Polly Findlay (c) Manuel Harlan

Polly Findlay (c) Helen Fjell

It’s an exciting time for director Polly Findlay, who makes her directorial debut at the RSC this month with a revival of Arden of Faversham, having begun her theatrical career there as a child actor. And since she first performed with the RSC aged 12, going on to train as a director at LAMDA, Findlay has built up a formidable CV: in 2007, as an emerging director, she won the JMK Award, and has gone on to direct notable productions such as Antigone at the National Theatre. Findlay has the world at her feet, it seems, and is certainly relishing the chance to sink her teeth into this interesting and unusual classic.

Arden of Faversham tells the real-life story of a woman in the sixteenth century who murdered her husband: it was such a local scandal at the time that it inspired the writing of the play. “It’s a very unusual work,” Findlay tells me, “for an audience who are familiar with the conventional structures of classical tragedy, what that means is: you’re expecting to go in and see the story of Lord Havisham – the man – who takes a conventional tragic journey of self realisation, but actually it’s the woman who has the experience here, the tragic arc; she gets to know herself too late.” Certainly the work is timely as theatre is crying out for more stories about women, and indeed more female directors to make that work.

Arden of Faversham (c) Manuel Harlan

Arden of Faversham (c) Jillian Edelstein

Indeed, Findlay goes on to tell me how contemporary the piece feels despite its original setting: “there’s an absolutely absurdist vein running through it, and the characters are all operating with a very short term logic, whereas in a lot of Renaissance plays there’s a sense of long term motivation, like Iago as a classic example. In this play, the characters change their minds like twenty-first century people every five minutes: they’re all pursuing different goals, they’re very impatient, and they’re all gunning for immediate gratification.” This, she tells me, has made directing the play unlike any experience she’s had before: the rigid method you might apply to directing a Chekov, for example, just doesn’t quite work for a play like this – or, as she puts it, you have to ask “a different set of questions,” meaning that between the experience of directing classical and new plays that she has had thus far, she’s really getting to flex her directorial muscles with this venture.

Findlay has relished the challenge the text has presented to her and the company, and equally the experience of working at the RSC itself. Arden of Faversham has been sharing a priority rehearsal system with Roaring Girls, both plays being exciting ventures for the RSC as they feature women in leading roles with great agency. This system of sharing the casts, dividing the rehearsal time and having much a much longer period to mount the play overall, means that Findlay gets a longer period to mature her ideas. “It’s a creative luxury,” she tells me, where often the standard rehearsal period can add pressure to deliver definitive ideas earlier, rather than take the time to find them. Nonetheless, Findlay does explain how breaks from rehearsal make her feel as though she’s “left a child in a park. I keep thinking I should be somewhere.” But the benefit of more time has allowed her to encourage the company to think differently about their performances, as with the characters not having been written naturalistically, rehearsal for Findlay has been about getting the cast to “act on the line, not think too much about the psychological journey from scene to scene, and play it very present tense: 100% in the moment.”

Arden of Faversham (c) Manuel Harlan

Arden of Faversham (c) Manuel Harlan

Findlay clearly feels strongly about the play and her approach to it, and goes on to explain to me that she is always sure to choose projects she believes in: “I think you have to,” she explains. “I’ve had experiences – one experience in particular where I did a job that I wasn’t passionate about and it was a terrible mistake.” Indeed, her advice to any young director is to “make sure you’re directing a play you want to direct. You can’t put all that time and effort and determination into making something happen unless you really, really want to make it happen.”

Findlay herself was fortunate to have had a balance of mounting her own projects, as well as been supported by the National Theatre Studio and the JMK Trust when she was starting out, with the experiences cross-fertilising and laying the foundations for her career. And what Findlay has discovered to be central to pursuing directing successfully, is knowing what kind of theatre it is you want to make: “The hardest thing in the whole business – and an ongoing career-long project – is finding your own taste,” she explains, “and your first step towards that, is it has to be clear you’re in love with the stuff you’re directing – otherwise you’ll run out of gas.” And as she powers ahead with Arden of Faversham and a 2014 packed full of varied and exciting projects, it’s clear that Findlay takes her own sound advice.

Arden of Faversham is at the Swan Theatre until 2 October. For more information and tickets, visit the RSC’s website.