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!

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