Interview: Director Cora Bissett on bringing hit novel Room to the stage

Room rehersals with director Cora Bissett
Room rehersals with director Cora Bissett
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Long before Room became a hit film, Cora Bissett was a huge fan of the novel about a captive mother and her young son. As her National Theatre of Scotland stage version is unveiled, the director and her musical collaborator Kathryn Joseph talk to Andrew Eaton-Lewis about the play, and why they added songs to Emma Donoghue’s powerful story

Good ideas often begin with a moment of sheer luck – or fate, if you believe in that sort of thing. In Spring 2013 Cora Bissett was about to fly to Chicago for the US premiere of Roadkill, her multi award-winning Edinburgh Fringe show about sex trafficking. Looking for something to read on the plane, she spotted a small book with child-like writing on the cover.

Room rehersals with director Cora Bissett

Room rehersals with director Cora Bissett

“I don’t know what drew me to it,” the Scottish theatre director says now, but by the time the plane landed she’d read the whole thing. “It got right under my skin. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

The book was Room by Emma Donoghue, long before it became an Oscar-nominated film starring Brie Larson. “I thought I’d love to make this into a theatre show, but I didn’t want to approach Emma until I had a very strong concept,” recalls Bissett. “So I just let it sit in my brain for a while.” Then, while strumming a guitar borrowed from the theatre, it hit her: “I just had this very strong feeling there were songs in it.”

On paper, Bissett laughs, Room: The Musical “sounds like an awful idea”. Donoghue’s novel, after all, is about a young woman imprisoned in a garden shed for seven years, where she is repeatedly raped, becomes pregnant, and has a son. Then again, a story comes alive in the telling, and Donoghue’s extraordinary, vivid novel is told from the perspective of Jack, the five-year-old boy for whom “room” is not a prison but a magical place, thanks to the imagination, love and resilience of his mother, who he calls Ma.

“I wouldn’t just want to do it naturalistically,” says Bissett. “The richness is all in Jack’s imagination and in this heightened construct of two people in this tiny space living absolutely different realities. How are you going to get inside their heads? It made total sense to me to do it through songs.” And so she pitched Donoghue’s agent the idea via a long, enthusiastic email and demo recordings of two songs that Bissett (a former indie musician) had already written. The answer, two meetings later, turned out to be yes.

“I had mulled over many ways to bring Room to the stage, but not settled on what I wanted,” recalls Donoghue. “All I knew was that the story is so inherently theatrical – two people confined in a room transform their existence through imagination – that it had to be done on stage one way or another. When Cora approached me I was intrigued by her concept of songs to voice some of the things Ma and Jack can’t say, but more than that, I was won over by her zeal, warmth, and passion for the project.”

Something was still missing though. “I think it’s important to be ambitious but recognise where there’s a shortfall in your ability,” explains Bissett. “I thought I needed another songwriter who could get the fragility but also the steely core of Ma.” The answer arrived via another chance encounter. In 2015 Bissett was one of the judges for the Scottish Album of the Year Award, and the shortlist included Kathryn Joseph’s debut album Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled. Bissett became a fan immediately, and was one of Joseph’s strongest advocates in the judging process. Shortly after she won the award, Bissett emailed her to ask if she might be interested in working with her on Room.

Room is one of the only books I’ve read that I had a physical reaction to,” says Joseph. “I read it when I was pregnant and I thought I was having a panic attack during the part when they’re trying to escape. And my best friend had given it to me so it was a huge deal that we’d both loved this book so much. So for Cora to say would you like to do the theatre version of your favourite book…?” The answer, within hours, was an enthusiastic yes. The book, Joseph says, reminds her of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another story about “the love between a parent and a child and how it is the strongest love, protection at all times”.

When I meet Bissett and Joseph – separately, alas, due to work schedules that make getting them in the same room impossible – rehearsals are about to begin. It all sounds incredibly exciting and daunting. Room is the highest profile show Bissett has directed to date, partly due to the huge success of the film, “so that’s intimidating and a bit terrifying, but all I can do is show how the book affected me and hopefully bring it to the stage in an exciting way.” She sounds like she’s risen to the challenge; Jack’s world will be brought to life via puppetry, projections and a revolving stage that will allow the audience to hide in the wardrobe with him. The show is very much a three-way collaboration; Donoghue wrote the script while Bissett and Joseph wrote the songs (four each). One song, Bissett says, “starts literally with them screeching their hearts out”. Joseph describes “a Scottish spoken word thing that got turned into a sexy as f*** rap” by the cast. “I think what’s surprised me most,” says Donoghue, “is that I like Cora and Kathryn’s songs even better than anything in the dialogue.”

All this will be delivered by a seven-strong, mixed race cast, including three young boys who – in one of biggest production challenges – will play Jack in rotation. “Jack is in every single scene so that’s 80 pages of learning for a little guy,” says Bissett, “and I’m only allowed them for three hours a day because they need to go to school in the mornings.”

It’s not like Bissett to be intimidated by such things though. In fact it’s Joseph who says she’ll be struggling to keep it together on the night. “Every single rehearsal I’m crying at some point,” she says, clearly still bowled over that she got to do this. “I don’t know how I’m going to cope with seeing the whole thing. I might have to be escorted out, or carried.”

Room is at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, from 2 May until 3 June; Dundee Rep, from 13-17 June; and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from 24 June until 22 July,