“I have vivid memories of my son at about four months old, sitting in a cardboard box in my sitting room while a friend and I were having a meeting about a show.” Sally Cookson is recalling what it was like, 20 years ago, to manage a new career as an actor-turned-director with two young children, Arthur and Nell. “We were setting up our next production and doing it with Arthur in this box, stuffing things in it so that he wouldn’t fall over, trying to get the show on the road. It was that endless juggling.”
Now her children – Nell, 19, a student, and Arthur, 22, a jazz musician – are grown-up and Cookson has quietly become known as one of the UK’s most innovative directors, especially in family theatre. She is married to the composer John O’Hara and the two often collaborate on projects.
Based in Bristol, she started her career in directing at the Bristol Old Vic by co-founding its youth theatre. She went on to win plaudits for her productions of Jane Eyre, Boing! and Cloudland and was Olivier-nominated for Hetty Feather and Cinderella: A Fairytale. Now she’s directing a breathtakingly ambitious version of Peter Pan at the National Theatre in London, a transfer from Bristol Old Vic, where it opened to rave reviews in 2012.
She has always been influenced by her own family in her work. “Oh, of course it mattered to me what the children thought!” she laughs. “A lot of the work I made was informed by what stage they were at. We’re Going On a Bear Hunt [the adaptation of Michael Rosen’s book], for example, came out of the fact that it was a favourite book in the household. They were obsessed with it, and that’s sort of why I turned it into theatre. My relationship with them and reading to them sparked a lot of the work that I made.”
Cookson is also well-known for challenging gender stereotypes in her productions for adults and for children. Jane Eyre at the National was described by one critic as “a picture of exultant feminism”. When she last directed Sleeping Beauty as a Christmas show at Bristol Old Vic, Sleeping Beauty was a prince, destined to be rescued by a woman. And why not?
Her latest ruse is inspired by JM Barrie’s original concept for the staged version of Peter Pan, which first premiered in 1904, although Barrie didn’t publish a script until the late 1920s (because he kept altering it). Barrie always intended that the roles of Mrs Darling and Hook be played by the same person, even though he never achieved this in any of the productions he staged. “Barrie wanted the actress playing Mrs Darling to double up as Hook because Hook is Peter’s nemesis and his arch enemy is really the mother figure.”
“Peter was rejected as a tiny infant by his own mother. We learn about that in [the 1906 novel] Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. There’s a chapter where we find out that his nursery room has bars and he has been denied access to his mother. This provides the emotional essence of the story. If Hook is a man you don’t get that ‘mother figure’ theme running through the story, which is hugely important to the piece.” The part of Mrs Darling/Hook is played by Anna Francolini, last seen in Damon Albarn’s musical wonder.land, stepping in after Sophie Thompson broke her wrist in rehearsals.
Cookson grew up in Twickenham in a theatrical family. Both parents, Barry Cookson and Avril Conquest, were actors. “I didn’t have much chance,” she laughs. “Well, I had a choice. And my parents tried to get me to do other things. But I was hooked from an early age. I can cite the moment I wanted to be in the theatre. I was about six and was taken to a panto at the Thorndike theatre [now Leatherhead theatre]. It was a classic pantomime, Cinderella, I think, and the fairy godmother was magical. She has this incredible sparkly wand with a twinkly, tinselly thing on the end which I was convinced was real. I just knew what I wanted to do was be on stage and make magic.”
She went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and worked as an actor for 10 years, appearing in classic staples of 80s TV such as The Gentle Touch and Dempsey and Makepeace. “I never considered in a million years that I would be a director. But when I was in my late 20s I was getting a bit frustrated with the work I was doing and I wanted more control. I was working at the Bristol Old Vic and I started to become very interested in making work with young people. They didn’t have a youth theatre, so I set that up in the 90s with a friend. That’s how I started my directing.”
Peter Pan was a long-held dream. “It’s one of those titles everybody knows and it’s almost taken on this mythical status. I was interested in discovering what its enduring power was. And why we’re still interested in it a hundred years after it was first turned into a production.”
And what is the secret of that appeal? “The most successful aspect of Peter Pan is that it manages to speak to different ages. It indulges a child’s love of play and imagination. But it also taps into our own adult tragic awareness of the fleeting nature of childhood pleasures and of facing our own mortality. It’s a multilayered thing, bringing these two audiences together so that we have something that is playful yet sophisticated, tragic and comic, big and small. It brings all this together so that we share this playfulness and this incredibly moving material.”
Cookson develops her productions in workshops with input from the cast and music and movement directors. This version of Peter Pan is based on extensive research into Barrie’s original play scripts. “The play was due to open on 22 December in 1904. But it was such an extraordinary production that they didn’t get through the [technical issues]. So it didn’t open until the 27th, which enabled Barrie to rewrite act five during Christmas Day. He handed out the parts to the actors on Boxing Day morning. You can imagine their delight. I find that very comforting, as that’s how I work. We’re constantly rewriting.”
She apologises for being late for this interview because the company got stuck reworking a scene, even though the production is days away from opening. “We were grappling with a scene in act five where Hook and Wendy have a confrontation. It’s one of the areas in our version that we’re trying to bring into the 21st century. In the book, Wendy is quite passive, she’s nothing more than a domestic goddess. Which is not at all useful in this day and age. So, without completely altering Barrie’s vision, we want to make her active. Devising her character takes a lot of time and effort. We just want to make her into a real person and for her to become as big a part of the adventure as the other characters.”
This is clearly at the heart of Cookson’s reinterpretation. “What’s fascinating about our Wendy is she wants to enjoy her childhood and have fantastic relationships. And she’s beguiled by Peter – like all the other characters are. But she understands that she can’t get a satisfying, fully formed relationship with Peter. And that’s the turning point. She falls in love with him and realises that he can’t give her what she wants because he’s incapable of loving. So she makes the decision that she’s going to go home and grow up. Because that’s what’s fulfilling about being human: becoming an adult and moving into the next phase and not staying in an arrested, childlike state. So she’s the heroine, really.”
Cookson is no theatre diva: she’s a collaborator. Just as she wants the whole company to “own” a production, she’s happy to hand it over to the audience to “fill in the gaps”. “That’s what I like doing when I’m in an audience. I don’t like to be fed every idea and be told what I’m meant to be feeling in every single moment. I am always trying to offer up different interpretations. Each person who sees it will take something different from it.”
And her definition of the best kind of family theatre? “It has to have lots of different elements. It’s got to be a fantastic story. You’ve got to be on the edge of your seat. There’s got to be emotional heart and you’ve got to care. The best stories remind us of what it is to be human.”
• Peter Pan is at the National Theatre until 4 February, with half-price tickets for under-18s. Suitable for ages 7+, nationaltheatre.org.uk