Seeing as he is currently taking on the titular role in Malachite Theatre’s production of Richard II, it is only natural that when Nick Finegan and I meet at the Barbican, we touch on David Tennant’s turn as the deposed king, which played there only six months earlier. Would he have seen the RSC production if he’d known he would soon be playing Richard himself? “I’m not sure,” he muses, “I might have steered clear, actually.” But while Malachite’s production may have the same text, it seems like an altogether different experience. Malachite is based in Shoreditch – “its artistic goal is to reconnect Shakespeare with Shoreditch”, Finegan tells me – and its site-specific production of this early history play takes place in the surroundings of the vast St Leonard’s Church.
“As an actual playing space, it’s incredibly atmospheric,” Finegan says. Malachite has been making theatre at the Church for around a year now, led by director Benjamin Blyth. St Leonard’s has stained glass windows; it has a gallery round the church were scenes can take place; Richard Burbage is buried in the crypt. A historical setting, then, for a history play, and in such a space there will naturally be challenges. “I think one of the main demands of that space is actually the articulation,” Finegan says. “Getting the words out to the audience is an extra challenge. In St Leonard’s Church you really, really have to speak out; it just needs a little heightened push. Because it echoes and reverberates, as soon as you get too fast or too loud it gets lost. So that’s a challenge, but I feel like the space makes it worth perusing that challenge.”
How has the experience working with Malachite in this setting been? Finegan notes that Blyth is “very passionate about is the language. So we were encouraged as actors very much to adhere to the metre and get it into our bodies, and then play around. I think for Shakespeare that’s something that I connect with and that resonates with me. I think that following the language and allowing the language to be your sort of heartbeat, I feel like you can’t really go wrong. That’s something that I really enjoyed in working with Malachite – a real passionate approach to language but also a general freedom to explore.”
Before working with Malachite, Finegan went to university in Bristol and then, as well as acting, worked as Assistant Director on a season of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. He is now based in London, although he passionately cares about regional theatre as a result of his time in Bristol – he recently did a week of R&D with Chris Goode at Warwick Arts Centre, on a piece that Finegan describes as being “still very much in its embryonic stages”.
When I ask him about the difference between working in London and Bristol, he asserts that it’s “pretty massive actually. The thing with London is you have to fight tooth and nail to get your name out there. In Bristol, each venue has its own niche, in a way, and each niche is fulfilled, but it’s within each of these established spaces, whereas in London that’s more constantly in flux. So for me, London’s more exciting creatively,” he adds, “but Bristol has its own particular signature. It is unique, and it’s not just like a little London, it’s its own creative force in its own right.”
He also adds, when discussing the differences between directing and assistant directing, how lucky he has been to work with Andrew Hilton at the Tobacco Factor. “With assisting, it very much depends on the director, and Andrew fosters a very open and democratic rehearsal space. So luckily it wasn’t just making coffee for six months! In that sense, it was as exciting and as in depth as I wanted it to be. But [as director] there is I think that being in touch with the wider vision and the wider work.”
Though Richard II is coming to the end of its run, both Finegan and Malachite have a lot in the pipeline. In early August, Malachite will be taking a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the rooftops of Shoreditch, on the original site of the Curtain Theatre. And, as Finegan informs me, the company has several other Shakespeare plays they want to tackle: “Ben wants to keep the focus on the plays that Shakespeare worked on when he was at that stage in his life, something he calls the ‘Shoreditch Nineteen’.”
For Finegan himself, he will be working with various theatre companies, as well as with Malachite at the end of this year, as there have been “whisperings” of doing a Shakespearean comedy at Christmas. But what sort of work is he hoping to make himself? “I like treating Shakespeare with a certain dose of irreverence,” he says confidently, “I think there’s no point treating him like a museum piece all the time. So for me as a director, my approach to Shakespeare would be probably quietly chaotic, looking to shake up stories that we think we know, and put them into new environments.”
Richard II is on at St Leonard’s Church until 26 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Malachite’s website.