The Grand Theatre in London is planning to continue what was originally scheduled for March of 2020, with the North American premiere of Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room, in a first-time collaboration with Mirvish Productions and the UK’s Covent Garden Productions. Room has been adapted for the stage by Donoghue, with songs by Scottish songwriters Kathryn Joseph and Cora Bissett.
It’s also an opportunity for Bissett to direct in Canada. The renown Scottish director is excited to bring Room to Canadian audiences in London from March 8 to March 19.
She spoke with us via Zoom.
Let’s start it off. Tell me about your background.
I’m born and bred in Scotland. I have been in theater for all of my adult life really. I did start out in a rock band “Darlingheart” when I was 17 and landed this mega deal which crashed monumentally as all good rock and roll stories do. When I landed up on the heap of broken rock bands at the age of 20, I thought, I better get myself to drama school and do something more secure.
I have worked as an actor for about 15 years, and then started up my own company. I knew that I wanted to direct my own work and just really create my own babies as it were. A lot of that work has been very socially engaged, there’s always a sort of human rights slant at the core of the story, but very much, absolute drama.
Jumping forward to starting up my company, working with the National Theatre of Scotland, I’m an associate there, so I do work with them, and for them, but also independently for my own company.
About eight years ago, I had been directing work for maybe about six, seven years by that point. I had read Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, and I just fell in love with it, and decided to contact her, I just saw a real vision for how I could imagine this book being adopted.
It was quite an unusual one for me, because a lot of the work that I’ve created, starts with a real life story that I just get really fascinated and intrigued by. Then I go and research and meet the real people involved and then find a dramatist to work with me on realizing that story and how to dramatize it. But with “Room”, obviously, there’s a stunning piece of writing already there. I wrote to Emma and I just wrote down all of the ideas as I saw it.
When I was reading the book, I don’t know if you read the novel originally, but it’s so cleverly done from the perspective of the little boy Jack, for anyone that doesn’t already know the story. His mother, who’s only ever known as Ma, was abducted when she was a young girl, and is taken by this man and put in a shed that he’s built in his garden. He ritually abused her, and she does have a son to him – and that is the little character of Jack.
Emma was very loosely based on the Fritzl case in Austria. The guy had kept his daughter prisoner for 24 years, so there was a lot of parallels to that, but it is a fiction. For me, it never became gratuitous or voyeuristic in any shape or form. You were reading actually a beautiful novel through the eyes of a child. He believes that the universe that he’s in – the world that he is in – is fantastic, it’s perfect, because he just shares it with his Ma, all day, every day. They have these structures, routines, games, and she has managed to protect him from the darkness that he’s actually living in.
She uses bits of old rubbish to make toys where the toilet rolls are turned into games. She does all their little fitness routines, she keeps his eyes developing their focus. She was really scared that his eyes wouldn’t develop because they’re underground and they’re always in a 12 foot space, so she turns that into a game where he’s got to focus on her finger and makes it fun. Even washing their clothes in the bathtub becomes like a dance that they do together.
The whole first few chapters of the book and therefore the first 15 minutes of our show are this beautiful world, very compact world that Ma has created with this little boy. You’re with him, with his perspective, and we try to recreate that in the show.
What Emma does so beautifully, is just gradually peel away little pieces of information, little clues and it’s always Jack asking these questions. You gradually understand things are not as they seem and actually Ma is living in this entrapped hell. An absolute living hell which she is somehow finding the strength to rise above and create a different reality for her son.
I just thought that was an inherently fabulous dramatic situation to explore. One of the most instinctive responses I added to it was music. It’s funny, I think maybe because I started off in a band, and it was a kind of indie rock band in the early 90s. That was my first creative process, being in a room with three other people, a drum kit, a couple of electric guitars, and just making stuff. My process has always been very instinctive and led by music.
Even though it’s theater that I make now, practically every show I’ve made has a very, very musical element to it. When I say musical, I don’t necessarily mean musical in the traditional sense, but just a strong backbone of either actor musicians playing or really, very embedded sound score, and sometimes all out bands. I can’t separate the two, I just love exploring different ways to create exciting, vibrant theater that uses music in surprising ways when you don’t expect it, and I think Room is one of those stories, it’s a very, very dark story.
Some may ask, why would you add music to that, where does the music fit in that story? But actually, you have a premise where a woman is entrapped, she has no other adult to speak to, she has no other outlet to talk about what she is going through, and song is that brilliant kind of convention of theater where you can go, I’m not saying this to anybody, this is all in my head, but I’m saying it to you, the audience. We use song to let Ma express what is going on for her, and I think those songs are powerful, very powerful for that.
