Ben Power: interview

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Rising star Ben Power tells Time Out how ‘Paradise Lost’ was dumped on him by Rupert Goold and why he ended up on the floor of Plymouth’s Holiday Inn

  • Ben Power: interview

    Literary associate Ben Power and Headlong's artistic director Rupert Goold © Manuel Harlan

  • You couldn’t really blame Ben Power if he was feeling a tiny bit smug. At 27, he has taken the job of literary manager to the theatrical rooftops. Rupert Goold, the artistic director of Headlong, may be better known but his acclaimed production of ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ is based on a radically altered version of Pirandello’s play that Goold and Power – they even appear as characters in the production – created together. At the same time, Complicite’s ‘A Disappearing Number’ by Simon McBurney on which Power played a more conventional role as literary associate is just about to return to the Barbican after cleaning up on most of the new play awards last year. Then there’s the fact that he’s just delivered a version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to the RSC. Called ‘A Tender Thing’, it uses Shakespeare’s words with the significant difference that the lovers are eligible for their bus passes. In addition, he’s adapted ‘The Things She Sees’ by Charles Boyle for the National Theatre. And for light relief, his version of ‘Cinderella’ will be produced at the Lyric Hammersmith this Christmas. Could life get any sweeter?

    The gangly, tousled man in front of me seems fully alive to his good fortune. We meet in the Covent Garden offices of Headlong where he has a permanent job as literary associate. He and Goold first met four years ago in Northampton where Goold was artistic director. After a series of fairly straight productions, the latter was looking to go up a gear and was searching for someone to adapt ‘Paradise Lost’. Pushing his glasses back up his nose, Power explains, ‘He didn’t want to do it himself and he was looking for someone very young and very green to dump it on in the hope they would just get on with it and not ask too many questions.’ Power, whose first job it was, fitted the bill exactly. Then came ‘Faustus’ in which they set out to create a piece of work that would have the same visceral impact as Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’ when it was first performed. ‘It’s important,’ says Power, ‘that the audience does sense that there’s a degree of transgression. Actually the same applies to “Six Characters”. If Pirandello provoked riots in Rome then why? And why don’t productions do that today? If you want to do Pirandello and find out what was originally exciting about it, you have to take some risks as he did. That was our starting point.’

    As opposed to working intensely with Goold, ‘A Disappearing Number’ was a very different affair. ‘Going to Complicite was like coming in as the youngest member of this huge family,’ Power observes, and he relished the opportunity to see how Simon McBurney works. ‘He’s the ultimate collaborator. He’s phenomenal in terms of his single-mindedness but he also relies on collaborators he’s worked with for 30 years.’

    ‘Disappearing Number’ is inspired by the relationship between the Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy and the uneducated mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. The show opened in Plymouth and, as McBurney predicted on the first day of rehearsal, just days before the first preview they still had hours of material to choose from. ‘Every decision is left open until the last minute,’ says Power. ‘Nothing is left out. He and I sat on the floor in his Holiday Inn room in Plymouth with all these bits of paper just trying to create a structure. It was then that I felt most helpful. Someone asked me whether I needed to be in rehearsal for 12 weeks but I absolutely did. You had to see the chaos.’

    Having stretched the job of dramaturg in so many different directions, Power is surely harbouring a secret ambition to be come a fully fledged playwright? ‘I don’t feel frustrated. I think genuinely that I’m a dramaturg. It’s a good term because no one knows what it means and it can be flexible. What I like is the position I have here where I can move between the roles of almost proper playwright, literary manager, company programmer with Rupert and working as a dramaturg on other people’s texts. A text doctor in the old-fashioned John Barton way. And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.’

    Six Characters in Search of an Author’ is running at the Gielgud; ‘A Disappearing Number’ is playing at the Barbican.

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