Chatting With John Tiffany


In the opening moments of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Bacchae, Alan Cumming, playing the god Dionysus, descends to the stage in a gold kilt. According to pictures and aghast press reports, as Cumming flutters earthward upside-down, his kilt flips over. Like any good Greco-Scotsman, Cumming’s Dionysus wears nothing under that skirt. New York audiences can enjoy this supremely cheeky arrival when The Bacchae opens this year’s Lincoln Center Festival on July 2. It should prove one of the more blithe offerings in the festival, which also includes David Pountney’s dark vision of Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten; Laurie Anderson’s portrait of America during wartime, Homeland; and three Beckett plays straight from Dublin’s Gate Theatre.

John Tiffany, The Bacchae‘s 36-year-old director, himself rather cheeky, does not wear a kilt. Born in Yorkshire, he’s not even Scottish. Nevertheless, he’s become a linchpin of the two-and-a-half-year-old National Theatre of Scotland, where he specializes in new writing. Recently, he spent a week in New York on holiday. He stayed with a friend on City Island, ate lobster, and consented to the occasional interview. Over a few rounds of gin and tonics—distinctly un-Scottish cocktails—Tiffany described how he conceived Cumming’s arrival: “Alan gets his ass out at the drop of a hat,” says Tiffany. “I had said to him, ‘You’re not getting your ass out on this!’ But we decided that, at the beginning, he would descend from heaven upside-down, like a pop star. I think I saw Pink or Justin Timberlake come in like that.”

Cumming makes a rock-star entrance, and Tiffany is developing a rock-star rep. A hit at last summer’s Edinburgh International Festival, The Bacchae received divine notices. The Daily Telegraph acclaimed it “a knockout”; The Herald called it “a masterpiece.” Even The Guardian‘s Michael Billington, offering one of the few muted reviews (three stars out of five), had to concede: “Whatever my reservations, the result is a spectacular piece of theatre with palpable audience appeal.” The show positioned Tiffany as perhaps Britain’s most significant young director.

Though Tiffany, who studied classics at university, describes himself as “allergic to Greek choruses, when they chant together and wear masks and all that bollocks,” he’s wanted to direct The Bacchae for 20 years. “It’s about glamour,” he says, “and a kind of sexy worship.” And the devastations of drink. Tiffany describes the play’s first half as “the best party in the world” and the second as “the worst hangover ever.” Last year, he commissioned classics professor Ian Ruffell to provide a literal translation and David Greig, one of Scotland’s leading playwrights, to adapt it. Instead of masks and chanting, Tiffany envisioned the chorus of Bacchantes as gospel singers.

He confesses some trepidation about bringing the production to Lincoln Center, as “it’s informed by the Broadway musical.” Performing so near Broadway, Tiffany says, means that “we’re going to have to be shit-hot.” He shouldn’t fret: “Shit-hot” was more or less the verdict on the Tiffany- directed Black Watch, a docu-drama about a Scottish regiment in Iraq, which played St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall and returns for an encore performance this October. Of course, Tiffany worried about that production, too: “Two weeks before we opened, I would have gladly canceled it. It was a mess.” The approbation for Black Watch, on both sides of the Atlantic, and for The Bacchae at Edinburgh still takes him by surprise. “That’s never been part of the plan,” he says, “[being] a big international director.” Tiffany speaks instead of trying to give the audience “a good night out,” of providing generous, entertaining work. “It’s not difficult theater,” he says of his work. “It’s not difficult to watch. It doesn’t make you feel thick.” Such humility in such a lauded artist— give the man another gin and tonic.