Director of The Offing Paul Robinson talks about his love for the book that led to the adaptation
I read the book, I fell in love with it...
This is the first adaptation of Benjamin Myers’s hit novel, The Offing – we caught director Paul Robinson during rehearsals to find out more.
Q: Paul, why did you decide to bring The Offing to the stage?
A: My first encounter with The Offing was hearing its author Ben Myers talking about it on Radio 2’s Book Club with Jo Whiley back in September 2019. I turned on the radio and found myself right in the middle of this guy talking about this old fishing village known for its smuggling and with its maze of tiny streets – and my ears pricked up. It all sounded very familiar. By the time the interview was over, I’d ordered the book and written to his agent! By the following week, we’d optioned the book.
And like so many others, when I read the book, I fell in love with it. It tells the story of a 16-year-old boy from Durham who can’t quite bring himself to go down the mine like his forefathers. Instead, he leaves home and goes off on a wander, ending up in Robin Hood’s Bay, staying with a very bohemian type called Dulcie. And that‘s the beginning of a lifelong friendship: one of cultural and intellectual and culinary education, but also one of secrets, and ghosts which need to be laid to rest.
Q: What was it about the story that attracted you?
A: Where do I start?! I believe Ben Myers to be an important new(ish) voice in the English novel-writing tradition. It’s a wise, lyrical, coming-of-age story, with a strong local connection. But it’s also a larger canvas book. It’s about class and freedom and place and patronage and it’s also one of the best books about Brexit written since the withdrawal agreement. It’s set in the 1940s and it talks about the rise of populism and xenophobia in Germany, and how insularity is the enemy of freedom. The message is that we’re all connected, that there are no boundaries and also that connection and culture and freedom are the antidote to all that.
Q: How do you go about adapting a novel into a 2-hour show?
A: It was a challenge – reshaping a 258-page novel into what we hope is a compelling two-hour drama!
As ever, it’s a collaborative effort, so I started by gathering a hugely talented creative team who could help me bring this to life – and, of course, writer Janice Okoh, who adapted it for the stage, was initially a big part of that.
Janice was crucial in bringing real life to the character of Romy, who only exists in memory in the book. We wondered what it would be like to see Dulcie and Romy’s relationship in the past, their vitality and sheer aliveness, in contrast to Dulcie’s existence in the present – and with Romy existing in the present as a ghost, a presence that needed to be uncovered and set free.
We were also keen for it to be a real exchange – so, yes, Dulcie is awakening Robert culturally, sensually and intellectually. But Robert, through his uncovering of the past, is also awakening Dulcie and aiding her through her stages of grief.
But Janice – and I, as director – are just two members of a much bigger and incredibly creative team on this production.
Our designer is Helen Goddard, who has found a wonderful way though this multi-locational, multi-tonal story to give us an open space for fluid and seamless storytelling, but also to locate us more specifically so it’s a very grounded thing. too.
Our composer and sound designer is Ana Silvera, a brilliant recording artist in her own right, who has written us an entirely original score with songs drawing on folk music from the area and also inspired by the landscape and the sea.
She’s also introduced us to three wonderful musicians – Rob Harbron, Aidan O’Rourke and Jasper Høiby – and you can hear the four of them performing together on the recorded music for the show.
I worked with lighting designer Sally Ferguson when I directed Honour at the Theatre a few years ago – her sympathetic approach to lighting lyrical work made her the perfect choice for this project.
And movement director Charlotte Broom is well known for her sensitive interpretations of text, informed by her background – she’s a former Principal Artist at the Northern Ballet Theatre
Q: What was it like rehearsing partly on Zoom, partly in person?
A: Various complicated circumstances meant that the first week of rehearsals for this show were done on Zoom. If I’m honest, I was a little apprehensive – anyone who’s seen David Tennant and Michael Sheen (or should that be Michael Sheen and David Tennant?) in the wonderful Staged will know why!
Thankfully, it was nothing like that. From the very start, James Gladdon, Cate Hamer and Ingvild Lakou have been a joy to work with – committed to the story, open to ideas (and contributing some of their own) and totally unfazed by the online environment.
Having said which, it was very nice to be back in a real rehearsal room…
Q: What do you hope people will take away from the show?
A: Ultimately it’s a story about human connection and what unites us being greater than what divides us – and given the last 18 months, not to mention Brexit, that feels like a very important message.
The book has it all as far as I’m concerned – I just hope the show does, too!