What do you think that makes “Room” so appealing to the audience?
I think there are lots of reasons actually. I think we really connect with this mother/son relationship. It’s incredibly tender.
It’s Jack, as a character, as the most wonderful creation. Emma has created this little five year old boy who is inquisitive and really funny and we create the theatrical invention, which is SuperJack, who is kind of like the inner manifestations of little Jack’s thoughts.
We knew that to have a little boy on stage would be too much to ask a little kid, but also you need to separate it from just the little kid who is involved in the action on stage and his inner workings.
SuperJack, the adult actor, is just incredible. He has a similar childlike energy played by Brandon Michael, but he’s the one who’s allowed to be inquisitive and ask the questions.
I think audiences will fall in love with little Jack – you can’t help not to. He’s just such an interesting, smart, little, brave little guy.
You also fall in love with Ma because you see a woman fighting for her child, in the most extreme of circumstances. Although many of us are not living under those extreme circumstances, we can all connect with fighting for our kids in whatever way shape or form that takes, and the intensity of protection that you feel and the fear of getting it wrong.
Having come out of a lockdown, all of us, all around the world, have been in very close spaces with our families to an extent that most of us hadn’t experienced before, I think we will really connect with the story in a very different way.
It’s also a thriller. You have two people that you will fall in love with, and they are in an impossible situation through the whole first half of that story. How the hell are they going to survive? As things crank up, there’s events that keep cranking up the jeopardy, and you just think, how are they going to get out of the room? Will they get out of the room? I think there’s an incredible tension.
I remember when we first performed it in London, UK, some years ago, at the end of the first act, we don’t want to give things away here, but it builds up to an incredibly tense climax, and when the final kind of boom, happened, I heard people next to me just, (Inhales) intake breath, it’s like they’ve been holding their breath for the past 10 minutes. I think it’s an incredibly thrilling, emotive roller coaster of a journey that you go on, and I think you can connect with it in many, many subtle ways.
The performances with our, beautiful cast just are going to draw people in.
The music that they’re singing is certainly not ‘sing-along-songs’, but they’re incredibly powerful. Half were written by Kathryn Joseph, who’s a wonderful singer songwriter from Scotland, and I wrote the other half alongside Kathryn. What we’ve tried to do is just really get inside their experience. They’re tense, but incredibly emotional songs. I think there’s a lot to draw people in.
I’ve seen the movie and there seems like there’s a lot of differences but yet some similarities to the play. What are your thoughts on how the movie was portrayed compared to how you’ve done the play?
I love the movie. It’s a stunning piece of work. I love Lenny Abrahamson’s direction, it’s beautiful, the level of naturalism that he has, a very patient eye and he just lets a story unfold very subtly in front of you. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but we are absolutely on different ends of the spectrum in terms of style, which I think is right and good.
Film is a completely different medium, because we are on a stage and trying to bring these inner worlds outward, I think that’s what’s very different. Through the use of song, you’re getting Ma to talk and it’s singing directly to us.
You’re getting SuperJack shared in these inner workings with us. It’s also a very physical piece. There’s a lot of playfulness between SuperJack and Little Jack where man Jack enjoys storytelling. This is how she keeps his imagination alive. One of his favorite stories is the birth story of how he was born. They reenact this, and Ma takes a little boy and first he’s in her tummy, so he’s all wrapped round her and she talks about him kickin, and his little legs kind of punch in the stomach. Then he throws them over her shoulder, and he kind of falls down and his little head appears through her legs and rolls on the floor – the audience loved it.
There’s a real physical playfulness in this space. But also one of the other elements is incredibly visual. The site designed by Lily Arnold is stunning. You think you’re looking at just a room, just a 12 foot by 12 foot square, very naturalistic space. But the room, it’s not all as it seems. We also won’t exactly explain how but you also get to see the room from little Jack’s perspective. When he’s inside the wardrobe at nighttime, she puts him in bed, when her abuser comes to visit. She doesn’t ever let him see anything. We flip the whole thing around a view the wardrobe with little Jack, with him looking out between the slats. What I was always trying to capture is his experience and not be voyeuristic and kind of watch everything that has been done to me because we’re essentially living this play through Jack eyes. Similarly, it works with a wonderful artist, Andrzej Goulding who created all the projections.
We have this goss fly screen in the room and all the projections are drawings by a real five year old, which Andrzej worked up into projections. Again, we try to evoke little Jack’s imagination, and he can’t quite see what’s going on between, through the slats of wardrobe. He can hear things and he’s trying to work it out.
