Monday, 10 November 2014

Cyphers, James I and The Rivals

Unbelievably, it has already been a month since we last performed Henry V at The Proud Archivist. It certainly feels like winter is descending upon us and Christmas really doesn't feel that far away.

It has taken time to readjust to life post-Henry V but my energies are now focussed forwards rather than backwards and we are working hard to further Cyphers as a company over the next 6-12 months. Plans are afoot for touring in 2015 and for getting our second production up and running as soon as February.

I feel like I'm now starting to understand the role of an Artistic Director much more completely. Most of my days now consist of a combination of emails, phone calls and reading, reading and more reading. There's also a lot of business-related activity to get our heads round - the biggest being where are we getting our money from?! Only the most problematic question in the arts! This really is a full time job - and I don't just mean 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, I mean full time. I feel completely justified in my decision to avoid any other fixed employment - I still pick up bits and pieces through sports coaching, education and training but I do not have an official job as such. Being Artistic Director of Cyphers is my job - it just doesn't pay me! I think it's a necessary sacrifice for me at the moment and luckily I have parents who are supportive enough to let me live with them while I take the essential time to invest in my future career.

Much as I miss Henry V, finishing the initial run has allowed me to get something of a life back! It's been fantastic to catch up with family and with old school friends over the last couple of weeks. These are the people it is very easy to lose sight of when working so intensively and determinedly at the early stages of a theatre career but, in many ways, these are the most important people to keep close. They remind you that there is a world outside of theatre, they're the ones who will support you whether things are going incredibly well or unbelievably badly.

I've also managed to get back to seeing theatre! I managed to catch James I at the National Theatre before the trilogy closed. I was incredibly impressed with this as a piece of writing more than anything. This was the sort of new writing that I want to be directing. It masterfully drew parallels between the late medieval Scotland of James I and our contemporary world, without forcing a political agenda down the audience's throat. This was work out of a truly Shakespearean tradition and coming off the back of Henry V (himself a contemporary of James I) I loved every minute. The play beautifully conveyed the vulnerability of royalty in this period - in particular that of a queen. In one breathtaking scene Queen Joan was placed centre stage in her four-poster bed desperately clutching her baby to her chest, while a battle raged all around her. A simple device that poignantly showed how the fate of a young woman and her child would be determined by a bloody battle fought between men.

The very next day took me to the Arcola to see The Rivals and a very interesting take on a Restoration classic. Like our production of Henry V this was 'stripped-back' theatre, the Arcola studio meant that the audience were close to the actors and the opening (again like our Henry) saw the actors talking to the audience as they entered the space. This was a promising start. The actors also fed off the audience throughout. It was a fun evening but couldn't help leaving with a sense of frustration. Rather than committing fully to the 'stripped-back' style I felt the director (Selina Cadell) became increasingly apologetic about it as the play went on. The pace was also very slow. A 3-hour running time for The Rivals is much too long and a simple upping of pace would have instantly upped the comedy. Also, much as I love audience interaction, in this production it went a bit too far, with characters talking to the audience when they really should have been talking to each other. It meant the comic impact of the Restoration aside was rather lost. Having said that, the ideas behind the production were excellent and much after my own heart, whilst Nicholas Le Provost was simply sublime as Sir Anthony Absolute. It certainly made me think that Restoration Comedy could suit the Cyphers style.

Last week, I also had the great pleasure of seeing my friend, Emmanuel Joste (who was the percussionist on Le Journal d'un Fou), play in Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Rememberance Sunday. I don't really go to music concerts very much (classical or otherwise) and after this I certainly plan on seeing more. Music is phenomenally powerful and undoubtedly something I can utilise more in my theatre, especially when my emphasis is on imagination.

Finally, I have also been assisting in a series of workshops run by Teach Yourself Acting over the last few weeks. Working with some fantastic coaches I have learnt a huge amount myself and have seen the acting students develop leaps and bounds in a very short period of time. In particular, working with movement director, Christopher Lane, has made me think a lot more about the physicality of my work. Something that I did learn from Henry V was that developing clear physical characterisation is something that I feel I need to work on as a director. Observing and assisting Chris has given me lots of ideas for getting the characterisation out of the head and into the body. 

I've just started a marathon of 4 Elizabethan/Jacobean plays in 5 days with Loves Labours Won at the RSC. Still got UCL's Henry IV Part I and the Globe's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore to go in London, before I return to Stratford for The Witch of Edmonton on Monday. But I think that merits a separate blog!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Catching Up: Avignon and Henry V

Well, it's been a long time since my last blog - over three months in fact. I wrote my last blog from sunny Avignon in the height of the French summer; I am writing this one from a rather cold room on a dark and wet autumn afternoon in Berkshire. This is not an example of some kind of grand pathetic fallacy, however, the weather may have declined considerably in the last few months but my mood certainly has not! In truth, this has been one of the most productive and exciting periods of my career to date.

To return to where I left off - Avignon. To be honest, Avignon feels like a lifetime ago already and seems something of a dream. I can't quite believe that I spent half the summer working in the south of France, on a play in French, with a largely French team. But what an incredible opportunity for a young director this was. I have already written about how much I learnt from the rehearsal process but this was also the first time I had worked on a production that was to run for a full three weeks. As a result, I feel like I now have a much fuller understanding of how a piece of theatre develops over its run and the struggle to maintain both quality and freshness at the same time.

