Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Anthony Biggs: Flowers Of The Forest

By | Published on Tuesday 23 September 2014


As you may know, Jermyn Street Theatre makes a point of reviving forgotten works (as well as staging all things new) and ‘Flowers Of The Forest’ is one of those plays that has been taken out and dusted off to be part of this autumn’s season of thirties shows at the venue. The writer, John Van Druten, was a big name in the UK during the inter-war period, and later became a successful screenwriter working on a number of films we now regard as classics.

The play boasts a fine cast that includes film and TV star Sophie Ward, and is directed by Jermyn Street’s Artistic Director Anthony Biggs. I found out more from him about the play, the playwright, and what’s coming up at Jermyn Street.

CM: Can you tell us what ‘Flowers Of The Forest’ is about, and its context?
AB: Set in the early thirties, it tells the story of London socialite Naomi Jacklin – played by Sophie Ward – living a charming if unromantic life of luxury with her husband Lewis. When her sister Mercia arrives one afternoon, with belongings from the vicarage, the family home she has recently been forced to leave on the death of their father, a number of coincidences occur and suddenly we are thrown back in time to 1914, and the vicarage at the outbreak of war.

Act two shows the immediate consequences of the war on the family and in particular on the lives of Naomi and her fiancée Richard. When we return to Act three a startling event occurs – I won’t give it away – which challenges Naomi to reconsider everything she believes, and to finally confront the demons of her past.

CM: What themes does the play address and how are are they relevant now?
AB: Some of the themes of ‘Flowers Of The Forest’ – lost love, family duty, religious conflict and so on – are universal but I do feel that a particular aspect of the play – its plea for tolerance and peace – is particularly relevant at the moment as we contemplate new conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine. Given that it was written in 1933, the year the Reichstag was destroyed and Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and just a few years before millions of young men and women would again be pitted in battle with their neighbours, it now seems incredibly prophetic. I hope that we have learned some of the lessons from that time, though our recent failed campaign in Afghanistan would suggest not.

CM: What what is about the play that attracted you to it? Why this, of all of Van Druten’s works?
AB: At Jermyn Street Theatre we are committed to rediscovering our cultural heritage for new audiences. I am particularly attracted to those plays that, for whatever reason, have been lost completely. In this case I think ‘Flowers of the Forest’, with its First World War theme, became outdated as soon as the Second World War began. In this centenary year it has a special relevance.

There are two aspects that I find particularly compelling about this play. Firstly it has, at its core, two wonderful leading parts for women, and secondly it contains a spiritual dimension that, although quite popular in plays of the period, is very rare in contemporary writing.

CM: John Van Druten probably isn’t an immediately recognisable name to contemporary audiences, yet he was highly popular in his day, wasn’t he? Would you like to revive more of his plays?
AB: John Van Druten was one of the most popular playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s. He had early success with his first play ‘Young Woodley’, partly because it was initially banned by the Lord Chamberlain for its depiction of an affair between a school boy and his housemaster’s wife. A contemporary of Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, Van Druten left Britain for Hollywood in the early thirties (where he wrote ‘Flowers of the Forest’) and this might account for his dwindling popularity after the war. He had considerable success as a screenwriter of such classics as ‘Gaslight’ and ‘Bell, Book and Candle’. He’s probably best remembered for his play ‘I am a Camera’ which later became the musical ‘Cabaret’. I think his work his absolutely worth reviving, and there are a number of his other plays which I rate highly.

CM: Given the play’s vintage status, one would assume that it’s written in a traditional way. Have you taken a traditional approach as a director, or have you tried to effect a more contemporary feel?
AB: When I choose to revive any work I always start from the position of whether it has anything to say to an audience now. That said, these plays are often written in a particular way and don’t easily update. What I try to do is concentrate on the relationships between characters and to keep the playing style realistic, challenging my actors to search for truth and honesty in their work. Jermyn Street Theatre is a studio theatre and its USP is that it does give audiences the opportunity to get up close and personal with the actors in a way that no other West End theatre can match. In such an environment, where you can literally hear someone breathing, you can’t fake anything.

CM: As you mentioned, Jermyn Street is known for staging ‘unknown and forgotten classics’. What other productions of such plays can we expect in the near future?
AB: ‘Flowers of the Forest’ is part of a Thirties Season. It also includes Terence Rattigan’s first produced play, the comedy ‘First Episode’, directed by the wonderfully talented Tom Littler for his company Primavera, a regular JST collaborator (The Living Room, The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith), and Mordaunt Shairp’s ‘The Green Bay Tree’, made famous on Broadway by Laurence Olivier and Jill Esmond, which is being produced by some of the team behind recent hits ‘Gay’s The Word’ and ‘Closer Than Ever’. The hugely respected Tim Luscombe directs.

CM: The venue is also committed to staging new works. How do you go about choosing these?
AB: I try to balance the programme with a healthy mix of revivals, new plays and musicals. Most of the new plays that I direct come about because of my relationship with the writer concerned. For instance, next year I will be directing James Hogan’s ‘Ivy & Joan’ and Stewart Permutt’s ‘Home for Wayward Women’. In both cases, I have worked with the writers before, and am in frequent contact about the plays they are working on. Working on any play, but especially a new play, involves a great deal of trust, and this doesn’t happen overnight. That said, I often give opportunities to other companies for their emerging and more experienced writers to stage their work. We have a small team and I can’t guarantee to read everything that is submitted to us, but I still manage to read at least a half dozen plays a week.

CM: How do you balance your work as artistic director with being a director of an individual play? How often do you personally direct Jermyn Street shows?
AB: When I first started working in theatre it seemed that buildings were all run by Artistic Directors who also directed a large proportion of the output. This certainly isn’t so any more with the rise of the creative producer. I think the admin side of running a building has probably become more onerous too and that might put some directors off. Personally I love having the dual responsibility of programming and directing. I direct probably three or four shows a year out of a dozen or so main productions. Luckily, when I’m directing, I have a very efficient general manager in Penny Horner who runs the ship. She would probably say she runs it even when I am there!

AM: Last time we spoke, you mentioned plans for a season of rarely performed musicals. How is that progressing?
AB: This is still on the slate for autumn 2015. Before then I am working with acclaimed playwright Louise Page on a new children’s show, and we also have a very exciting play from Jonathan Guy Lewis which is all about the current education system as seen through the eyes of the A level students at an elite English public school.

‘Flowers Of The Forest’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre until 18 Oct. See this page here for details and tickets.


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