Welcome to another instalment of an occasional feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.
The second of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Islington, a few miles north of the city, and to the King’s Head Theatre, a long-standing space behind a pub on Upper Street. I asked the theatre to answer some questions on this iconic space, which I visited earlier this year to see This Island’s Mine and Southern Belles.
Interview with Germma Orleans-Thompson, Marketing Assistant
The Kings Head Theatre is quite an iconic fringe venue. What would you say was its USP within the London theatre scene?
We give a platform to emerging companies and artists in addition to our new writing festival Playmill which allows them to showcase their work in a London venue. Due to our Equity fringe agreement, everyone at the King’s Head Theatre both on and off stage must be paid a legal wage which we are very proud of and keen to see more theatres sign up to.
The performance space is quite small, but with a lot of possibilities. What has been your favourite show to stage there, and what was special about it?
Southern Belles has been my favourite show at the King’s Head Theatre as I believe it celebrates what we do best; discovering hidden gems from the past and making great LGBT theatre. Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest playwrights of all time, and so much of his work remains unknown.
There are a few theatres based in Islington pubs. What makes yours different, and do you have opportunities for mutual support and collaboration?
Apart from being the first pub theatre in London since Shakespeare’s time [founded in 1970], bringing opera to a more accessible, small scale space is something that we have pioneered. We love our neighbours and would love to work more collaboratively going forward.
You programme a fair amount of LGBTQ theatre, including the current Queer Season. Do you see the King’s Head as an important venue for shows like these?
Yes, the King’s Head Theatre has championed LGBTQIA+ work since early in
our history and continue to do. We gave a safe space to shows that did not have
anywhere else to go and we have retained that through till now. It’s especially
needed now at a time where so many other LGBTQIA+ venues are closing.
What has been your biggest challenge when programming theatre for the space?
We have so many applications from wonderful shows that it’s hard to fit
as many of them in as we would like!
What can we expect from the King’s Head for the future?
More fabulous operas, more excellent LGBTQIA+ work and more of the shows
that you know and love in a brand new venue!
You don’t receive revenue from the pub in which you are based, but rather rent the space: how can audiences and theatre-lovers support your theatre going forward?
First and foremost; buy a ticket! Ticket sales make up a large part of our revenue and you can never underestimate the power of spreading the word of a brilliant show!
My thanks to Germma.
I would like to add that the King’s Head Theatre is currently looking to move to new premises behind the current space, and are seeking additional funding to ensure this happens in 2020. Although I am quite fond of the 110-seat space which currently exists, a new space is Islington Square will be quite exciting, and will boast a larger auditorium and a smaller studio theatre.
Beatrice Vincent’s show Before I Am Lost opens at the Etcetera Theatre on 16 August. It focuses on a specific point in the life of the poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D.
I asked Beatrice a few questions about the show.
Why has H.D. been such an inspiration for you?
Throwing me in at the deep end there! How long do you want this interview to be?
In all honesty I think there’s an element of her coming into my life at the perfect time; I studied English Literature at university, and we had one lecture on her in my second year, I think.
The main poem I remember looking at was The Master, written during her work with Sigmund Freud in the 1930s. It’s lengthy and complex and beautiful and essentially boils down to her saying, “shut up, Sigmund, I like women.”
Having only recently accepted that I, too, was somewhat less straight than I initially thought, her refusal to have herself and her sexuality dismissed was something that I had desperately needed.
Of course I went straight to the library, took out the fat volume of her selected poems, and set to reading. What really struck me about her work is how ahead of her time she was in her world views. I’m constantly harping on about how she was doing in 1918 what Carol Ann Duffy is praised for doing now – she described the experience of being a well-educated young woman as being in a bell jar before Sylvia Plath was born. This is the mother of women’s poetry as we know it today.
I could talk about her all day, about her intelligence and her artistry, but more than anything else there’s just something about her writing that makes me feel less alone. There’s that wonderful scene Alan Bennett wrote for The History Boys, where Hector says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.” H.D. really brings these words to life for me, so I want to bring her to life for other people who might benefit from knowing her and her poetry.
Female poets are often dismissed as odd, dark or disturbed. How do you bring your subject to life and avoid these stereotypes?
It’s a tricky subject, as most people’s first ports of call for female poets are figures like Plath and Sexton who are famous for their darkness.
What I love about H.D. is that she refuses to ever really descend into that kind of despair – of course there is pain and anger and deep sadness in her writing at times, but there’s always resilience as well.
In terms of bringing her to life and avoiding those female poet stereotypes, I think it’s as simple as giving voice to the woman herself. Because she’s so little known, a quick Google search and a read of her Wikipedia page will tell you almost nothing about the real woman she was.
