Miller bids farewell with ‘special’ production

Director Paul Miller.
Director Paul Miller.

Wonderful Tennessee is Paul Miller’s swansong as associate director of Sheffield Theatres before taking up the position of artistic director at the Orange Tree in Richmond, Surrey.

And he sees directing one of the plays in the Brian Friel season a perfect way to leave on a high.

“Brian Friel lives in Donegal and a lot of his plays have been set in a sort of fictional part called Ballybeg, his imaginative terrain,” he says.

“As it happens I went to university on the north coast of Northern Ireland and spent three years living in a flat on the promenade and I know the terrain, the landscape and the coastline.

“This is my opportunity to do a Brian Friel play for the first time,” says the graduate of Coleraine University. “I am not the Oxbridge public schoolboy that I sound like. I had a fabulous three years studying drama there and so he was an important figure. Once again at this theatre I have been lucky enough to follow up something I have had in mind for 25 years.”

Miller was involved in the decision about which of Friel’s canon should be included in the Sheffield Theatre season.

“One of the great things about doing a season like this is that you can see the writer’s work in context,” he observes.

“Wonderful Tennessee is a special one to do because it was written 20 years ago and is one of his few plays with a contemporary setting. It came after the huge success of Dancing at Lughnasa which was a global hit.

“Because Wonderful Tennessee is delicate and sensitive and quite a personal play, you get the feeling, it got a bit overshadowed at the time. Doing it as part of a season will make the play resonate even more.

“It is a personal play and you can see the links to others of his work. It seemed the ideal opportunity to do this play which had got slightly neglected.

“It’s a classic reunion play,” he continues. “Three married couples - within which are a brother and sister - are all in their forties and they meet on one of their birthdays. The guy whose birthday it is, Terry, has brought them out to this very remote abandoned stone pier on the North West coast of Northern Ireland and it becomes apparent he has brought them to spend the night on a deserted island off the coast.

“They have all known each other all their adult lives All their intertwined histories and secrets get flushed out during the course of a long night,” he added.

So where does Tennessee fit into all this?

“The title comes from one of the songs in the play which has a lot of music which happens naturally as part of the action,” explains Miller. “Threaded into the play - because it is about memories and shared histories - are little bits of songs and fragments of music which keep coming up as they remember things.

“One of them is an old folk song which has a shared family history, it’s called Down in the Canebrake and it has reference to Tennessee in it.”

Wonderful Tennessee starts previewing at the Lyceum Thheatre next Thursday, February 27, and runs until March 8.