These challenges were inevitably heightened by the fact that this was essentially a one-man show - I say 'essentially' because it was really one actor and two musicians, and it is unfair on the musicians to term this as a one-man venture since their input was vital. But, much as the musicians shaped the play and communicated with Mark Antoine (the actor), it is not the same as having another human body on stage to talk to and receive fresh input from. This taught me the immense value of "Points of Concentration", or "Points of Focus" as I tend to call them. Giving an actor (or group of actors) a specific element of the play to focus on for that run really helps to keep it fresh. Assuming the rehearsal process has worked, the other elements won't be lost but, by focussing on just one specific element (i.e. the character's use of language or the use of the space), it prevents the actor from attempting to focus on everything (an impossibility) and allows the work done in the rehearsal room to take its own course on stage. This is something that I later utilised in Henry V rehearsals and intend to develop more in the future.

On returning from France, I almost immediately started preparations for Henry V - a joint venture between my new company, Cyphers, and the King's Shakespeare Company, based at King's College London. This marked the beginning of our work at Cyphers to bridge the gap between student and professional theatre by providing apprentice-style opportunities for actors who are already undertaking a degree. If you're interested in my thoughts on this, take a look at my guest blog on A Younger Theatre that can be found here:

Henry V has been a fantastic journey and one that I am sure is not over yet. The seed for this production was sown back in January when I saw Michael Grandage's production with Jude Law in the title role. As undoubtedly solid and accomplished as this production was, the role of the Chorus frustrated me. It annoyed me greatly that in the end-on/pros-arch setting of the Noel Coward Theatre with lights down on the audience, the Chorus had no means of telling the story directly to his audience. Plus, it occurred to me that directors very rarely take the Chorus at its word. The opening Chorus quite explicitly says that we cannot possibly show you the events of 1415: we cannot take you to France; we cannot show you horses and sieges and battles and thousands of soldiers - you, the audience, have to use your imagination. Why, after telling the audience this, then persist in a futile attempt to show the audience all of these things, thus contradicting what the text has just told you? I wanted to direct a production that put the Chorus and the audience's imagination at the heart of the play. And, I believe, we achieved that.

The other thing that occurred to me whilst watching Grandage's production, was that there were only ever five significant characters on stage at any one time. So in my typical manner, I went home looked at the script and decided that the production could undoubtedly be done with just five actors (and a hell of a lot of multi-roling!). I can now definitively say it can be done with five actors. In fact, I can say more than that, it has been done with five actors!

So the initial concept was born in January, I got the agreement to work with KSC in April, auditioned and interviewed KSC members in May, auditioned professionals in August, we rehearsed through September and then performed in October. This in itself taught me a great lesson: it takes at least 6-10 months to put a production together.

This was a production that represented many firsts for me as a director. For a start, this was the first production that I have done considerable research for. I spent weeks researching the period of the Hundred Year's War, Henry's campaign to France of 1415, the ages and defining characteristics of those historical figures who appear in the play - I felt that small things like the characters' first names were important. I also looked at Medieval customs of the period - kneeling and greetings, religious beliefs, and military strategy.

This all affected our interpretations of scenes in rehearsals. The history shows that Henry was a man looking for an excuse to go to war, he'd already decided that he was going to war with France he just needed a pretext for it, however tenuous. This impacted the portrayal of the first scene when the Dauphin presents him with the 'Paris balls'. Later in the play, when Henry is threatening the besieged town of Harfleur, he is following what the Bible (in Deuteronomy) tells a ruler to do when besieging a town that won't surrender (ie kill everything within it!). This gave the scene much more power, transforming it from simply 'all's fair in love and war', into a ruler following (in his eyes) divine instruction. Perhaps, most interestingly, we discovered that Charles VI, King of France, struggled with mental health problems - at times he did not recognise his own children, at one point he refused to wash for 6 months and another time he believed that he was made of glass. This last point, in particular, was a brilliant aid to characterisation that could not have been found from working on Shakespeare's text alone.

It was at this point that I realised just how useful three years studying history at university was for me as a theatre director! I have been trained to research people and periods of history - especially relevant when working on a history play but really necessary on any piece. My degree has taught me where to look and how to quickly and efficiently find relevant information. Here, however, my research had a very direct and practical purpose - everything was there to serve the play, if it did not serve the play (even if it was historically accurate) it was not relevant and was discarded. I compiled all of the useful information into a research pack for the actors and creative team to refer to during rehearsals. Much as this process undoubtedly helped us, it was also, somewhat cynically, an excellent tool for immediately demonstrating to the cast that I meant business and that I was prepared to work bloody hard on this play!

There were two major experiments for me with this play, the first was the concept of pushing the audience's imagination to the limit (resulting in one lighting state on both actors and audience throughout, as well as no recorded sound), and the second was the rehearsal process. Previously, I have always directed in what might be called a traditional fashion: we started with a read through, then we gradually put each scene on its feet, I would tell actor A to cross down stage right on line X and deliver line Y with a smile to actor B, etc. The process for Henry V could not have been further removed from this! My aim was to free the actors from the constraints of blocking so that they could follow their instincts and keep their performances fresh and alive.