I’ve been hugely frustrated in my research process for Before I am Lost, reading introductions and notes on her work and her life all written by men. It’s a subject I talk about in the show itself – the way men historicise women. They tend to focus on the despair, on the fragility, or completely erase these and make the woman into an infallible saint.
That’s why I’ve been hugely grateful to her for writing autobiographical novels. I read HERmione, Asphodel, and Bid Me To Live as research for the show, and they’ve been immeasurably helpful in painting a vivid picture of the woman she was. Obviously you have to take novelisations with a pinch of salt, especially her Hermione novels, but it’s generally accepted if she hadn’t changed the names in Bid Me To Live, she could have called it a straight-up autobiography.
I think very few writers just do all the research in one block and then all the writing, so I already a fair number of ideas and lines scribbled down when I read the novels. This meant I had a few wonderful moments where I would come across an image or a feeling she had written that I already had in my draft, and as corny as it sounds, those really felt like gifts saying “you’re doing okay, you’re getting this right”.
Of course we can never truly know everything a historical person would have said and felt, but I can say with certainty that the H.D. I’m presenting in Before I Am Lost is real and honest and human.
How is your show informed or influenced by the avant garde writing movement in which H.D. was a major participant?
It’s something I must admit I would struggle to pin down – writing her spoken voice is obviously a far cry from replicating her written voice, but I like to think there’s still a poetic quality to the text of Before I am Lost.
More overtly I think this influence is mostly felt in the presence of the other writers themselves in the play. For example, H.D. was heavily influenced by Pound in her early life, so his voice is one that the audience hears, and because of how well documented their relationship was, most of what he says in the play he said in real life.
H.D.’s life revolved around literature, whether contemporary or canonical, so that’s something I’ve tried to bring in as well. She’s constantly quoting – I’d be really impressed if an audience member caught all of the literary allusions that are in there!
H.D. had a long relationship with fellow creative Bryher, who was heavily involved in helping refugees escape from Nazi oppression. Although your play is set in 1919, does their relationship inform your work in any way?
This is an interesting question as it’s been something we’ve really battled with in the rehearsal room. As I was already a huge fan of H.D. when I began the writing process, I was aware of her relationship with Bryher and the things they achieved while together.
In doing the research for this particular show, I concentrated on the period before Bryher and H.D. meet, and their very early relationship, but I wasn’t quite able to rid myself of the knowledge of who H.D. would become in her later life.
When rehearsals started, Ross [McGregor, director] had to say to me, “you love her too much, she’s not as strong as you’re playing her” and he was absolutely right. I was playing the H.D. I had first fallen in love with – the woman who argued with Freud about lesbian love, who wrote, “woman is perfect” – but that woman hadn’t quite been born in 1919.
There’s still strength in her, of course, but she hasn’t completely embraced it yet. I think Bryher was a hugely positive influence on H.D. and is certainly a big presence in the show, but I’ve had to constantly keep in mind that their relationship is only just beginning, and the defiance that I think Bryher nurtured in H.D. is only just starting to take form.
On the surface the play is about the birth of H.D.’s daughter Perdita, but if we’ve pulled it off right then it’s just as much the birth of H.D. herself, and Bryher plays a big part in that.
What should Camden Fringe audiences expect from Before I Am Lost?
Turning up for a one person show is always a risk, I know. Putting yourself in one performer’s hands is a huge leap of faith, and I’m so grateful to all the people who will be putting their evenings in my hands over the next week.
Although now I’ve gone through the process it feels disingenuous to claim it’s just me that audience is trusting with their time: this show is the product of so many people’s hard work, not just my own. I’m really lucky to have friends who are incredibly talented and generous with their time, so I’ve never felt like I was on my own with this project.
So in as far as I can call it a one person show, I feel this is different to others I’ve seen, mostly because it’s not addressed to the audience.
The conversation is between mother and child, so it’s very intimate. But there’s also an immediacy to it – she’s in labour for the duration of the show, so there’s absolutely a sense of the clock ticking. And her belief that she’ll die in childbirth means that she’s more honest about her emotions and about her experiences than she would otherwise be.
I should probably note that we’re talking mid-stage labour, where a modern woman would think “maybe I should pack a bag and go to the hospital now,” so they don’t need to prepare themselves for an hour of blood and screaming (though my housemate insists this would be a selling point).
H.D. was a major force in the Imagist movement who is often overshadowed by the more showy Ezra Pound. Do you feel that female poets will ever find their rightful place in the canon?
I certainly hope so! That’s why I wrote this play, after all. It might just be because that’s my area of interest, but it seems like pulling brilliant women out of obscurity is something that’s really in vogue at the moment.