What we do is just explode his imagination and have the visual pictures of what he’s seen in his head as he tries to work out what’s going on in there. That’s a language that goes right through the pieces well and it’s beautiful and it’s joyous and funny, and it’s like any child, trying to make sense of this very adult world that they’re living in all the time. That’s always our touchstone is where is the child’s thought in this in this moment.
It’s so very, very different from the film it draws on all these very unrealistic conventions, a magical, realist and very playful and cartoony and physical, whereas the film was super naturalistic. I think both are true to the book and true to the story, but just use very different tools to tell that story.
What do you want the audiences to take away from the show?
Gosh, I mean, it’s always a funny question because I think everybody’s experience is valid. Some might just love the thrill of the journey, and that’s fine. For me there’s enormous hope in this study. I think sometimes when people know a little bit about the book, and they go “Oh God that’s going to be a really depressing play to watch”, and bizarrely, it’s not so bizarrely, it never has been for me, it’s always been a play about incredible love, sacrifice, resilience, and the overcoming. I’m always drawn to stories of how we overcome and that is never simple and it’s never complete. It’s never just bubba there we are.
I think what this story shows us that even when Man Jack, gets into the outside world, that’s actually not the story, you’re only halfway through. In fact, you’re only a bit of a way through, you’ve got a whole big journey to get acclimatized to a whole new set of challenges. I think, again, right now, I feel it’s so prescient, we’ve all been through so many challenges over the past two years, you know, people have lost jobs, they’ve not seen family, they’ve lost family. People have been through extraordinary times right now. We’re coming out of it. Yet, we’re still kind of going backwards. I think we’re in that phase right now. We’re thinking that we’ve just got out of the worst.
For me, I find it strengthening because I see someone in the worst situation possible. Getting through that and getting out the other end. I find it strengthening, empowering in some way.
The study also for me, it’s certainly not avert in any way. It’s not there on the top level as it were. Emma and I spoke about this in the past, and I think, know how many people are displaced right now around the world, the amount of refugees that are just getting shipped from pillar to post and our political pawns. I think of Ma also as that woman who had to make a choice between staying with her child in a situation which is absolutely unlivable, and will surely lead to death. In that choice, I’m going to risk my son’s life because Ma puts him in a rug to get out of the room, I’m gonna risk it because that is the only choice I have.
For me that really pertains to every refugee around the world who is fleeing from whatever horror they’re fleeing. It might be that person putting their child on a boat, or putting themselves in a boat knowing the chances of us getting off this boat are so small, but we’re still going to do it because it’s better than what we’re living with.
I think it’s strange how stories resonate differently with you in different times. During these past two years in the world there’s just been so much upheaval through the pandemic, through all the migration of people which goes on constantly.
“Room” is speaking to me in different ways as well. I think whatever you bring to it, whatever your personal space is, that connects with it or whatever it is that affects you in the world globally, right now. It is about a parent doing the best they can in the worst of situations, and we all relate to that in some way or other.
Why did you want to bring this show to London, Ontario, Canada?
It’s a series of connections. The show first went on in Dublin, but Emma is a resident and has been for a long time of London, Ontario and Dennis Garnhum who runs the Grand Theatre, was aware that Emma lived in the town. I think, a couple of years ago, he said, we should be doing Room, lets make this happen. So Dennis got in touch with our people, and spoke about bringing the production out there, but to be working with a Canadian cast and some UK creative team members as well and that has just been such a beautiful full circle for Emma, it’s brought it back home to her quite literally. It’s been beautiful doing it with a Canadian cast, because she wrote it while she was living there. We had slightly Englified some of the language and things in it when we did it in the UK. But it was kind of coming back home and finding its natural home there.
It’s just been an absolute joy for me to work with an incredible team of Canadian artists and stage management and creative’s. It’s been lovely, and I’m very honored that The Grand has brought our production and worked with us on it and we’ve collaborated together. It’s been great.
Will you be there for the play?
At the moment, I’m doing Zoom rehearsals, which is very strange. I mean, my God technology has gone years ahead in the past two years. I have a wonderful associate there, and Megan Watson, who is working with the cast in the room and the Movement Director Linda Garneau, absolutely wonderful.
They’re leading the room in that space. I can see everybody and so I can pick up little details and check in.
They also have the archived video, so they’re able to work from what was made last time around, but I will be getting out there in the following weeks to take it to opening.
Go to GrandTheatre.com to purchase your tickets and to see all their up-coming shows.