In order to do this, the actors had to be absolutely secure in their knowledge and interpretation of the text, in their character(s) and in the style in which we were presenting the whole production. As such, the rehearsal period was divided between these three areas. We started, not with a read through, but with the actors telling each other stories, which they then found a way of presenting as a group. We integrated design elements (specifically, a handful of wooden fruit crates that made up the set) from the first day of rehearsals to get the actors used to creating different locations and worlds with them. The stories got the actors comfortable with speaking directly to an audience and feeling confident as storytellers. It also served as a brilliant bonding exercise, forcing them to work together and for each other.

The text work ran alongside storytelling work in the first week. We sat around a table as a company and worked through the play unit by unit. One actor would read a line, then the next would translate it into their own words - though they could only translate if the line was not their own. In this way, the actors were forced to consider other interpretations of their lines and also to actively engage with the play as a whole. From this we then actioned the play and put each unit on its feet straightaway but speaking the actions instead of the lines. This meant that by the end of the first week, all the actors had a clear understanding of what they were doing in the play.

This then laid the platform for character exploration. Before rehearsals, I had asked the actors to prepare a series of lists about their character(s), these provided the company with all the information the text had on any given character. We then cross-referenced this with any useful historical information, and discussed the characters' motivations, their dominant Laban efforts, their emotional centres, their animals etc. After this discussion, I gave the actors half-an-hour just to explore an aspect of the character that intrigued them - the actor who was actually playing the part could then step in and out and observe what the other members of the company were coming up with.

The common feature of all these elements was getting the actors to work together as a company: they worked on style together, they worked on text together and they worked on each character together. This gave the whole play a coherency as the actors were inhabiting the same world and were listening to each other the whole time.

Now, in part, I think I was incredibly lucky with this production. The cast worked incredibly well together and they were a very giving group of actors. Casting is incredibly important in any play but especially when you're working in this way - one person can completely destroy the atmosphere of creativity and mutual support.

I will leave my assessment of the rehearsal period there, otherwise we'll be here all night. Admittedly this is probably a slightly flattering presentation of the rehearsal period and the process has also shown me many areas where I need to improve and develop. Part of me is frankly amazed by how successful rehearsals were, especially since I was using many of these processes and exercises for the very first time. The new writing nights I have been working on over the past year did, however, provide me with excellent opportunities to test out this method of directing on a much smaller scale. In fact, I cannot recommend working on short pieces at nights like these enough to any director, they really keep you on your toes and give you a fantastic chance to try out new ideas and approaches.

Henry V received overwhelmingly positive feedback when we performed at both Reading School and at The Proud Archivist in London. The Reading School boys really took to our informal style, one saying that it was the first piece of Shakespeare he had ever enjoyed - you couldn't ask for more for a school performance really! The school posted a lovely piece on their website about the show here:

After the school performance we had a bit of time to work on a few things before we performed in London the following week. We only had one review but what a lovely review it was, really grasping what we were trying to achieve with the production:

We are now hoping to take the show on tour. My aim is to take it to Medieval and Renaissance great halls as I think this would be the best setting for our particular production. It is not designed for a traditional theatre space and would work best in a place with character and history. So there's lots of hard work to come over the next month or so. But it has been a fantastic start to Cyphers and a fantastic step forward in my directing career.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Jam-packed June: Jeremy Herrin, Opus No. 7, Fathers and Sons, Yorick and Avignon

So, as promised, I am writing from Avignon this month. We have been here just over a week now, having arrived on the 30th June, and are here until the 28th July when we spend a night in Paris before returning under the Channel to London.

June started back in Soho though with a fantastic talk organised by Soho Create with director, Jeremy Herrin, and actor, Ben Miles, about their work on the (quite brilliant!) Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies - now playing at the Aldwych Theatre until October having transferred from the RSCs Swan Theatre. This was quite simply the most intimate and insightful director/actor discussion I have been to (and I've been to quite a lot now!). Both were incredibly relaxed and candid in the beautiful setting of the chapel in the House of St Barnabas - originally founded as a charity to support London's homeless people, it is now a rather swanky private club! Jeremy Herrin firmly established himself as one of my favourite directors working at the moment, espousing the need for the actors to have the freedom to be creative and spontaneous on stage and in the rehearsal room, and understanding the importance of the audience's imagination to create a world on stage. His private words of advice to me afterwards - encouraging me to 'embrace my limitations' and strive for 'progress not perfection' were useful for any young director to take the leap out of the production in their own head and into the reality of the rehearsal room. It was also interesting to learn how he decided that he needed to be slightly 'ignorant' of the books and the history in order to be able to see the play through the eyes of a first-time audience member with no prior knowledge.

By contrast, Ben Miles certainly did his homework! He created a detailed timeline for Cromwell's life (Hilary Mantel's Cromwell specifically, not the historical one), read the books multiple times and even took trips by boat along the Thames, exploring Putney and Austin Friars. His dedication to the role certainly shows in the richness of his performance.

I managed to get to the theatre a couple of times this last month. The first was to see the experimental Russian theatre of the Dmitry Kyrmov Lab, Opus No. 7. This was an example of me trying to broaden my horizons as a theatre-maker and it certainly did that! Kyrmov is a designer at heart and his work is incredibly visually stimulating. If at times lacking in coherency, the play was full of life, stimulating the imagination and emotions throughout, in a manner quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. The play is divided into two halves - the first, 'Genealogy', being a very moving and refreshingly unique treatment of the Holocaust; the second 'Shostakovich', being a gripping biopic of the great Russian composer of the Soviet years. The first half feels a little bit like a series of rehearsal room improvisation exercises strung together into a loose narrative but within that (and largely as a result of that) it presented a very fresh and personal depiction of the Holocaust. The cast throw buckets of black paint onto the white card of the back of the stage and transform them into orthodox Jews before our eyes, stimulating our imagination in the simplest of ways. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when these figures are blown forward from up stage and we (in the front two rows of the audience) are covered by an avalanche of tiny pieces of newspaper, fired more or less straight into our faces, representing all those killed during the Holocaust. Not something to forget in a hurry.

