This experience has been something the Glasgow-based theatre director has been able to channel into his forthcoming Tron Theatre production of God of Carnage, French writer Yasmina Reza's excoriatingly funny play about how two sets of parents deal with an altercation between their children at the local park. While Nicholls himself hasn't had recourse to indulge in some of the extreme behaviour the four characters in Reza's play embark on, he nevertheless recognises how civilised discourse's descent into brattish antagonism relates to a much bigger malaise.
“It's a play that's really about asking how communities can work out heir differences when four people can't do it,” says Nicholls of the play. “Reza skewers middle-class hypocrisy in a way that I think relates to things that are going on now in terms of fake news and everything that's come out of that. There seems to be a form of political hysteria going on at the moment, and things are getting more and more extreme on both the right and the left. I'm nor sure God of Carnage hasn't always been seen as a political metaphor in that way, but in terms of what's going on in the world just now it can't help but be one.”
Reza's work is best known from her international hit play, Art, first seen in 1994. As with God of Carnage, that play cuts through middle-class pretensions by way of a debate on aesthetics and the art market in the context of three friends with very different views. God of Carnage has had a similar success story since it first opened in 2006, with Christopher Hampton's anglicised translation first seen on the West End in London in 2008. In 2011, Roman Polanski's film version of the play, simply called Carnage, starred Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet as the story's warring mothers in a work which cuts through its initial veneer of first world liberal politesse.
“When I first heard about God of Carnage,” Nicholls admits, “I thought it sounded like a play about posh people arguing about posh things, and that doesn't interest me in the slightest. Once I read it, and once we've got into it, it clearly goes beyond that. These are heightened characters whose objectives change from line to line, and it is a really funny piece of work, but we've really had to dig into the text and find the truth of those changes so it doesn't just become a Carry On film.
“These are hypocritical characters as well, in a way think we can all relate to in some way. It's in part about parenthood, and how having a kid sharpens your sense of responsibility in the world. It also makes you think about how much you should push your ideologies onto other people.
The people in the play are all in their forties, and one couple has financial wealth and the other has cultural wealth. Because it's set in France, any class differences there are aren't as nuanced as they are here. Initially again I thought they were arrogant, but as we've tried to discover why they feel the need to put themselves across in such a bullish manner I've developed a real sympathy for them.”
God of Carnage is Nicholls' first main stage production since he finished he two year stint at the Citizens Theatre as Main Stage Director in Residence. During his time at the Gorbals-based theatre, Nicholls directed an electrifying production of former Citz co-director Robert David MacDonald's stage version of Gitta Sereny's book based on her interviews with a Nazi death camp commandment, Into That Darkness.
Nicholls went on to direct a revival of David Harrower's play, Blackbird, Sam Holcroft's pared-down version of Chekhov's play, Uncle Vanya, simply called Vanya. As a parting shot, he oversaw a sold-out revival of Trainspotting, Harry Gibson's stage version of Irvine Welsh's novel first seen at the Citz in 1994.
Since then, he has directed students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in productions of John Ford's Jacobean tragedy, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Seamus Heaney's translation of Antigone, The Burial at Thebes, and Shakespeare's timely political play, Coriolanus. It was at the RCS where Nicholls trained in Contemporary Theatre Practice after moving to Glasgow straight from school in 2002. Nicholls had never planned a career in theatre, and was originally interested in working in product design.
“That was my thing,”he says. “It was all about how you make something that's practical and which serves a specific purpose, but how you match that with beauty.”
This is an attitude that pours through his stage work, which has developed a visual neatness that is becoming an increasingly recognisable stylistic signature. In this sense, and as Nicholls acknowledges, given the Citizens Theatre's own strong sense of a visual aesthetic over the last half century, he was a natural fit.
“I went to the Citz as part of a quite specific initiative,” Nicholls says, “and being given the chance to do things on the main stage was really important for me. I'd come from the Contemporary Theatre Practice course, and was very interested in European theatre by artists such as Pina Bausch, but when I left I'd never done any narrative work.”
Nicholls went on to to work as assistant director on shows at various theatres, directed two solo shows by Gary McNair, another solo piece, Educating Ronnie, by Joe Douglas and a staging of Dylan Thomas' radio play, Under Milk Wood, at the Tron.
Key to Nicholls appointment at the Citz were artistic director Dominic Hill and associate director Stewart Laing. Laing had begun his theatrical career at the theatre as a designer, and went on to combine this with directing to explore European classics in ways where visual aesthetics were key to the experience. One senses this, along with Hill's total theatre approach to classic plays, comes from a similar place to Nicholls' own aesthetic.
“The text of a play is really important,” he says, “but again it's about matching that with a visual beauty that works for a play. Both Dominic and Stewart do that really well, and in a way the entire history of the Citz is about that. My time at the Citz allowed me to explore who I am as a director, and gave me a bit of confidence in relation to approaching other theatres about doing things there.”
While God of Carnage is more comedic than most of Nicholls' stage work thus far, there is an inherent seriousness to the play too.
“There's so much conflict in the world at the moment, both physical and verbal,” he says, “and so many conflicting ideologies that go it that it's quite overwhelming, and because of that I find myself not wanting to read or watch the news anymore. God of Carnage looks at conflict resolution in a way that is funny, witty and urgent, and it asks how we solve these things by learning to get on with each other and accept our differences.”
God of Carnage, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 9-25.www.tron.co.uk