Director Thea Sharrock is one of the leading theatrical lights of her generation. The Oxford graduate has risen through the directing ranks so quickly that artistic directors of the calibre of Peter Hall and Michael Grandage are calling on her to direct shows for them. Her latest offering, A Voyage Round My Father, performed so well during its run at the Donmar Warehouse that it has transferred to the Wyndham’s, where Matthew Amer clambered past cardboard boxes and prop flowers to talk to her.
“Terrible. Shocking. I’ve saved the world a lot of pain.” Such is Thea Sharrock’s assessment of her acting talent. It is lucky then, that she is such a good director, otherwise she could have missed out on a career in theatre altogether.
The accomplished and much praised 29-year-old Artistic Director of the Gate is currently directing her third West End production in as many years, A Voyage Round My Father, which transferred from the Donmar Warehouse to the Wyndham’s, and has been well received in both venues.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such a professional”
There is, however, a trick to transferring a production from the relatively small Donmar, as Sharrock well knows: “I think one of the hardest and most important tasks we have is to retain the intimacy that the Donmar gives you from its space. We’ve got to somehow give the audience that through our performances.” The Wyndham’s, while by no means one of the West End’s largest venues, dwarfs the Donmar. It came as a bonus then that the entirety of the original cast – barring the children – transferred with the production; there was much less major work to do with actors trying to catch up, and much more “just having a wee look at bits and bobs,” as Sharrock puts it.
Among the cast members is Sir Derek Jacobi; theatrical knight, Laurence Olivier Award winner and stage legend. Sharrock is similarly gushing in her praise: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with quite such a professional, just in the way that he prepares and his complete and utter dedication.” It is the work that Jacobi did in his own time that particularly impressed the young director, turning up for the first day of rehearsals with his own ideas, preparation and questions, but also completely open to suggestions from elsewhere.
As the director, Sharrock had her own ideas about how Jacobi’s character and the production should be shaped. It is, after all, her job, though that does not mean she does not enjoy exploring different ideas that evolve from within the company. Her process for creating a show, though, begins much earlier, when glancing at the very first page of a script. “Often when I read a play, I see it quite quickly, I imagine certain things, and then in the best possible circumstances – which certainly happened with this – I begin to collaborate with the designer as quickly as possible,” she explains.
Designer Robert Jones worked with Sharrock to give the A Voyage Round My Father set a minimalist feel, preferring to rely more on a few props and costumes to set the scene. This decision was made as the autobiographical play, which follows playwright John Mortimer’s relationship with his blind barrister father, features around 50 scenes, some shorter than a minute in length. With lots of scenery, the show could have doubled in length through scene changes alone.
One of Sharrock’s key assets as a director, as expressed by Sir Peter Hall while speaking to The Guardian, is that she is “good with actors…she seems to have it instinctively”. When she talks about how she creates a show, Hall’s words come to mind. She talks of letting some actors find their own path and direction, only stepping in when needed, while giving others the starting point they need to build from. She talks with a calm and authoritative, yet friendly tone. She talks with passion. And when talking about almost every production she mentions, she talks about having a laugh and enjoying the experience. “It sounds like we do nothing but giggle,” she says, “but I think it’s really important because we all work such ridiculously long hours, it’s really important to have a nice time.” Even tucked away in a small office at the Wyndham’s, chatting to a journalist while all around are the bangs and crashes of props, set and equipment being moved into the theatre, Sharrock seems to be enjoying herself.
“Looking back now, I can’t quite believe that happened”
Sharrock’s passion for theatre really started to burn around the time of her A-levels. “I used to drag my mum to Saturday matinees to see everything and I just slowly fell in love with it,” she explains. From this small fire the blaze grew and during the gap year she took before embarking on a degree at Oxford she spent time in South Africa working at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, throwing herself into everything as a general theatre dogsbody and asking “all the ridiculous questions that maybe at home you’d be a bit more nervous to ask”. It was there, she says, that she really fell in love with theatre and became “passionate and desperate to be part of it”. With the second six months of her gap year spent at the National Theatre making both tea and contacts, Sharrock headed off to university with a hefty helping of theatrical experience to her name.