The second half, for me represented an absolute triumph in storytelling and universal theatre. Using the music of Shostakovich and real recordings from his public speeches, Kyrmov's actors created a brilliantly moving, exciting and dramatic telling of the composer's life in a world of artistic persecution in Russia. This half saw a giant puppet of Mother Russia turning from slightly pushy matriarch, into monstrous persecutor (chasing Shostakovich around the stage with a giant pistol), into a maternal figure that grotesquely smothers her own children to death. This is mirrored by the transformation of Shostakovich from exciting independent composer, into a 'puppet' of the state - ironically the actress playing Shostakovich became more of a puppet than the real puppet of Mother Russia. This was immensely powerful theatre, that crossed international boundaries with a clear and universal message.

My second play of the month was, I'm afraid to say, something of a disappointment. I've become slightly immersed in Russia at the moment, working on a Gogol play, reading War And Peace, and watching Opus No. 7, so I was looking forward to Fathers and Sons at the Donmar Warehouse with much excitement. Unfortunately, for me, it failed to deliver. All the performances were fantastic, without exception and, as many of the reviewers have commented, the set is quite beautifully designed. But I felt that the play lacked drive and argument - it missed the point of Turganev's novel and, as a result of Brian Friel's adaptation, the whole world felt far more Irish than it did Russian. I never felt like this was set in a major turning point in Russian history, where generations were arguing over the future of the nation. It become a rather tame family drama, rather than a microcosm of a nation in turmoil. It is possible that I'm being slightly unfair on the play! And, despite this, I think it would be difficult to give the play less than four stars - as most reviewers have. In particular, Joshua James, gives a quite captivating performance as Arkady, and the Donmar continues to impress with casts that contain not a single weak link.

Before leaving for Avignon, I was able to organise an afternoon's workshop for writer, Piotr Klinger, to help him bring his script to fruition. I was paired up with Piotr for my first New Writing Night at Blackshaw and fell in love with his concept for a telling of the 'unofficial' story of the fall of Elsinore in Hamlet. We spent an afternoon getting actors to improvise scenes and play with different possible character interactions. I have to say a massive thank you to the actors (Alex Maude, Will Holyhead, Rupert Sadler and Victoria Hamblen) for their commitment and the speed with which they embraced the essence of the play. Piotr went away with lots of ideas and I'm sure we will continue to work together over the coming months.

Finally, to end where I began - Avignon! Even after a week I still can't quite believe I am here. As you will be able to see from some of the pictures, it is a simply beautiful Medieval city. The first week was mostly taken up with getting Le Journal d'un Fou into the theatre, with a full day of technical rehearsals on Tuesday, a dress on Wednesday and an open-dress on Friday. We opened on Saturday night with great success and Sunday's performance was the best the play has ever been. Most of my work has been stage management based this week. I have an enthusiastic and very capable team of interns taking on the role of ASMs during the show, so much of my time has been spent training them and teaching them the (rather complicated and precise!) scene changes. Andrew Visnevski (the director) has now returned to London, so my role now takes on new importance and moves more towards the directing side now that the ASMs know what they are doing. My challenge over the next three weeks is to keep the show at the standard that it was on Sunday - keeping it alive and maintaining everyone's focus.

Below are a selection of snapshots of the city and the beautiful team that I'm working with down here!

A bientot!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

May Madness: Le Journal d'un Fou, Henry V and Privacy

This month has seen rehearsals finally get fully underway for Le Journal d'un Fou - a French adaptation of Gogol's The Diary of a Madman - destined for the Avignon Festival in July, that I am assistant directing. I have been assisting Andrew Visnevski (the director) and Mark Antoine (the actor and producer) with the translation process since last November so what has been a slightly exotic sounding, abstract project for the past six months has now suddenly become a reality!

It truly is a fascinating play, that delves into the mind of Aksenty Ivanovitch Poprichtchine, a lowly civil servant in the Russian bureaucratic machine, to a psychological depth that I have never worked before. The story explores the effect of schizophrenia on the mind of Poprichtchine from Poprichtchine's own perspective - we see the world through the eyes of a madman. Not only do we see the world from the perspective of a schizophrenic but from the perspective of the most accurately depicted fictional representation of a schizophrenic ever written. In typical Gogol style, the play is also both farcically comic and deeply moving.

I have very quickly realised how lucky I am to be working as an assistant on this production. There are a huge number of reasons why this provides invaluable experience for a young director: 

Firstly, it provides the opportunity to work in a foreign language. French has a very different quality to English - it has a much faster pace and doesn't contain mid-sentence 'pauses for thought' in the same way that English does. Words and phrases that are comic in English, simply don't work when directly translated into French. I am by no means a French-speaker and it has been (and will be) a real challenge getting to grips with a difficult language - my GCSE French is certainly being stretched to the limit! - but this is a fantastic opportunity to see how different languages behave differently on stage.

