Dan Bain is directing Stephen King’s Misery this August, a tension-filled stage adaptation of the bestselling novel. We sat down with Bain to discuss why he’s excited to bring this frightening piece of work to life, a bit about the cast taking on this challenging play and why he wants to fill The Court Theatre with screams.
What is Stephen King's Misery about?
At its core Misery is about obsession. It’s the story of Paul Sheldon who gets in a terrible car accident and is rescued by Annie Wilkes who, at first, seems like a saviour but turns out to be a jailer.
It’s about the ownership that fans feel towards material that they love. I think it’s really relevant – look at the backlash around the new Star Wars films and the harassment campaigns by fans against characters that they didn’t like. There are really interesting questions around the roles of creators and the roles of audiences in Misery.
Where does the tension in the play come from?
There is of course a dramatic tension between Paul and Annie but I think the tension for the audience lies in her unpredictability. She shifts between such a devoted love for him and his creativity; the world’s that he’s made… And then the really dark inverse of that where it’s like, ‘you’re not doing what I want…’
There’s a contrast in her of a woman in a nurturing, nursing, maternal role and then, immediately, flipping into a violent, destructive, aggressive role and having both of those really diametrically opposed things inside one character.
The tension comes there from the familiar and the expected juxtaposed with the unfamiliar or disturbing.
What is your vision for the play?
I really want to make something that is frightening. I’ve done a little bit of work in that kind of area, but there’s a difference between, say, the violence in Titus Andronicus and the violence in Stephen King’s Misery.
The violence in Titus Andronicus, I would say, was gross and sometimes shocking – but I don’t think it was frightening. It was more ‘Oh, GROSS, ok, back to the Shakespeare.’ Whereas with this, I think there’s more opportunity to use the tools of activating fear - and that’s a fascinating thing. It works really well in theatre and it’s a thing we don’t do very often. I don’t think we’ve ever really done it at The Court.
My goal is screams. That’s my goal, the script’s really solid and we’ll produce it as well as we can and act it as well as we can.
When anything bad happened in Titus Andronicus it was very clearly sign-posted, with no opportunity for jump style scares - which this has, which is cool.
I think it’s good to be frightened in the company of other people in a safe way. To go through the experience of being afraid in a clearly safe environment is good for you. To be reminded what that feels like. It’s thrilling and cathartic in that you get an adrenaline rush off the back of it.
So, we’ll be doing our best to honour the intent of the piece.
(And there are a couple of jokes.)
Can you talk a little bit about your cast for the play?
Playing Annie Wilkes is Lara Macgregor, former Associate Director of The Court Theatre, last seen here in Steel Magnolias - but perhaps more relevant as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Macbeth is a study in dawning insanity whereas Annie Wilkes is a character where the insanity dawns upon us, rather than the character going through it in front of us. We slowly realise that Annie is nuts, but she starts off presenting as really sweet and harmless – and a bit prim. Then we find out what’s underneath that hatch…
I think for that role you really need an actress who’s happy to go there – and Lara is very committed and methodical in her approach to the work, which is what the role needs, because it’s a blimmin’ big job to have the versatility to play both extremes of that- the violence and the nurturing.
Paul Sheldon is played by Gavin Rutherford who’s an actor primarily based in Wellington who I’ve had the opportunity to see the work of several times. He has a real gift for comedy, which might seem unusual in this context, but I think the skill set between comedy and horror is effectively the same thing in many ways.
Effectively, he is the straight-man in a two-hander duo. She’s the funny man and he’s the straight man. Comedy is built the same way that frights are built: it’s built on tension and then releasing that tension. With comedy it’s the tension of ‘what does this mean?’ or ‘what will be the outcome of these shenanigans?’ and then release in an unexpected manner - and we find that funny.
Whereas in this it’s the tension of ‘oh god, what is going to happen…’ and then the release of ‘oh god it happened’ or ‘oh thank god it didn’t happen’. So, they’re kind of the same skills.
I’ve never had the opportunity to work with Gavin in the room, but I’m very excited to have the opportunity because he’s done a lot of laps. It’ll be great to have two equally experienced actors as Misery is effectively a two-hander show, so it really needs people who can hold that room.
Rounding out the cast is Adam Brookfield who I’ve just worked with in Ideation. I had never seen him work like he did in Ideation, which I thought was fantastic. I’ve never seen that from him before, so I thought ‘well, let’s just work with Adam again, because that was great; let’s get him back on board’.
Who will like this play?
Obviously, fans of Stephen King and fans of the Misery film, but also… in a weird way there’s a connection between this play and something like, say, Educating Rita in that it’s the purest kind of theatrical experience. Two characters in the space, each trying to convince the other of their point of view. And that’s what all drama is, essentially. It’s rendered down to a very pure form.
I think if you like drama, if you like theatre – it’s very theatrical with lots of stage effects and various things like that… If you’re the type of person that enjoys appreciating things purely from a technical standpoint or from the visual splendour of the piece, I think it will be quite visually exciting.
Also, people who want to see The Court put on things outside of its usual range. I think if you’re got an idea of what plays The Court does, this is the play that breaks those expectations or assumptions.
And if you like spooky movies, then this is the one for you. I think there’s a certain type of person who would never go to the theatre for whom this is the show to come to the theatre, because we’re going to imprison a writer and torment him.
Also, I just think teenagers on dates. It’s a classic move – take your date along to a spooky thing and they get a bit spooked and you’re like ‘oh no… need a little cuddle?’ But you still seem classy, because you’re at The Court Theatre.
Why are you excited to direct this play?
One of the early, big gigs that I had was designing and running the Ghost Tour at the Arts Centre. I learnt a lot about frightening people and how much you should frighten people – and how much you shouldn’t – and the control of that. It’s really fascinating and so interesting - the science of fear and panic. It gets to a point where you can be very systemic about how much to push things.
For me, going onto this project, I’m reconnecting with that kind of skill set combined with it being a more formal show, rather than wandering around in the dark with a torch.
I pushed for this show to be in this season and I’m really stoked that I now have the chance to put my money where my mouth is – because I advocated quite aggressively for this… And now I have to execute it.
What do you hope to achieve with this play?
I think this is kind of a maligned genre of work. Thrillers used to be a really big mainstay of people’s theatre experience; it was kind of a thing, but’s it not really anymore.
Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories and The Woman in Black are the only things, to my knowledge, that are really successfully exploring the space.
The other thing I’m hoping is that people will come along and be like ‘oh, actually…’ Because I think it’s a genre that is really easy to make a value judgement on, like ‘that’s not for me’ or ‘I certainly wouldn’t enjoy that,’ but I think there are things to enjoy in it that people will be surprised be.
Everyone goes on roller-coasters, you know what I mean, and it’s a hideous experience. I went on a roller-coaster for the first time maybe four years ago – I’d never been on a roller coaster in my life – and it was horrific! I hated it! I hated it so much! But, by the end of the day, I was weirdly pleased with myself and was taking a perverse pleasure in it.
I think there’s a thrill to be found in Misery that people should have a crack at. Have an extra drink in the interval – it’ll be great.