Ola Ince is about to stage a murder. Quite a lot of them, in fact. “The murder weapon is unconventional,” she explains, as she talks me through the set-up. “In most Westerns there are guns, right? But these women don’t have that.” Instead, they have a rock-in-a-sock and a mission to avenge their mother.
Let’s be clear: the London-born theatre director, who attended the BRIT School in Croydon before studying at Rose Bruford College, is telling me about the play she’s currently directing at the Royal Court. Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is, which opens next week, is a raucous revenge thriller about a pair of twins who embark on a murderous rampage in the Californian desert. It’s hilarious, but also contains notes of humanity and, eventually, hope. When it played off-Broadway in 2018, it drew comparisons to Tarantino, and is currently being developed into a screenplay by Harris.
Ince, 32, has a calm and thoughtful demeanour; the word ‘soft’ comes to mind when trying to describe her, but ‘soft’ in the sense of being warm, friendly and open. Yet her work for the stage has, in recent years, stood out for being hugely ambitious, bold and stylish, and for tackling difficult questions around race, power and gender with real nuance and subtlety.
Previous productions include Danai Gurira’s The Convert at the Young Vic, featuring Gurira’s Black Panther co-star Letitia Wright and Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You). Following that, she brought Appropriate by the searingly clever American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to the Donmar Warehouse. That story centred on a white family returning to their Arkansas home and confronting – or not confronting – the ghosts lurking in their past. Most recently, Ince directed a radically deconstructed version of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre. Its focus on the star-crossed lovers’ mental health and, in particular, the inclusion of trigger warnings and information about the Samaritans at the end of the show resulted in some mudslinging from The Sun, who saw it as the latest example of world-gone-mad wokery.
When we meet, however, she’s more interested in discussing her latest creation than dwelling on this recent controversy. She describes Is God Is as “a kick ass adventure story about two girls who have been left behind and forgotten by the world.” She’s keen to stress the moral aspects of the story. “They turn their lives upside down and become the heroes.”
Ince first read the play as part of her job as Associate Director at the Royal Court. She swallowed it down in one go – “the fastest I’ve ever read a play!” – and immediately agreed to direct it. Along with the wit and fast-paced action, it was the play’s complexity that captivated her. “It addresses violence, it addresses what it means to be a woman, it addresses what it means to be Black, it addresses what it means to be powerful and what it means to not be defined,” she summarises.
Stylistically and genre-wise, Is God Is certainly feels much closer to a story we normally see on screen rather than on stage. This is a dimension Ince fully embraced when creating the set with designer Chloe Lamford and working on the music with composer Renell Shaw – who has previously worked with Skepta, Rudimental and Jess Glynne - and sound designer Max Perryment. Both elements capitalise on the mishmash of influences informing Harris’s play. Where the visuals are concerned, that meant drawing from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Mad Max, Kill Bill and the video for Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money.
The music, meanwhile, stretches from hip-hop to trap to operatic to the recognisable sounds of a Spaghetti Western and beyond. It’s used in a manner similar to the soundtrack of a film, rather than the background sound design more commonly found in theatre, and to help direct the audience’s attention to particular moments during a scene. Alongside this is choreography by Jordan ‘JFunk’ Franklin who, when we meet mid-way through rehearsals, is on tour with Stormzy but due to return to the Is God Is rehearsal room later that week.
Ince describes herself as a “highly visual” person who looks to create vivid images on stage. She starts each new production by creating a virtual mood board filled with images sourced from her collection of coffee table art books and the internet. I ask what was on the mood board for this show and she runs off to collect her phone to show me. There are black-and-white photos of children by Sally Mann and Diane Arbus, piles of bricks in an art gallery, Yoruba gods and lots of paintings soaked in deep oranges, reds and browns. There’s also an extensive document, shared between Ince and the cast, containing a long list of books, films and TV shows that either inspired Harris’s writing or link to Ince’s vision for the play. The titles include Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Samson and Delilah, Carrie (the 1976 version) and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood.
But back to those murders. Is God Is has a body count that puts it up there with Hamlet for main characters not breathing by close of play. Will the Royal Court stage be swimming in fake blood? I ask and she laughs – apparently ‘no’ is the answer. “It feels really weird to say the play is violent,” she says, despite its number of unnatural deaths. “Because you fall in love with the girls and their mission, it feels like – I don’t know – they’re just doing what’s necessary rather than something senseless or evil or unkind.”
The fight scenes, Ince thinks, reflect this scrappy, DIY mentality and how the sympathy lies with the twins, even in moments of extreme action. “These aren’t proficient, trained warriors. These are girls from next door who have to survive something. And they’ll do anything they can to ensure they’re alive and kicking and thriving.”
Is God Is runs at the Royal Court from Sept 10 to Oct 23; royalcourttheatre.com