Secondly, it provides the opportunity to work in a different country. It sounds stupid but I had never really considered the possibility of working outside of the anglo-phone world before. For me (and, I imagine, most other young British directors) I had always thought in terms of gaining experience in regional theatre and fringe theatre before eventually breaking onto the West End and the larger subsidised theatres like the NT, RSC and Globe. This has opened up a whole other world of possibilities for me. Surely gaining experience of theatre in other cultures and languages can only have a positive impact on the theatre that I then create myself in my own.

Thirdly, as a one man show, it provides a brilliant insight into the actor-director relationship and allows for incredibly detailed work. Our rehearsal process is principally about one actor creating a completely believable individual on stage. As a result, it is an excellent case study in characterisation. It has also really demonstrated the importance of recognising and specifying changes of thought and intention - one thought has to completely end before the next begins but at the same time there can be no point where thought ceases entirely. Having only one actor highlights very clearly how a momentary lack of specific focus can completely drain the energy from a scene. I have learnt an awful lot in just six rehearsals!

Fourthly, since music provides a crucial accompaniment to this production, it has provided me with an excellent opportunity to experience how music can be integrated into a piece and how a composer-director relationship can work. Music is used throughout our production to reflect Poprichtchine's state of mind. One of our biggest challenges over the next couple of weeks is going to be getting the music and the acting to become two halves of a complete whole.

There are undoubtedly many other reasons why this is an excellent opportunity for me but it would bore you to death for me to list them all here! What it has demonstrated, more than anything, is the importance of simply being back in a professional rehearsal room.

The assistant work has also had an immediate impact on my own directing. I directed another piece for Blackshaw Theatre at their New Writing Night this month which, coincidentally, was a one man short with more than an echo of mental illness! The play was called Geppetto's Funeral by Eva Moon and imagines a middle-aged Pinocchio after the death of his creator and father Geppetto. Working with actor, Merlin Fox, I was immediately able to put into practice what I had learnt on Fou. We went through the text pin-pointing each change of thought, highlighting the points of introspection in contrast to those directed to his invisible interlocutor, the Blue Fairy. It was a very challenging piece for just a few hours of rehearsal and I was really pleased with the results and the positive feedback that we all received. As always, the Blackshaw team were brilliant and organised a really enjoyable and varied evening of new writing - I will be sorry to miss their next night when I will be working hard over a glass of rosé in the south of France!

As I mentioned last month, May has seen my new production company, Cyphers, begin to take on a more established form, as we build a team for our first production, Henry V. This month we interviewed for assistant directors - it was slightly bizarre leaving rehearsals as an assistant director in order to interview candidates for my own assistant director! This was also an excellent experience for me - reading and assessing applications was the perfect way for me to see what directors are looking for in an assistant, and will hopefully benefit me when I start applying for assistant positions again later in the year.

As well as interviewing for an assistant director, we also auditioned for our two student actors from The King's Shakespeare Company. I always find auditioning people an incredibly nerve-wracking experience - much more so than being auditioned myself. When I'm auditioning actors I'm always acutely aware that I am being assessed as a director - that they are working out whether they want to work with me just as much as I am assessing their suitability for the production. In the first half of the day we saw each of the applicants individually, before having a group workshop in the afternoon to see if they would respond to our collaborative, story-telling approach to the play. This workshop was also the first opportunity I had to test out my ideas for the production! During the workshop I asked the actors, in groups, to explore sections of the Chorus from Henry V, finding a way of telling us the story of the speech, in their own words and using sounds and physical actions as imaginatively as possible. After this they then transferred what they had learnt to their delivery of Shakespeare's words. The results were fantastic and unlike any other rendition of Shakespeare that I have experienced to date. It got us all very excited about September!

Shockingly, I have only been to the theatre once this month - it is certainly true that as soon as you are working in theatre you have much less time to see any. The one play that I did see was, however, an absolute treat. Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse (rapidly becoming my most frequented theatre) is a triumph. Josie Rourke has created a production that perfectly mixes cutting, relevant satire, audience interaction and engaging narrative. I am not normally a fan of 'techie' theatre, but the use of projection really aided the storytelling and completed a fully-conceived world on stage. It was also a production that made you think and had you on edge - you were never sure whether your personal information or 'selfie' would appear on the rear wall of the theatre (all with your consent, of course - you just didn't know if or when it would happen). Multi-roling was used to great effect - with actors literally switching characters mid-speech. Once more, however, like in Jane Eyre (see my March blog), one actor (in this instance the quite brilliant Josh McGuire, who delights and impresses in everything he does) played one character throughout and this did ground you as an audience member, giving you a focal point you could rely upon. Which was just as well, since there wasn't much else in the production that you could rely upon - the production was full of twists and turns, though there was one particularly brilliant twist that we were sworn to secrecy over at the end of the play! Will be surprised if this doesn't transfer - it certainly deserves to.

