence from a Bollywood movie at full volume; a feeling of complete fulfillment.

3. The opening of The Colour Of Justice – The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry with the Lawrence family, Duwayne Brooks, and many of the lawyers in attendance. It was an incredible evening, coinciding on the same day with the news that one of the policemen (who appeared in the play and who was in charge of the mishandled police investigation) was being disciplined. It was theatre that really did change people’s pre-conceived ideas. Together with Stones In His Pockets, The 39 Steps and Guantanamo, it is the one of the four productions from the Tricycle that has been seen by the largest audiences, having toured nationally, played in London at the Victoria Palace, Stratford East and the National Theatre and been televised on BBC2.

4. The British premiere of The Great White Hope with the splendid Hugh Quarshie, which crammed 42 people onto the Tricycle stage, nearly bankrupted us, and finally transferred to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

5. Lastly, some wonderful defining political moments of running the Tricycle: Half The Picture, Richard Norton-Taylor’s dramatisation of the Arms to Iraq inquiry, being the first play ever to play the Houses of Parliament; Guantanamo being performed on Capitol Hill and incidentally for a couple of performances in New York with Archbishop Tutu making a special appearance; the trilogy The Great Game – Afghanistan, after completing its US tour, having two specially commissioned performances last February in Washington for the Pentagon; and the U.N. sending a lorry to borrow the desk that we specially constructed for my play Srebrenica so that they could use it in the Milosevic trial because they found themselves short of court furniture – art mirroring life mirroring art!

The present: Kent’s final season

1. The Bomb came out of a conversation with Shirley Williams just after she had been the government special adviser of Nuclear Proliferation. She felt that there had been no national debate about Trident renewal in 2014. Its cost was going to run into billions, and she, as well as many of the military top brass, could see no point in renewing it. She thought the theatre would be a wonderful forum for such a debate and urged me to do something about it.

2. Thinking about it, I realised that my whole life had been lived in the shadow of the nuclear threat. I was born in the year the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; I grew up during the period of above ground nuclear testing when we were often warned not to drink milk because of levels of radioactive contamination; I was at school during the Cuban missile crisis when a teacher asked me what I would do IF I grew up; the beginnings of my political awareness came in the heyday of CND, and now I hear the daily news bulletins about the threat of Iran, North Korea or terrorists acquiring or using the bomb. Given all of that history the subject seemed entirely appropriate for my farewell production at the Tricycle.

3. The Bomb enables us to use the whole Tricycle building. During the season we are mounting a special film festival (running from 22 to 25 March), an exhibition of cartoons, rehearsed readings, a classical concert of a nuclear theme, some talks and discussions in collaboration with Asia House, as well as a special education programme.

4. I love epic events in the theatre and I think audiences do too. Our recent The Great Game – Afghanistan, Women Power And Politics and Not Black And White seasons had proved this. Added to that, this was a wonderful chance to work with many people I had admired and collaborated with over the past years at the Tricycle. We started The Bomb from scratch with very talented British and American playwrights: Lee Blessing, Ryan Craig, John Donnelly, David Greig, Amit Gupta, Zinnie Harris, Ron Hutchinson, Diana Son, and Colin Teevan, a company of 11 actors and a great design team. In 15 months we have put together an exciting piece of newly commissioned theatre spanning five hours.

5. I hope it will raise a debate, challenge audiences, provoke and entertain them; as well as surprisingly (like Dr Strangelove, which we are showing in our film festival) sometimes make people laugh.

Curtain Call

I am sad to be leaving the Tricycle and a brilliant staff headed by my wonderful General Manager, Mary Lauder, but I am delighted that it is soon to be in the capable and exciting hands of Indhu Rubasingham. I hope, over the coming years, to be invited back to direct the occasional play.

Meanwhile, I want to continue directing and producing. At the moment the future is a blank sheet of paper, but all offers welcome and anything legal considered!

"It was theatre that really did change people's pre-conceived ideas"