Her first professional landmark came with her very first professional directorial credit. She put herself forward for and won the James Menzies-Kitchin Award for young directors, giving herself the opportunity to stage a play at the BAC. “It was brilliant,” she says. “Talk about holding your nose and jumping into the deep end.” Her production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls – a play she chose following a marathon session in Waterstones – was hugely well received at the Battersea venue and within a year and a half had toured twice and transferred to the West End. “Looking back on that now I can’t quite believe that happened,” she says modestly.
The second milestone came when, in 2000 and at the age of 24, she was made Artistic Director of the Southwark Playhouse; Sharrock was the country’s youngest AD. After three years she felt it was time to move on, just before the position of Artistic Director of the Gate became available. The ease of transition between the two roles was more down to luck or coincidence than anything else, as Sharrock is not one for planning too much. “I don’t think it really works like that,” she says. “If you’re lucky you know where your next job is, and that’s about as much as you can ever ask for. It’s the terrible and terrifying thing about this job and it’s also part of the deal, I think.”
Among the colleagues that have affected her most, Sharrock names Peter Gill and his way with actors, Peter Hall and his ability to juggle – tasks, not balls, I presume – and producer David Pugh for his consideration for the entire production team. But also the actors she has worked with, as they are “the people that teach you the most”.
“It’s a whole different type of production, but it’s certainly the most satisfying”
Those thespians include Derek Jacobi, Penelope Keith, Ken Stott, Richard Griffiths and John Hurt who, Sharrock remembers with a mixture of glee and embarrassment, she had to have lunch with to discuss whether he was right for a part in Heroes opposite Griffiths and Stott. As director of Heroes, Sharrock was also present for the infamous mobile phone incident which saw Griffiths coming out of character to suggest that an audience member turned their phone off; it had rung four times by then. “He doesn’t do anything unless he really believes in it,” Sharrock says of Griffiths, “and that includes that kind of thing. Well done him.”
Sharrock is working with Griffiths again in the new year, as she directs the revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which also stars the celluloid Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe. Though Sharrock has worked with some of the most highly respected thesps in the business, Radcliffe, a relative stage novice, is likely to draw the spotlight to the production like no-one else. “The speculation is not my problem,” she states sternly. “I’ve just got to get on with the job. I think you get into real trouble the minute you start worrying about that kind of thing. I suspect that play itself would bring along a fair amount of speculation but then the minute you have Daniel Radcliffe in it, it brings it to a whole new level, but much like him, it’s not what I’m concentrating on; we’re just getting on with the play.”
An award-winning start to her career, a growing list of high profile West End credits, one successful spell as an artistic director under her belt and another going strong all lead to speculation about the future of one of Britain’s most talented young female directors. The possibility of becoming the first female AD of the National Theatre has been dangled by a selection of commentators. “I’m obviously not going to be able to do that now,” she laughs “just to prove everybody wrong. I don’t think it’s on the cards just yet, that’s for sure.”
That does not mean it might not crop up in the future. If it does then don’t be surprised, as the ambition is there, though she is quick to define this particular strand of ambition. “If ambitious is just another word for having aims and goals and dreams, fine. I’m a dreamer, that’s for sure,” she says. “But it’s not worth harming or hurting other people in order to get what you want. I don’t believe that’s what working in theatre is about.”
In the meantime Sharrock’s concerns revolve more around her 10-month-old son Mischa, who “puts everything into perspective” for her. “I could never quite get my head around what it would be like until you actually have it and you don’t have anyone that you can give it back to at the end of the day; it’s your responsibility. That does change you fundamentally and you will never be as you were before. It’s a whole different type of production, but it’s certainly the most satisfying,” she says.
Motherhood has not yet made Sharrock consider leaving the theatre behind. In fact, though it’s tough to juggle the two full-time jobs, the theatrical feeds off the familial through a whole new set of experiences. And the passion that originally led Sharrock to Saturday matinees, South Africa and Southwark is certainly still there: “I think it’s hard and the hours are very long and most of the time the money is rubbish, so there are lots of reasons not to do it. But at the same time, if you have the passion it’s like you have no choice really, it’s what you have to do. As long as that’s there, keep going.”