Focus is now almost completely on Fou for the next couple of months, whilst getting everything in place for Henry V and my next blog will almost certainly be from Avignon! I am also managing to get some cricket played - in between the appalling weather. I think it is good and healthy to have a complete break from theatre every now and again. Weather-permitting I should be able to get three or four more games in before leaving for France.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Tempests in April: Filming and King Lear

This month's activity has been dominated by directing my first short film. Film has never been a medium that has particularly grabbed me - I'm naturally drawn to the life and energy that theatre brings. Plus one of the joys of theatre is the rehearsal period which is much shorter or non-existent in film. Since the end of last year though, I have been subscribed to a website called MUBI, which provides you with 30 films to watch at any one time, introducing you to great and innovative cinema from around the world (highly recommended!). This has helped develop my interest in film but it is only really once you make a film that you start to really appreciate the art form. And this month I can safely say that I have found a new passion!

When I first agreed to direct the film I naively thought that it would be fairly straightforward! "Yes, there will be a few technical things you don't understand", I thought, "but how hard can it be?" Turns out quite hard! This was one of the steepest learning curves I have ever experienced but also one of the most rewarding.

The biggest thing I learnt was the remarkable level of preparation - both practical and creative - that goes into the making of a film. When working to a very limited time frame - (we had one day to shoot in) - and limited budget - (essentially nonexistent!) - planning the shoot in meticulous detail is a must. This meant storyboarding. And storyboarding. And more storyboarding. As someone for whom drawing is not a particular strong point, showing 60 odd hand-drawn pictures to a production team was an experience that resulted in multiple parts of my insides dying a slow, shameful death! But once I got over my shame, I realised what a brilliantly useful tool the storyboard is. In simple terms, it literally allows you to see the film before you've even shot it. It allows you, as the director, to visualise every single cut and change of angle. Visualising a film to this level of detail I found was a skill that needed practice in itself. It took hours of reading and re-reading the script, followed by long sessions with my eyes tightly closed imaging exactly how the finished film would look on the screen. I found that watching 5-10 minute clips of films that I admire and imagining what the storyboard for those would look like was a really useful starting point and would recommend that to any first-time film maker.

After a few drafts and some discussions, we produced a storyboard that we were happy with. The next step was to use the storyboard to work out exactly what shots were required and what order it made most sense to shoot them in. This film had the added complication of the actor (also me!) playing two different characters who talk to each other!

All of the pre-production headaches, however, meant that we arrived at the studio for the shoot armed with a full shot list and a storyboard. Both things I had never created before and both of which enabled us to shoot a 5 minute film in less than 6 hours - and that's including a brief hiatus when the fuse blew and we lost all lighting in the studio!

As you might imagine the film hasn't turned out exactly as I had envisaged but for a first film I am really pleased with the result. What made the experience all the more special was that an abridged version of the film was screened at the Raphael Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum throughout the bank holiday weekend. It was a peculiarly humbling experience to see our film in such an impressive space surrounded by Raphael's monumental tapestry cartoons.

The film was produced as part of a project with the MA Costume Design students at the London College of Fashion based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. The main focus of the film is, therefore, on showing the beautiful Prospero costume (designed by Pallavi Patel) in action. Pallavi has been absolutely fantastic throughout the whole project - she has worked astonishingly hard and I'm incredibly grateful to her both for her superhuman effort and for letting me direct this film. The relationship between a director and a designer is so important and I hope that this will be the start of a long term collaboration between us both in theatre and film!

We are just finishing the sound editing on the full film. As soon as it's ready I'll be sure to bombard you with links to it through various social media channels!

Back to the theatre and it was lovely to see an old friend, Paapa Essiedu, on the NT's Olivier stage in King Lear this month, starring the ubiquitous Simon Russell Beale and directed by Sam Mendes. Paapa made headlines at the very start of the run when he had to step in mid-performance to replace Sam Troughton's Edmund, after Troughton lost his voice mid-speech. As Mendes said - two of the worst nightmares for an actor occurring on the same night!

This was in many respects a very accomplished rendition of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies - though I do often feel it's more of a joy for the English student than the theatre-maker. As one would imagine, SRB's Lear was played with incredible detail and intelligence - coming into his own in the second half particularly when his portrayal became more subtle and nuanced. I also thought Sam Troughton was excellent as Edmund - now with voice fully intact, he engaged the audience in his evil scheming, whilst his bitterness and resentment towards his brother Edgar (and indeed the whole world) felt very understandable and believable. Stephen Boxer was also exceptional as Gloucester (outshining SRB in my opinion) and the scene between the blinded Gloucester and the mad Lear was undoubtedly the highlight of the production (as indeed, it probably should be).

In fact, most of the performances were pretty strong - with Kate Fleetwood's Goneril being particularly strong out of the three sisters, with Olivia Vinall doing a good job as Cordelia as well. Where I had problems with the production was in the lack of coherency within the world on stage. I really struggled to believe in the setting of the play. The rules that governed it were blurred and uncertain, making the whole production rather fuzzy and disappointing for me.

I don't understand why directors don't seem to realise that the world of the play does not need to be forced into a setting that is directly reminiscent of real-life (whether historical or present). The play exists in a world of it's own, the rules of which should all come from the words of the play. If a world is well conceived there should never be a moment that feels out of place. The director who has really nailed this in recent times is Jamie Lloyd - who, quite rightly, continues to go from success to success.

To use a rather obvious example, it frustrates me when I see a play in which one character attacks another with a 'sword' - which is, in actual fact, a rather pathetic looking knife - when he has an automatic pistol in his pocket and is surrounded by soldiers with machine guns. It immediately and unavoidably creates a moment of ridiculous irony and throws the whole reality of the world into doubt. This is not to say that I don't think we should do modern-dress Shakespeare - I absolutely do! What I'm saying is that if the text says there are swords give the characters swords!! There's absolutely nothing wrong with characters wearing suits but also carrying swords, as long as that is established as a convention of this particular fictional world.