Obviously Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Emilia had been a revelation for a lot of people (and going to see it was actually a really important moment for me in the writing process for Before I am Lost). I’m hoping this trend continues as more than just a theatrical fad as I know there are so many works out there that deserve to be read.
For my part, I’m hoping that I can bring Hilda Doolittle out from the shadow of Pound or Lawrence to stand on her own two feet as she rightly deserves.
Now I’m thinking perhaps our next show will have to be about Felicia Hemans (she sold more books of poetry in the 19th century than Byron. He hated this, look her up).
What’s next for Cobalt Theatre?
The big question! I’m hoping that this won’t be Before I am Lost’s only outing. My aim with the show was to bring H.D. into the light, so I don’t think I’ll feel totally satisfied by a 5 day run in a 40 seater theatre, even if I end up selling out every night.
There’s no solid plans as yet, but I’m definitely keeping it in my back pocket for when the next opportunity arises. I’m not at all done with Hilda Doolittle – in twenty years I’ll be back with a two hander about her conversations with Freud, but as someone in my mid-twenties I don’t feel ready to write that yet.
In terms of the more immediate future, I’m trying to balance writing with keeping up acting work and the day job as well, but there are more than a few things I’d love to get off the ground properly. Now I just have to pick which one goes first!
Incidentally, I’m rather excited at the prospect of seeing a further play about Felicia Hemans, a very neglected voice among some fabulous female poets of the 18th and 19th centuries (and when I am in my late sixties, I’ll be there watching the two-hander between H.D, and Freud!).
Antigoni Spanou is bringing her solo show, Ophelia Rewound, to the Camden Fringe from 22-25 August at Camden People’s Theatre (which celebrates its 25th birthday this year).
I asked Antigoni to tell me a bit more about the show and herself as a performer.
Ophelia is one of the most complex female characters in the Shakespeare canon. What inspired you to use her character for your new solo piece?
I think for me it was a case of a happy accident, or to be more precise, an unhappy accident.
In 2009 a colleague of mine at the time, Flávio Rabelo, who is an amazing performance artist, invited me to participate as Ophelia in a presentation of his piece inspired by Hamlet from Muller’s Hamletmachine. In that performance Ophelia was a silent, faceless version of herself and by the end of it, I felt a very strong connection to the character and a plethora of questions arising. Who is Ophelia? Do we ever know who she really is? Why is it that mostly it’s other characters who speak of her or for her? Is the voice that comes out of her mouth during the madness scene, her true voice? Is her death a suicide or an accident?
The questions were too many, the connection that I had felt with Flávio’s Hamlet was too strong; I just couldn’t let her go. I wanted to give her her own agency. Myself and Flávio over the next 2 years or so, kept exploring that connection between the two characters by sending each other stimuli and materials to inspire/provoke one another.
And what happened next in my life, just cemented that route. I suffered from clinical depression and came very close to suicide. Through my personal struggle of trying to get better, I just couldn’t put my Ophelia out of my mind; life was imitating art for me, and the need for art was giving me a purpose during those dark days. The parallels and the similarities were too many and I now had even more questions.
There have been many stereotypes around women and mental health over the years, around weakness, hysteria, and stigma. How does Ophelia Rewound address and challenge this?
Yes, that is true. I always found it interesting how women who suffer with mental health are portrayed in theatre, literature and in the arts in general, and what happens to their story. And what makes it even more fascinating is when you start comparing with how men are portrayed.
For example, Victor Frankenstein is relentless in his mission to reanimate the dead; a mad yet ingenious figure that no one dares to obstruct. And yet the first Mrs Rochester, Bertha, is a mere ghost in Jane Eyre. She only comes out at night, escaping her prison, to torment Jane and ultimately commits suicide amongst the flames that she sets.
And even though Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost and is feared to be mad, he is free to roam and be part of the palace life. It is only with Ophelia that the other characters see a problem; she does not know what she is saying, she is to be pitied, and then she disappears “to muddy death”.
There seems to be a suggestion that madness in men is somehow a result of an immense talent too wild to tame, whilst in women the link has to do with genetics or “frailty”. I think it was this that I wanted to address; I wanted to take charge of her story. I wanted to hear about Ophelia from Ophelia.
What Ophelia Rewound set to do was to reverse this narrative, literally and metaphorically. During the performance you never hear Hamlet’s name, and that was a conscious choice. This wasn’t done because I’m wearing a “I hate men” badge; far from it. I chose to do that because we simply don’t need any more information on Hamlet. We heard everything he had to say.
