10 questions for 10 years – David Mercatali

Director and frequent Philip Ridley collaborator David Mercatali gives a wonderfully frank response to the 10 questions challenge

I think I’ve been reviewing David Mercatali’s shows as long as I’ve been blogging, so I loved the opportunity to find out a bit more about him here. Of those productions that I’ve loved, from the blistering Johnny Got His Gun to Little Light, it’s the striking Radiant Vermin, by Philip Ridley, that ranks as my favourite, I even went to see it in French.  

“We took the show to Bristol, London, New York, Avignon and Paris. It’s still touring in France now! There are so many happy memories from that long journey.

My favourite would be during the first run at the Soho in 2015. I am very very anxious when I watch my shows. I’m even worse now than when I started. Being amongst the audience can be stressful and I always fasten on to the one person I can see who isn’t enjoying it. But on this occasion I was sat on the balcony at the side and could see many of the audiences faces. When the garden party scene (for anyone who didn’t see it, it was an epic physical comedy scene at the end of the play) I decided to watch the audience watch the play. The looks of joy and wonder I’ll never forget. For once in this career I was living in the moment and enjoying the affect my work had.”

  • Where were you 10 years ago?

    2009. You’re catching me as my career, and life, was about to change hugely. From 2003 I had been toiling away as a director doing new work I cared about in little known venues that no one was coming to see. I was keeping on out of habit really. Then Philip Ridley, one of the greatest writers of his generation, came to see one of those unknown shows because he knew a member of the cast and afterwards I was told he liked my direction. I clocked that if I didn’t act on this I might never have another chance. I contacted him and said I was really interested in working with him. He took a huge risk on me based on his instincts. The following year I directed my first production of his, Moonfleece, the first of 6 premieres we did together. Cue ‘the rest is history’ cliches from me 😂 (ed. I saw that Moonfleece as a baby blogger – look!)

  • Best show you’ve seen in the last 10 years?

    It would be boring to answer Jerusalem or Black Watch but both were amazing. I travelled to Cornwall to see Kneehigh’s The Red Shoes in their incredible venue in a field, the Asylum. I felt like I’d returned to an earlier form of theatre story telling. I was connected to it in a way I’m often not in more formal venues, and the show was of course beautifully done. So I’ll go with that

  • What has been your professional highlight of the last 10 years?

    After Moonfleece, Phil trusted me to direct a brand new play, Tender Napalm, in 2011 which we premiered at Southwark Playhouse. It was a huge challenge for me. The night before we opened I freaked out that my staging choice was going to be despised by Philip Ridley fans and I was going to be a theatre outcast! In the end it went down very very well and I think it was that success that has allowed me to become a theatre director for my career, so I’d have to go with that, though there have been many many brilliant moments since.

  • Top flavour of interval ice-cream?

    I dont each much ice cream these days but salted caramel would be the choice if I did

  • What show do you wish theatres would give a rest for a few years?

    I don’t mean to be diplomatic but a good production can make you look at any show differently. I wouldn’t be sorry to see the back of Chicago though, when I saw it I thought it was a bit crap.

  • Name someone who you think is a really underappreciated talent (in the world of theatre)?

    Unquestionably Sean Michael Verey, who was in Radiant Vermin and Tonight with Donny Stixx. He’s a star who dazzles on stage, he did on both those shows. But he hasn’t had as much stage work, or even stage auditions, as he should have had post that work. But he comes from a non privileged background and didn’t go to drama school. I think there is snobbery perhaps because they don’t see enough theatre credits. It feels a travesty for me that someone who won The Stage Best Solo Performance award in Edinburgh in 2015 was not immediately in demand with the biggest theatre companies and directors.

  • Elphaba or Glinda?

    I would have to google to know exactly who they are, which feels like cheating! Glinda is the good Witch in the Wizard of Oz so I assume this is Wicked? Haven’t seen it, sorry! I’ve heard it’s great but I’m not a massive West End goer.

  • What is one thing that you think would help theatre survive and/or thrive the next ten years?

    Oof, only one thing?? Well, I think we have 2 problems: for those of us not doing purely commercial theatre we find that getting an audience is tough. And in many secondary schools, many working class kids feel theatre is not for them. We suffer from being seen as an elite art form. So it’s a no brainer that you solve these 2 issues together. Make theatre cheaper and have more sustained engagement in schools. Try and persuade teachers not just to take kids to see whatever Shakespeare show is on the syllabus. That’s not how you build an interest in consistent theatre going. You have to put on work that connects with people at a young age and makes theatre feel it’s for them. A young BTEC group in theatre saw Radiant Vermin in Bristol and loved it. I guarantee you they didn’t think theatre was boring after that.

  • Which is your favourite theatre?

    I don’t really get excited by buildings. I don’t think ‘ooh I need to see what’s in the Almeida season’. I can’t think of other art forms that are as obsessed about the building the work is going on in. I get excited by directors like Emma Rice or James MacDonald. Or writers like Philip Ridley. Or actors like Denise Gough.

  • Can you say anything about what’s to come for you, (in the next ten years or otherwise)?

    I’m directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol and Salisbury Playhouse, from February-April. So excited to be working on such an incredible play and trying to clear my head to look at it afresh.

    As for the next ten years, if this interview has taught me anything it’s that a lot changes in 10 years! I might even have started a new career by then!

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