On 25 September 2016, Sarah and Maxine took part in a platform event as part of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebrations, listen to the conversation here.

Can you tell us about your history together? How did you first encounter each other?

SF: We first met at the start of me making work for this space and I was thinking about RUTHERFORD & SONS. I thought I was really going to have to sell the play because it’s quite obscure in some respects and not produced very often. But Max had already done it at drama school, and even knew the speeches! We clicked instantly. It feels to me we’ve made our relationship up as we’ve gone along, but it’s been very fruitful. I don’t think either of us thought we’d get to this point.

MP: It’s never been a conscious thing; we’ve just moved from one project to another. A big thing for me has been the fact that the Exchange audiences have been with us, which has kept us moving forward.

In an interview, you said that if something feels scary it’s worth doing. Do you think you’ve encouraged each other with this in mind?

SF: With HAMLET, Max kept saying she wanted to have a go at it and I’d say, “I don’t think we’re quite ready to do it yet.” After MISS JULIE, I thought, “I can’t keep saying that now, I think we’re just going to have to.” If you know how to do something, if you know what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to be, you might as well not do it because it means it probably already exists somewhere. The thing I’ve always
loved about working with Max is that the process is a roller coaster, but it could only happen here, in this space with her as an actor. 

MP: I’ve been offered A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE before, but it’s only with Sarah and in this theatre that I would want to attempt it. It’s about the audience too. The Exchange audiences make me feel really supported, like when we did HAMLET; it’d sold out before we’d even started. I think it’s because I’m local too. It’s like, “Go on kid, show us what you’ve got.” That goes a long way to making me feel brave.

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Is there something intrinsically different about making work for this space?

MP: In-the-round is scary. Some of the actors in STREETCAR were asking my advice. I always say watch the shopping bags on the banquettes. If you get a TK Maxx bag around your leg, you’re buggered for the rest of the performance. I remember when I came to do RUTHERFORD & SONS, I really wasn’t sure about the space because I’d always done proscenium arch. But now I find it hard going back to that after working here. It’s the energy you get. Glenda Jackson said theatre is about the energy between the actor and the audience, and it’s true; you completely sense it and feel it here. I think it’s the best theatre in the
country for that.

SF: For me, everything has to be different here. The sense of democracy you get from working in here; you never forget the audience are present and you’re always part of that. There’s something truly extraordinary about sitting with 700 people as individuals, and walking out with them as a group who have shared an experience.

MP: When we get to the rehearsal or tech, I love the fact we’re running in and out of the theatre and the sound’s booming, and people are sat in the hall having a cuppa and a piece of cake like everything is normal. But once you enter the module, it’s magic. I remember my first experience of seeing something here when I was in my teens and watching the actors walk past to get onstage. It made it all the more magical. I loved that because, like Sarah said, it’s so democratic. The way we make theatre here feels like it’s political with a small ‘p’, and it seems like this is important to both of you?

MP: STREETCAR was a big one for me. How do you approach Blanche’s and Stanley’s journey from a feminist point of view? It’s not to say we presented it in that way, but it was vital that there were conversations to be had about it.

SF: We’ve discussed in the past how theatres have, for the most part, been programmed by men and that the repertoire has also been generated by men in the main; both still are. I’ve always wanted to see part of myself represented in the work I make; not to see myself onstage but for the work to be able to speak to me. Fifty-four per cent of our audience is made up of women, and that means that the work we’ve
made together has always had strong, complex female roles at the centre of them. However, when you start to look at the great plays and look for these kinds of roles roles within them, there aren’t that many. Where is the female equivalent of HAMLET? It doesn’t exist, which is why we decided to tackle it ourselves. There’s nothing of similar size or challenge. Everything we’ve done is deeply political with a small ‘p’. It
may not feel on the outside like we’ve made a huge shift, but we choose the plays we want to do, and we do them, and we can be absolutely unapologetic about it because we’re making the decisions. That’s still unusual in big theatres today in the UK and around the world.

What about THE MASQUE OF ANARCHY? That was deeply political…

MP: That actually came from Alex Poots from MIF. It’s been one of the highlights of my career because of the response to it. We didn’t even know if anyone would turn up to watch. People still stop me in the street to talk about it…

SF: We were sat in a makeshift dressing room in the Albert Hall drinking tea, and I nipped out to the shop and saw a huge line down the street and Max said, “Is there something on somewhere?” We honestly didn’t think people would be interested in buying a ticket. We certainly didn’t think people would be as moved and as involved, and connected to it. Max played to 2,000 people each night and at the end of the performance she was supposed to walk through the audience. We didn’t think it would be possible, but the crowd just stepped aside and acknowledged her and stayed held in that space for ages and started to talk about change.

Let’s talk about STREETCAR. Has this been your most challenging production to date?

MP: I thought after HAMLET everything would be a doddle and then along came STREETCAR. I didn’t realise how huge it would be emotionally. What Sarah has done with the play in this space is amazing. It should’ve been impossible, but she’s done it.

SF: There’s been lots of Hamlets, and female Hamlets, but STREETCAR has got such a particular iconography around it because of the film that people had reservations about it. Personally, I couldn’t see them, but once we started getting closer to rehearsals and looking at the design and casting, I realized that it was actually a big thing for us to be doing. Blanche is one of those rare characters that scares the bejesus out of me. Putting yourself in the room with that kind of damaged person is a really big thing. You can’t skirt round the edges of it. Max tackles everything in a character and won’t do anything in half measures, and the everything in this play is a woman’s sanity. I think HAMLET, in lots of ways, is in a bigger universe, so if you can’t get Hamlet right there are other things to look at. But in this play she’s in almost every scene.

MP: I’ve had more people say they don’t see me as a Blanche than I did when I said I was playing Hamlet.

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What’s next for you both as a partnership?

MP: We’ve been discussing a few things. It’s hard finding the next challenge, what’s different again.

SF: A comedy.

MP: A musical; let’s do BARNUM, though I can’t sing. It’s never stopped us before.