Finally, this next month will see action with my new production company Cyphers. We will be interviewing and auditioning members of the King's Shakespeare Company at King's College London to give them the opportunity to assistant direct and act in our autumn production of Henry V. One of Cyphers' primary aims is to help bridge the gap between professional theatre and student drama - we hope this will be the start of many more collaborations with KSC. Our website is currently under construction but the Facebook ( and Twitter (@CyphersUK) pages are up and running, so 'like' us and follow us for all the latest news! If you are a member of KSC and would like to find out how to get involved, details are available on the Facebook and Twitter pages.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

This year just keeps 'March'ing on: New Writing Nights, RiverRun and Jane Eyre

As a director, actor and theatre-goer my attention has always been grabbed by the classics - new writing has never been especially appealing to me. I suspect the main reason for this is that, to be completely honest, I'm not very interested in 'current' or 'relevant' 'issues' which, quite naturally, tends to be the focus of most new writing. My interests lie in more abstract universal themes and questions. In short, the very things that the classics are so good at. Although Shakespeare and Marlowe (for example) were undoubtedly grappling with the 'relevant' issues of Jacobean England, they hardly ever set their plays in their own contemporary world (only one of Shakespeare's plays is set in Jacobean England). Instead they created distinct and separate worlds from their own - foreign worlds, historic worlds, fantasy worlds - and allowed their audiences to spot the 'relevancy' for themselves. As a result, these plays are still as 'relevant' today as ever and will continue to be so. I fear this is a skill we have all but lost.

Having said that, the two young writers whose work I have directed this last month (Marietta Kirkbride and Piotr Klinger) can certainly make strong claims for attempting to create timeless, universal work. Marietta's short play, The Land in my Blood, tells the story of someone struggling to leave their family home before it is demolished to make way for a new A-road (ok, that bit's not so timeless!). The struggle this character is going through is cleverly portrayed through the inclusion of an off-stage actor voicing her internal thoughts through a microphone. As a result, her internal monologue seems to come out of the very land that she is having to leave, creating quite a moving sense that a part of her belongs in this land. Plus it allows for some beautifully comic moments during an argument with her, not especially sympathetic, partner. One of the key challenges in rehearsals was to get the two sides of the main character's personality, acted by two different actors, to feel like one person. As such, despite the piece only being a little over 10mins long, I thought it was really important to spend some time doing detailed character work. We thought about super-objectives, emotional centres, past experiences. We also spent time building up a detailed collective image of the family home - sitting with eyes closed, we described the house and its surroundings, going round the circle using one word at a time. This meant that the image created was necessarily shared by all of the actors. After these sessions on character and environment, the play (as I had hoped) essentially took care of itself, so that what might have seemed like overkill actually saved us a lot of rehearsal time - in my opinion anyway!

The other great thing about working on this play was that I had the opportunity to spend time in Bristol. (On the flip side, this also meant that I got rather too well acquainted with the M4!) Bristol is quite simply a great little city, with quirky independent cafes and bars, beautiful street art and a thriving fringe theatre scene. It is definitely one of the top places I'd be looking to live as an affordable alternative to London with lots of opportunities to make good theatre and to get noticed.

My second New Writing Night this month was, however, back on the old stomping ground in London, with a company called Blackshaw Theatre. This was a truly brilliant evening, with a lovely warm and welcoming atmosphere - largely created by the bubbly compering of Ellie Pitkin (Blackshaw's Artistic Director). Blackshaw run these nights every other month - I highly recommend going along if you get the chance. The piece I directed was a character study on Gertrude from Piotr Klinger's playful reimagining of Hamlet. The Blackshaw team couldn't have picked a lovelier writer to team me up with and since I am borderline obsessed with Hamlet this was an ideal piece for me! I think we learnt a lot from the process, gaining a fuller understanding of Gertrude's relationships with all the characters around her. My staging of the piece owed a lot to Owen Horsley's rehearsed reading of Thomas of Woodstock at the Barbican with the RSC Richard II cast and to Jeremy Herrin's staging of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (another RSC tour de force!). I was inspired by the fluidity and simplicity of transitions in these pieces and (I hope) used that to good effect myself.

Speaking of Hamlet, I don't listen to radio dramas anywhere near enough, but the recent version of Hamlet on BBC Radio 4 with Jamie Parker in the lead role has been quite sublime. I would actually go as far as to say that it is my favourite rendition of the play that I have experienced to date. The opening scene with the appearance of King Hamlet's ghost is particularly effective and Parker captures the method in Hamlet's madness perfectly.

Which leads nicely on to the stage works that I have seen this month. I haven't had the chance to get to the theatre as much as I would like - or as much as I normally do - this month but both plays I have seen have been exceptional.

