Lloyd Evans

The accidental director

Harold Pinter and the River Café helped launch the career of Nina Raine, as she explains to Lloyd Evans

The accidental director
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previewing at the Duke of York's and runs, until 3 November

She’s certainly a class act. But how did she manage it? Nina Raine, the 36-year-old writer-director, has established a formidable position in the British theatre. Her first play, Rabbit, opened at a pub venue in Islington in 2007. It transferred to New York and has since been performed all over the world. Last year she directed April de Angelis’s family comedy Jumpy at the Royal Court and the show has just transferred to the Duke of York’s in the West End. Yet, the way Raine tells it, her career has been nothing but a series of blunders and accidents.

She left Oxford with an English degree and a few drama productions under her belt. ‘I thought about being an academic. For about five minutes. Both my parents are academics.’ Her mother, Ann Pasternak Slater, is a scholar and translator. Her father is the poet Craig Raine. ‘So I had this doom-laden feeling I was going to be an academic.’ Her mother suggested that William Golding was ripe for a postgraduate thesis. ‘So I bought all the William Goldings. And they were just sitting there and — I’ve read a few actually now — but they just sat there and I felt allergic to the whole idea. Then I thought, I’m going to write prose. So I wrote these Hemingway-influenced short stories.’

She took a waitressing job at the River Café and spent a year ‘trying to write and feeling quite crap about it, and thinking, “What the hell am I doing? I can never break into the world of theatre. It seems so impermeable.”’ She still nurtured an ambition to direct plays, too. ‘But someone said to me, quite dismissively, “Nina, you’re not a director. If you were, you’d be putting on a little show at Salisbury Studio Theatre, or whatever, and you’d be doing fringe shows every three months.” And I thought, maybe I’m not a director.’

Chance then swept to Raine’s assistance. Or perhaps ambition and opportunism converged at the right moment. She told Ruth Rogers, boss of the River Café and wife of the architect Richard Rogers, that she wanted to direct a play for an invited audience. ‘I chose Ashes to Ashes, by Pinter. It’s a two-hander, set in a house. And I said to Ruthie, your house is the set and if we just rigged up a couple of lights it’d be amazing. And Ruthie said, “Yeah, do whatever you want.” And we invited lots of people and they all wanted to come just because it was Ruthie’s house, and they didn’t care about the play so much, it was more like, we’ll eat lovely River Café food.’

Then Harold Pinter expressed a desire to see a rehearsal. ‘And we were like, you know’ [panic gesture]. ‘So we did this run with Harold sitting there. Just him, two actors and me. And the actors were so scared that they were being quite crap. Then there was this noise of someone cleaning. And Harold Pinter hates noise. We’d told everyone in the house, “It’s got to be silent.” And I thought, this can’t be happening. I didn’t know what to do. Stop the performance? And suddenly Harold went, “I’m sorry but what the hell is that?!” And I said to him [a frail, colourless whisper], “I’m so sorry!” And I scuttled off and it was some poor cleaner washing up, and I said, please can you stop. And then we started again. And because the fear had been broken, that horrible “now we’re running” thing, the actors were great. And Harold’s notes were all to do with clarity. “I didn’t hear that word.” It wasn’t like, “That choice was really vulgar,” or whatever. So anyway. Long story. And after notes from Harold, we weren’t scared about having an audience. No one is as scary as him. And on the night it was brilliant.’

Pinter then offered her a walk-on part in his next play, Celebration at the Almeida. And these experiences gave her enough hands-on knowledge to convince the Royal Court to take her on as a trainee director. So she passed into the ‘impermeable world’ of theatre where she is now a rising star. This charming fable — waitress-from-nowhere gets break-of-a-lifetime — probably conceals a more complicated truth. Ruth Rogers must have seen that Raine had enough fibre and intellectual poise to deal with the notoriously volatile and short-tempered Pinter.

In person, Raine is a top-end Sloane: trim figure, blonde tresses curving to her shoulders, and a smile that could keep Colgate in business for a couple of decades. She comes across as chatty, approachable, good fun and even a bit blokeish and flirty. (But directors are experts at reading a personality and mimicking it in order to steal up on its control centres.) She tends to pause for a couple of beats before answering a question, which is faintly unnerving, and suggests a calculating intelligence at work behind the eye-catching shopfront. And she has the careless bluntness of the supremely self-assured. When I ask her about the Coalition she gives me a blank look and says, ‘I don’t know how to talk about politics intelligently.’ ‘Talk about it unintelligently,’ I suggest, and she responds with a laugh that has every appearance of sincerity.

She describes the play-writing process as a blend of spontaneous accidents and long-term strategy — like her career. ‘Sometimes it starts with a scene that you think would be really interesting on stage. With Rabbit, I was in a bar and a friend of mine was talking about a guy’s penis when he was metres away. And I thought that’d be a funny scene. Plus, I had this night out with a girl who’d assembled a bunch of friends, and she had a relative who was dying, and she kept taking calls on her mobile. Usually there’s two or three things that kind of cohere.’

Would she like to run a theatre? ‘I just know that if I took over a theatre, I wouldn’t write any plays.’ The thought that she might fail, or that the opportunity might not be offered, doesn’t occur to her. This is a hugely attractive quality in a director whose primary function is to generate self-confidence and encourage others to absorb it. My guess is that she’s a shrewder tactician than she likes to admit. Playing the inspired improviser has the advantage of intriguing her backers and, perhaps, of demoralising her rivals as well.

Her next play has been commissioned by Max Stafford-Clark and he phones her regularly for progress reports. She radiates optimism about the script. ‘Is it finished?’ ‘Only done three pages so far,’ she tells me blithely. ‘And how long have you been writing it?’ ‘Five years.’