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By Timothy Bano
Nicolas Kent has worked as a director for over forty years, including five years at the Oxford Playhouse before this paper existed (the revelation of the Oxford Student leads to a wonderful moment where he asks if Cherwell still exists.) He has been the Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre in London for almost thirty years, and under his direction the theatre became the hub of contemporary political theatre on a national, even global scale.
Kent attended St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he quickly became part of the dramatic scene, though he puts the matter down to chance. “I went to the societies fair, I went in determined to join lots of things. At Cambridge we don’t have OUDS, we have the ADC, the Amateur Dramatic Club, so it starts with A and is right by the door when you go in. So I joined the ADC and probably nearly joined the Archery Club and the Aardvark Spotting Society.” With a friend he ascended the ranks of the ADC: “I was secretary of everything and he was president of everything.”
He speaks fondly of his time at the Playhouse, and he makes clear the same problems existed then as now. “The thing about the Playhouse is that students don’t go enough,” he reflects, before explaining that he remembers Cambridge students also ignoring the professional productions, “although I think we went more than people do at Oxford.”
Yet it is in his time at the Tricycle that Kent has come into his own as a guiding force of political theatre. He credits his predecessor, Ken Sharp, with creating a clear ethos for the theatre: “He laid down four planks of policy for the Tricycle: One was work for, by and with women, the second was new work, the third was work for and with children, and the fourth was reflecting the ethnic groups around the neighbourhood.” Eventually the board, which has more women than men, “moved away from ‘work for, by and with women’, because we were doing that anyway.”
Two particular innovations of his stand out, the first being the verbatim tribunal plays that dramatized events like the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Kent notes that verbatim theatre “seems to have become very fashionable. It was being done before I introduced it here, it wasn’t like it was something novel, there had been various different verbatim pieces of work, but I supposed we did it more consistently and used it in a more high profile way, tackling big political issues, so the spotlight fell on us.”
The second noted idea of Kent’s is the long plays, like the international The Great Game: Afghanistan, and more recently The Bomb. These, and two others, Women Power and Politics and A Love Song For Ulster, “a three part history of Ulster since 1923 right into the future,” put on in 1993 before the Good Friday Agreement,” are made up of a series of short plays from dozens of writers that Kent commissioned.
For Kent that kind of structure has many positives, not least the fact that the many approaches of different writers “allows the audience a whole breadth of knowledge that they wouldn’t get from a single play.” However, it does produce other problems: “Inevitably when you commission writers, plays turn up that don’t quite work, there’s a bit of a failure rate. But for an audience it’s quite good because if you don’t get on with one play, there will be another one along in 30 minutes.”
The Great Game was phenomenally successful, touring America a few years ago, including performances for American troops. At points it becomes hard to distinguish Kent’s productions from the politics that surround them – his last play, The Bomb, exemplifies this. “The Bomb was really trying to look at the debate I felt there should have been, and there should be, around the renewal of Trident, which will be in 2015. We seem to be in an inexorable decision making process that will in the end make sure that we do have a bomb, and no one quite knows why we should have it.”
Though clearly passionate about every project, Kent is realistic about the limitations of his work: “I think a lot of my work will be completely dead. I don’t think it gets revived. The only one, funnily enough, that gets revived a bit is the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, and that’s mainly because it’s used as a training tool for police forces about institutional racism and racial awareness. I’m not commissioning plays that will be classics in a hundred years’ time, I’m trying to create a living newspaper, dealing with immediate issues. They’re very contemporaneous, they’re very provocative. I try and make them as unbiased as possible. In some degree they feel like a public service, like public service broadcasting at its best.”
However, after £350,000 was cut from the Tricycle’s funding, he resigned his post and leaves the theatre in May. It was “just unsustainable. I was going to go anyway in about two years’ time and I thought I don’t want to spend the last two years of my tenure doing less good work.” Instead, it looks like a return to freelancing with his new company, Nick of Time. “I would love to run another theatre, there’s nothing I’d like more, but I think the problem is I’m past the ‘default’ retirement age – unfortunately I think we set that a bit low these days.”
Even though he is moving on from the Tricycle, it’s clear Nicolas Kent has much more to do. “I’ve a fairly full slate of ideas – whether I can get them funded and get them on somewhere is a totally different matter.” He will have plenty to take with him, including the Freedom of Brent, which he is particularly pleased about. “They haven’t given anyone the freedom of Brent since 1980, when they tried to give it to Mandela. The Conservatives took them to court because they said Mandela was a terrorist and shouldn’t be given the freedom of anything.” It seems everything about Nicolas Kent comes back, appropriately, to politics.