a&u meet Peter Pan director Sally Cookson

Emily Turner and Claire Gill talk to director Sally Cookson in rehearsal for Peter Pan at the National this Christmas:

We are sitting in a rehearsal room in the National Theatre, the Olivier stage mapped out on the floor, watching three over-excited ‘kids’ bouncing on a big four poster while Mrs Darling (Sophie Thompson) attempts to give her husband (Felix Hayes) a spoonful of medicine. It is early days in the rehearsal schedule for Peter Pan and they are still working on lines, emphasis and movement. The show’s director, Sally Cookson, guides and encourages but this is clearly a collaborative process for the whole group. There is an infectious creative buzz in the room. It is also extremely funny.

They break for lunch and we chat to Sally. Artistic Director at the Bristol Old Vic, this is her second stint at the National after her sell-out Jane Eyre and Madeleine Worral (Jane) is Wendy in this show. 

It is her first go on the huge Olivier stage. I ask if she is nervy. “I am bound to make mistakes,” she laughs, “it’s a beast of a theatre”. However, she is confident the story will work in the space and says the way they ‘tell’ it lends itself to the architecture of the Olivier. 

The cast spent the first week of rehearsals learning how to fly, a huge part of any Peter Pan. Each actor has a ‘counterweighter’ on the other end of the pulley and she says there is a ‘beautiful ballet’ between the counterweighter and the flyer that makes the experience more imaginative for the audience. 

The technical demands mean the production will change more than most once they get into the theatre. She has a good precedent for this though: she tells us the play was scheduled to open on 22 December 1904 but that the opening night had to be postponed until 27 December. Two days before it opened Barrie was re-writing the whole of Act 5! He continued amending the play and didn’t publish the definitive script until 1928.
“That makes me feel much less guilty about tinkering.” 

Sophie Thompson plays both Mrs Darling and Hook and Sally is relishing the prospect.* There is darkness at the heart of Peter Pan (JM Barrie was himself rejected by his mother after the tragic death of his older brother) and the aptness of the mother turning into Peter’s nemesis is one that she is obviously looking forward to exploring. This Hook will not be a panto baddie but “scary and strange”. And the fear of the clock in the crocodile? “He is terrified of getting older and that will be fascinating to see through a female gaze.”

Sally is sometimes labelled as a children’s theatre specialist but doesn’t define herself in those terms. “I make theatre that appeals to everyone,” she says. “I discovered through my work in early years that you can pull children in. And if you get that right, it is really special. It is the story and the way that you tell it. You don’t need to use too many words.”
We cannot wait.

Peter Pan opens on 16 Nov at the Olivier Theatre.

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*NB. Since this interview sadly Sophie Thompson has had to step down following a nasty broken wrist that required surgery. The role will now be played by Anna Francolini.