Director Kimberley Sykes discusses Vera Brittain for International Women’s Day
Director Kimberley Sykes talks breaking into the industry, uncovering women’s stories and directing The Land of Might-Have-Been, a Buxton International Festival and Norwich Theatre production that premieres this July.
The new musical is inspired by the early life of the bestselling author and pacifist Vera Brittain and is built around the music of Ivor Novello. Both were 21 when World War 1 broke out.
- You’ve worked with the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Academy of Music, and the National Theatre, how did you start out?
I was involved in theatre making from a very young age. Growing up in Huddersfield, in a working class estate, we didn’t go to the venues you’ve just mentioned. Theatre making was down at the local hall, or in the pub doing story telling. Telling stories and making theatre was part of my upbringing.
The first commitment I made was at sixth form college when I did theatre Studies, and then went on to do a BA in Theatre Directing. I spent all the time I could writing and working in drama studios. I started seeing more professional theatre and recognised it could be a job. Initially I was adamant I was going to be an actor, but most of the time I was directing from the position of an actor, which didn’t always go down too well! Everyone was telling me to just go and be a director. So, I did.
When I got my first job, in a room above a pub, I decided to treat it and every other job I got like I was directing for the main house at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then, when I did get to the RSC it wasn’t as intimidating as it could have been, as I had been doing it for some time.
At the same time as directing everything I could, unpaid, I was also an assistant director for the likes of the National and Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which helped with the transition to being an associate director and then a director. They’re all different jobs with different pressures. I got to watch, learn, test the water, and be embraced by the RSC. When I was given my first directing job it felt like there was a tribe of people who were supporting me.
- How’s it been being a woman in the industry?
Obstacles-wise people have different challenges, but for me it’s been being a northern, working-class woman. Accent is a thing. There’s a sound of privilege and authority within the industry that is still so prominent. I sometimes find my accent changes depending on who I’m talking to; and sometimes I really broaden my northern accent, when I’m in a room where people expect a director to sound RP, to drive a point home. It’s about class at the end of the day, and I think people hear a northern accent and make judgements about education and intelligence. It’s a complicated thing, but I also find my strength in this – my northern-ness, working-class-ness and femaleness, also feels like my superpower.
When you get to the point where you’re directing at the RSC, you feel like you shouldn’t have to justify your place anymore. Imposter syndrome still comes back, but you kind of go, no – I’m here for a reason!
- Vera Brittain was a midlands/northern girl, who wanted to prove her intelligence. Is this what attracted you to the project, and do you identify with her in any other respect?
What I was most drawn to about Vera was how uncompromising she was and how extreme she could be. Some might call it dramatic; I call it committed. If she had a thought or feeling she’d express it and that could rub people up the wrong way, but she had her truth and she was going to speak it.
In my work I want to tell women’s stories, and especially some women who’ve been erased from history because they’re not convenient or don’t fit into a history that people want to tell.
Some people of my generation, and younger, haven’t necessarily heard about Vera Brittain, but she spoke the uncomfortable truth about war. When you read Testament of Youth and what she was saying – especially after WW1 and leading up to WW2 – she was looking at things from the German perspective and say we’re killing their citizens, this is unfair. At the time, a lot of people in this country were saying how dare you and calling her a Nazi sympathiser, but actually what she was doing was seeing the human truth of war and saying that it’s the younger generation who always lose the most.
Working with the creative team, and whilst casting, it’s been amazing to see how people are connecting with the play and its relevance today. War is closer than it’s been in a long time and we feel a danger. I feel like we need to work out how to protect our young people so atrocities and the sheer eye-watering losses don’t happen again.
It feels very urgent to me to paint as true and as vivid a picture as possible of Vera, her brother, her fiancé and her friends. They were just bloody fantastic; they had such bold ideas, and were mavericks, and were like many young people today, in so many ways.
- So, is it fair to say it’s a musical about youth, set to the backdrop of WW1, and that there’s a warmth and humour to it?
It’s a story of two halves. The second half is from the war period, but the first half is of young people who have no idea of the scale of the War that was around the corner. It’s the story of 4 young people who are frolicking round the Goyt Valley, falling in love, going to dances, working out what they think about the world, playing music together, dancing together. It’s important the audience witness and take pleasure in how they’re developing as human beings.
We were all teenagers once, so I think we can all look at it and remember what if felt like to have those fresh discoveries, first loves, first kisses – it’s got a real joy and youth and vitality.
- Without giving too much away, is there anything you can share about your vision for the musical?
We want to create a sense of the young people being in control of the piece, especially in Act One where they are literally shaping the world around them. So, we’re interested in seeing them bringing on pieces of set and costume, and giving that sense that they’re carving and writing the world around them. We want it to feel fast and urgent and vital – in the scene changes as well as in the scenes – in the way the whole production takes shape. Then as we go further and further into WW1, we’re interested in seeing what happens when that power gets taken away from the young people. To begin with they are in control of the theatre, but that changes and the power is slowly taken away from them – as it was in their lives.
The way stories have been told from this time-period can feel nostalgic and sentimental. One thing we’re really passionate about, as a creative team, is that that we’re not looking back with a soft focus. There’s a sadness and an anger with this piece. We want that hard focus, so when we’re joyful we’re fiercely joyful, when we’re in love – we love with all our selves, when we’re angry – we’re furious. That’s the production we want to make, and that’s what feels very current.
- Is International Women’s Day important to you?
Yes, it is. I think it’s a day to find out more about a woman who you might not have known of before and I hope this is what the production does for Vera Brittain. Every year I feel like I make a discovery about an amazing woman, and that’s what I love about it.
- Do you feel like you’re part of a movement of women’s directors?
Yes, I feel like we’re starting to recognise what a women director can bring to a process that’s different to what a male director might bring. I think it’s about lived experience and a different perspective. It’s not one female point of view – that doesn’t exist as we’re all individuals – but I feel there are lived experiences that you can bring to your work. We’ve seen through the male -gaze for a long time. Now we’re getting very interested in what the female-gaze can bring to the world of arts, theatre and performance.
I feel part of a movement of women and men who feel strong and able to say ‘this is my truth, this is how I see the world’, and feel comfortable to bring that to their work, rather than to try and fit into someone else’s agenda.
The Land Of Might-Have-Been premieres at Buxton International Festival on Friday, 7 July with follow-up performances until 21 July and then onto Norwich Theatre between 25 and 30 July. Public booking IS NOW OPEN.
Performance Dates: Buxton Opera House
Friday 7 July 7.15
Tuesday 11 July 7.15
Saturday 15 July 2.00 & 7.15
Tuesday 18 July 7.15
Friday 21 July 7.17
Box Office: Tel: 01298 72190, buxtonfestival.co.uk
Performance Dates: Norwich Theatre
Tuesday 25 July 7.30pm
Wednesday 26 July 7.30pm
Thursday 27 July 2.30pm & 7.30pm
Friday 28 July 7.30pm
Saturday 29 July 7.30pm
Sunday 30 July 2pm
Box office: 01603 630 000, norwichtheatre.org