Firstly, RiverRun at the NT's Shed, a dramatisation of the river in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake by Olwen Fouere. I have loved all of my encounters with Joyce so far (I am currently enjoying Ulysses very much - even if, at times, it can be a little hard-going) but I did have concerns that this would be a bridge too far! I need not have been concerned, however. This was theatre as I have never experienced it before - which is appropriate since reading Joyce is unlike any other reading experience I have had before. Fouere takes you into what I can only describe as a semi-lucid state, I literally could not tell you whether it lasted 5 minutes or 5 hours (the NT website informs me it was approx. 70 mins!). In that time I truly felt like I was living a dream. The space was entirely bare except for Fouere, a microphone and a light dusting of sand. This created a blank canvas upon which our imaginations could paint vivid moving pictures - I almost felt like I was hallucinating. This was a truly special experience which is simply impossible to describe in words.

The second play was the two part adaptation of Jane Eyre at the Bristol Old Vic. Another reason to be grateful for the New Writing Night in Bristol, this was one of the most inspirational pieces of theatre I have seen. I have wanted to adapt novels for the stage for some time but never quite had the confidence to do it - I think Sally Cookson's Jane Eyre may just be what I needed to see before diving into an adaptation of my own. Cookson deliberately distanced her adaptation from the typical period drama, taking lavish costumes and sets out of the equation completely. This allowed us to focus in on the characters and, again, allowed our imaginations to paint pictures. The great power of a novel is its ability to transport us from place to place at the turn of a page. This is simply impossible in theatre if we are constrained by elaborate sets. If, however, we strip the scenery back and invite the audience to use their imaginations, our minds can change the setting in an instant. This is also a much more engaging way of creating theatre, as the audience is actively involved, working with the actors in the creation of a world. Music was used to great effect with a live band on stage throughout, making me realise that the sound-world of a piece of theatre is central to the atmosphere created. The play also confirmed to me the joys of a multi-roling cast, whilst also demonstrating that it is often necessary to have one central character played by one actor throughout, in order to give the audience a grounding focal point. All in all, this was a fantastic production and I congratulate everyone involved!

As all artists will know, finding ways of earning money alongside your creative projects is often the biggest challenge. The beginning of April has seen me start what I hope will be a lucrative venture into the world of corporate training, running communications workshops at the Informatics department at KCL. I really enjoyed my first session last week and have had very positive feedback. Fingers crossed this will be an area where I can continue to get work. It is an excellent way to keep money coming in, whilst utilising specialist theatre skills and allowing time for other creative projects.

Frankly, I feel quite exhausted after the last couple of months! Luckily I seem to be moving into a slightly calmer period where my challenge will be to stay focussed and to continue to lay foundations for the second half of the year (and 2015). The cricket season started this week so that will be an extra distraction - though if the weather continues there won't be much cricket to be distracted by!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A short month not short of activity: Romeo and Juliet, Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies and Versailles

February may be the shortest month but it has definitely not been short of activity!

It got underway with the production of Romeo and Juliet that I described as 'joyously irreverent' in my last post! After a slightly nervy first night where neither the cast nor the audience were entirely sure of what to expect, we relaxed into the show and it proved a great success! Having an audience laughing continually throughout a production of Romeo and Juliet isn't something one would normally aim for but this was exactly what we had hoped for and it was an absolutely pleasure to perform. My Friar Laurance, with questionable morals, even more questionable substance (ab)use and copious amounts of plastic bags, was without doubt one of the most enjoyable parts I've ever played. Everyone involved with the production was an absolute delight and I was very sorry to see the end of it.

Alongside being in Cardiff for a fantastic Welsh victory over the French - I challenge any sporting arena to beat the atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium on a Friday evening with the roof closed - and my continuing work in schools, I have also seen some truly brilliant theatre this month. It is all too rare that you feel privileged to have witnessed a piece of theatre but this month I have felt just that and on three separate occasions.

The first two were at the exquisitely performed RSC adaptations of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. When I first heard that these were being adapted for the stage I was highly sceptical - it screamed of a shameless money-making bums-on-seats ploy. But after reading the books I started to believe and with the masterful Jeremy Herrin at the reigns these are two productions that are an absolute joy to behold. The atmosphere and flavour of the novels are captured perfectly, whilst the performance of Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell is not only captivating but a phenomenal demonstration of endurance (on stage almost throughout each play's 3 hour plus running time). Herrin's direction is simply faultless. The play flows with unstoppable energy, trusting the audiences' imagination to transport the actors from scene to scene. I loved every minute of it and could easily have sat through another three hours - unfortunately we'll have to wait until Mantel has finished writing the final part of the trilogy before that can happen!

The third play was Peter Gill's Versailles at the Donmar Warehouse. This is quite simply a play that everyone should see. Not just because of the remarkable performances from the whole cast or because of the exquisite writing and design but because Peter Gill has created a piece of theatre that ingeniously uses the politics of 1919 to shed light on our own contemporary world. This is a play that is not only riveting but also makes you think. There's a beautiful sense of dramatic irony throughout the play since the audience knows the eventual repercussions of the Treaty of Versailles (most notably Nazi Germany and the complete mess that is the Middle East) whilst the characters can only guess (some in a more educated fashion than others). The stunning performances from a host of young actors (Gwilym Lee, Josh O'Connor, Tom Hughes, Edward Killingback, Tamla Kari and Helen Bradbury) shows that the future of British theatre is in safe hands on the acting front.

As well as going to the theatre, I am now back to directing for the theatre. March will see me directing a short piece for a new writing evening in Bristol, running from the 11th-15th March at the Little Black Box Theatre. I held auditions last Sunday, am delighted with the cast and cannot wait to get rehearsing this weekend. There are also plans afoot for me to direct my first short film in early April.