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Interview: Director Joe Murphy on Incognito and Nabokov

15 May 2014 Charlie Kenber

"The first time you read it you think, 'my god this thing is un-directable!'"

Ahead of the opening of Nick Payne’s Incognito at the Bush Theatre, we caught up with director – and Artistic Director of Nabokov – Joe Murphy.

LC: How did Incognito come about?

JM: I run a company called Nabokov, and we’ve done some short plays with Nick Payne before. We just got on really well, and obviously he’s one of the most extraordinary young writers working at the moment.

We wanted to do something on a larger scale: we talked initially about time travel and how the way we experience time and our memories define who we are as people. I thought that sounded really interesting.

We looked for a regional partner and Live Theatre seemed the obvious choice – we’ve been touring to them for a while, and they’ve got a great reputation for new writing, and so we asked them if they’d be interested in co-commissioning it with us. They said yes, they jumped in without really knowing what we were going to get on the other end!

And then when Nick dug into the research he came across a field of neuroscience, and actually found that the brain can dictate what we can remember and what we know. Does that mean that we are our brains, or are we something else?

LC: It’s one of those topics that everyone knows is very interesting but that can also be very dense. Is it difficult to make the material accessible?

JM: Yes it was a big challenge. The lucky thing for us is that Nick just has a big, beating, human heart, so any interest in intellectualism or scientific concepts are only explored in how it affects our everyday lives, how it affects our humanity.

So that helps a huge amount because Nick is interested in our emotional connections with the people around us.

The other thing that I found interesting is that nobody knows anything really, when you really get into the research. Basically all research ends at “yeah but it’s a mystery”, so we don’t really know, ”but we think it could be this”. So actually conceptually and emotionally it’s really fertile ground. It’s really open.

LC: I can imagine that being a bit frustrating doing the research!

JM: It’s hilarious! They know certain things and certainly know more now than we ever did, but still this grey matter is just remarkable. There’s a really interesting thing that Nick pulled up in his research that the human brain is the only material that seeks to understand itself and the universe.

LC: From a practical point of view the show contains three threads, three narrative lines. Is it quite difficult to weave them together in a clear way?

JM: Yeah, the first time you read it you think, “my god this thing is un-directable!” There are four actors, over 21 parts…how do you do that! So early on we said ok there’s one stage, and one costume without changes.

LC: How did the partnership with the Bush Theatre come about?

JM: Well actually my first ever job out of drama school was at the Bush as an Assistant Director under Josie Rourke. So I was sort of brought up by the Bush in my professional career, and I’ve always had strong links there. Then when Madani Younis took over I was really struck by his courage and his vision and what he wants to do with that place. To open the building up, and give it a more democratic feel – I think it’s really exciting.

So since he’s taken over we’ve had chats and conversations with each other and always said that it’d be great to do something. When this came along I just thought this is the perfect opportunity. I thought it’d really hit Madani’s taste buds, so once we had a draft I sent it along and we had a bit of a discussion and he got really excited by it.

LC: Do you get as much enjoyment from running Nabokov as from directing itself?

The great thing about Nabokov is we’re a small outfit, so my contact time with the creatives is as much as it would be if I was just a director. There’s nothing better than just being able to curate artists who you think are amazing. There’s a thrill to that that’s completely different to the thrill of directing your own show.

I love both equally, and because Nabokov’s small I actually get to be in the rehearsal room a huge amount of the time. We’ve got Incognito in London, Blink has been on tour around the UK and then opens in New York in about three weeks, we’ve got Symphony, another show going up to Edinburgh and then on tour and then back into London, and I’ve actually directed all of those. So it gives me the opportunity to have both outputs, as a director myself and a curator of fantastic people.

LC: Somehow on top of all of that you’re also Artistic Associate at the Soho Theatre. What does that involve?

JM: I basically programme our studio space. It’s a completely different skill set of course, but again it’s thrilling to meet emerging artists who are doing great work and say – “I can give you a space in London for three weeks!”

The ethos that Steve Marmion puts down at Soho is just fantastic. He puts on the best work for audiences that’s going to challenge them, and he really believes in backing brave young artists.

Then on top of that I’m Associate Director on Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies which is a show we just did at the RSC that we’re opening in the West End next week! So that’ll be nuts as well. Everything at once!

LC: Finally, why should people come and see Incognito?

JM: I think Incognito makes you rethink how you think about yourself. Any experience that gives you a chance to reflect on that is absolutely worth taking.

Incognito is on at the Bush Theatre from 14th May – 21st June. Tickets from £10, available here.

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