When new writing company Nabokov re-launched in November last year, it held an entire event at the Soho Theatre, complete with live performances and the world’s first piece of “WikiTheatre”, a piece started by playwright James Graham and completed by online contributors. This is just one example of Nabokov’s eclectic programming ethic: combining arts events and theatre in a company that, as its Artistic Director Joe Murphy tells me, has “always championed the writer”.
Following success at this year’s Vault Festival, Nabokov has now worked with Nick Payne on his latest play, Incognito, which is arriving in London for a run at the Bush Theatre after premiering at HighTide Festival and touring the country.
“The show is a little bit like a rollercoaster,” Murphy, who also directed Incognito, tells me when we speak on the phone. “It’s four actors, it’s over 21 parts, but there are no costume changes, no set changes, just the skill of the actors taking you through and the brilliance of Nick’s writing.” The play follows several interweaving narrative strands in order to explore the workings of the brain, and what it means to be human. “It’s written in a certain rhythm,” Murphy explains. “Two actors might be talking to each other as two parts, and they’ll say a line – and suddenly they’re two completely different parts, probably in a different time zone and a different country.” Murphy describes directing the play as a “unique challenge”, and muses over the difficulties it presents. “How do we give an audience enough to know what’s going on, but also not patronise them and honour the play? What is the balance between enough information, and an exciting amount of problem solving?” In the end, he concludes that directing the show was “a challenging thrill ride”.
Having graduated with a directing postgraduate degree from Mountview, Murphy secured his first assistant directing job after inadvertently helping Josie Rourke, then running the Bush, “lug some furniture around” the summer he graduated. After working independently in the industry – his recent credits include the all-female The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe and Forever House at the Plymouth Theatre Royal – he was offered the position of Nabokov’s Artistic Director, “a vast experience but one I’ve been incredibly lucky to have”.
It is at the theatre that Murphy first assistant directed that Incognito will have its London run. This follows roughly 18 months of working with Payne, who Murphy describes as “totally brilliant and probably a genius”, in order to bring the play into being. What was it like working with Payne? “He’s been in rehearsals the whole way through,” Murphy tells me. “He’s got an amazing mind; he really understands how theatre works, really understands what audiences want. So to have him in the room has been a brilliant experience.”
Payne also contributed to another Nabokov work, Symphony, a mixture of theatre, music, and spoken word, written with Ella Hickson and Tom Wells, which ran at Vault Festival this year. Indeed, from Symphony and the event Nabokov ran for its re-launch, with its WikiTheatre, music, performance poetry et al, it is evident that straight theatre is not the only aspect of the company’s work. This year’s Vault Festival also featured one of the company’s ‘arts clubs’, which, as Murphy details, “have a sort of club night feel” and “a multi-disciplinary, quite raw aesthetic”. He describes how an arts event like the club at the Vaults “brings together a whole load of different people. Some people are coming because they want a night out, and then get surprised by the fact there’s some really good theatre, some great comedy, some great performance poets; some people come to see a bit of theatre and end up having a really fun night, getting hammered, and dancing the night away.”
To Murphy, the arts clubs express a wider idea about the arts on the whole. “It says that theatre isn’t just about really expensive things in the West End,” he asserts. “It shows that theatre is about young people, it’s for young people, it talks to them in their own aesthetic about their own issues, and can be involved in a night out and be just as fun as going to the cinema, or going to see a live gig.” When I ask him if it is important to involve young people in the arts this way, his response is enthusiastic. “It’s super important! Young artists are the future of theatre, as are young audiences. If you don’t get those young people in, loving theatre now and learning what it can be, then these people are going to grow up into the mainstream middle aged audience. We want to hook them early,” he says, expressing an encouragingly affirmative outlook.
Upon being asked if he has any advice for young directors or theatre-makers, Murphy outlines what he would tell his former self. “The two things I would say to remember: it’s a marathon not a sprint – it’s a long game, you’re going to learn a lot along the way, try and not get impatient – and get the ego out the way as quick as possible. The sooner you can think about the work, think of the audience, and the joy of working collaboratively with all the other artists involved in the theatre, the better.”
His advice seems to have been put into practice in his own role leading Nabokov, and there is plenty in store in the future for the company. While Incognito runs here, another Nabokov show, Blink, is heading to New York in June. In terms of Nabokov’s work, Murphy tells me that it’s hoping to “be a bit more multi-disciplinary” with its touring shows. Whatever the company achieves in the future, it’s clear that Murphy values the audiences that Nabokov’s shows and clubs have already attracted. “I think that young audiences push artists and practitioners to come up with new ideas, all the time,” he says positively. “They want new things, they challenge and inspire. And I think that’s a really great gauntlet to lay down.”
Incognito is at the Bush Theatre until 21 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush’s website.