Oh what a gun-totin’ morning: raw Oklahoma! swaps folksiness for firearms

Daniel Fish’s restaging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is no Kansas City cornbread caper. The director explains why he ratcheted up the racial tension and gun violence

In the Oklahoma! rehearsal room, they’re practising Ado Annie’s signature number, I Cain’t Say No. You can tell that it’s going to be a barnstormer. Even with her voice in practice mode, Marisha Wallace’s vamping makes the hairs on your forearms bristle. But before she can belt her heart out, the rest of the cast have to get their stomps and claps right.

“You’re not cheering her on, you’re not starting a singalong,” says director Daniel Fish in his quiet manner. “It should feel like you’re playing a very difficult Mahler symphony and at any moment it’s going to spin out of control. You’re digging in.”

Atmosphere, attention and the uneasy sense that all is not quite well are crucial to Fish’s vision of Oklahoma!, a musical that is more often rendered as a cosy romance of pioneer living and manifest destiny. His raw revival has been honed over more than a decade – Fish first conjured it with a student cast in upstate New York in 2007 – and it arrives at London’s Young Vic with two Tony awards. With a set featuring an unnerving number of guns, and an ending that needed special negotiations with the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, this is not a Kansas City cornbread-caper.

Critics acclaimed its visceral connection to the story’s deeper themes of death and desire, borne out in a sensual modern dance solo, in place of the traditional dream ballet, and a usually comic song filmed live and projected in unsettling darkness. A proscenium-arch adaptation is now touring the US in 1,000-seater venues, but this production returns the show to the kind of intimate space for which it was conceived, with singers draped on trestle tables within touching distance. “There’s nowhere to hide,” says Fish, and you get the sense that he’s not just referring to the performers.

‘We’ve been trying to pare it down’ … the US production.
‘We’ve been trying to pare it down’ … the US production. Photograph: Little Fang

When the show was performed off-Broadway in 2018, chilli was served to the audience, a meal that emphasised the communality – and, when the plot darkens, complicity – of everyone in the room together. Covid protocols have done away with that, although Fish doesn’t mind. “That was never the most important thing. We have been trying to pare it down, make it more essential.”

It was not his aim, he says, to confront the folksy tradition of the piece, only to free himself and his cast from any assumptions they might hold about it. That is, of course, a different prospect with a mostly British company. It will be interesting, says Fish, to see how the themes of gun violence and racial tension will resonate in the UK. “There’s a tendency in culture to tell people what they’re going to see. But I think people go to the theatre to find out what is going to happen. It’s the Laurie Anderson thing, ‘What is behind that curtain?’”

Anderson is a natural touchstone for Fish, whose CV reflects a similar love of multimedia, performance art and the avant garde. One of his works saw an ensemble recite selections of David Foster Wallace’s writing while tennis balls were thrown around them. Another involved two actors being filmed as they performed the final scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 23 times in a row. Fish doesn’t see himself “at an experimental edge, or anything like that” but does acknowledge inspirations in a number of boundary-pushing auteurs, from film-makers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman, to the Berlin Volksbühne theatre’s Frank Castorf.

Vamp it up … James Davis, Marisha Wallace and Arthur Darvill in rehearsals for the British version.
Vamp it up … James Davis, Marisha Wallace and Arthur Darvill in rehearsals for the British version. Photograph: Anne Tetzlaff

It’s also notable that his work has not skewed any more towards the commercial since his Oklahoma! hit the big time. “People said ‘Everything’s going to change for you,’ but I’ve never been that kind of director,” he laughs. “I’m very happy for the success and I think it’s allowed me to be a little clearer when I need something, and make a demand. But I try to tune that noise out.”

Patrick Vaill, reprising his role as Jud Fry, has worked with Fish for 13 years – he was a 21-year-old student actor in the original staging. “So much of what makes this piece special is that we’re not pretending to be these other characters, we’re revealing who we are,” says Vaill, during a break in rehearsal. “And that’s exhausting! But as the piece has grown, so have we. Daniel and I have gone through a lot of life in that time, and the world has gone through a lot, too.”

This Oklahoma! has played through four US presidencies, from George W Bush to Joe Biden. It will now open against the backdrop of war in Europe, as well as a more personal tragedy for the company. Last month Barbara Maier Gustern, the singing coach who helped shaped the show’s sound, died after a random street attack. “There’s a lot of indiscriminate violence in New York, a real instability,” says Fish. “People aren’t OK.”

Given all this, Fish admits to “complicated feelings” about creating work. There were even nerves about whether he might struggle to re-engage with a show he has been staging and restaging for the past seven years. “I think there’s always a bit of fear that it’s not going to be interesting,” he says. “But as soon as I came here I was like, ‘Oh!’ My love for the material remains.”

• Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic, London, from 27 April to 25 June.


Emma John

The GuardianTramp

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