This story is about Ophelia; what she feels, what she thinks, what she needs. But more importantly this story starts at the end and finds a new beginning. I’ve chosen to reverse the story, starting with her attempted suicide only to lead my Ophelia to a moment of realisation, of self-discovery.
In Ophelia Rewound, my Ophelia finds her voice and gets a happy beginning, one that doesn’t include Hamlet. Furthermore I personally wanted to give a reasoning behind her madness. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet she is heartbroken, abandoned and next time we see her she is completely mad. For me there were many steps missing in between. And that is where I found the correlation with my own personal story; a woman who is heartbroken and slowly falls into depression, that ultimately gets mistaken for madness.
There are autobiographical elements to the piece, which you perform on your own. Have you found this empowering, to share some of your own experiences, or were there challenges in incorporating your personal story?
I think that whenever you create autobiographical work, challenges are bound to follow.
As the tale that I wanted to express stemmed from a place of hurt and ache, there was the danger for myself as a person to get (re)lost inside those painful memories and the consequences that that would entail. And then there was the challenge as a theatre-maker that by making the story too personal, I wouldn’t allow the audience to “enter” and join in the journey.
Having said that though, what has been empowering was overcoming these challenges. Being able to take my own personal narrative and adapt it so it still bears real elements and rings true to the audience, but then also opening it up (by interweaving it with Ophelia’s narrative), and therefore making it more universal and recognisable and as a result more relatable to anyone that sees it.
How did Ophelia Rewound take shape? How have you benefitted from the support of those around you, including professional organisations?
So the journey has been long to say the least. As I mentioned this project started with an invitation in Brazil, in 2009. In the beginning it existed as a series of actions the nature of which were performance-art based. The research was always ongoing but for the next 2 years the “long night” set in, by which I mean my depression. But even during this time the search for Ophelia was ever-present as I took part in a theatre scratch competition in Athens, Greece with a highly theatrical version of the piece that even I wouldn’t recognise today.
Allowing myself the time to heal and trying to regain my confidence as a person and as an artist was mainly the reason why I kept pushing the project to the back of my mind for the next 6 years. But by 2017 the itch had become too great to not scratch anymore. I reached out to an incredible artist called Peader Kirk for guidance. I was lucky enough to have had him as a tutor when I was a student, and even luckier to have him as a mentor with this project.
At this point I really felt the need to reach out to the audience directly so Ophelia Rewound started making its first interactive steps and I decided to do a sharing of it in the ever-embracing environment of the Lighthouse event held by The Lab Collective. It was that very night and through feeling the support and encouragement of fellow artists and audience members, that I decided to go further.
I then performed a scratch version of it at the Bike Shed in Exeter in June 2017 which allowed me to get more feedback and test uncharted waters. And the next step in the saga was what gave birth to what Ophelia Rewound is today. I applied for an R&D period at Bathway Theatre Network (University of Greenwich) which was what I truly needed at that point; support, time and space. And whilst I was there, one day I asked if I could have a projector. And that simple request set in motion my collaboration with the talented Joseph Thorpe (one of the artistic directors of The Lab Collective).
Which brings us to today; Ophelia Rewound being an interactive, autobiographical piece that uses intricate projection-mapping to say things regarding mental health that words can’t express. I honestly have no words to describe how grateful I am to have (had) such a supporting network of friends and colleagues around me.
All of the organisations and people that I mentioned above, including other ever-present saviours, I owe so much to and one thing I know for sure; I wouldn’t be where I am today without them and Ophelia Rewound would simply not exist. So to say that I benefited or that I am thankful, is a huge understatement.
Does the piece address current political concerns around the underfunding of mental health support? Do you feel that anything is improving?
It doesn’t; but not because I don’t believe this is an important issue. The simple reason why is because this piece originated from a very personal place for me and it centres around that crucial moment in time when you reach out for help from that dark place. It addresses the stigma around mental health that is still alive today. It deals with being able to recognise the signs in someone who’s clearly suffering and offering your hand. It focuses on the fact that there is a way out.
I do believe that the underfunding of mental health is a real and huge concern and I myself have experienced being told to be put on a waiting list when I objectively needed immediate help. So there is definitely a political piece there; it’s just that I felt I had something else to say, and if I tried to say both at the same time, I wouldn’t do either justice.
I applaud you for dealing head-on with themes relating to depression and suicide in an “intimate, emotive and interactive” way. What might an audience coming along experience during the show?
The way I would describe it is like an emotional roller coaster; it takes you to the core of things which in this case is our emotions. We learn to control, suppress, push back, not talk about our feelings and that is where the problem starts.
The audience will experience rawness, truth, sadness but also laughter, reality and the sense of coming together. Every single flavour. And there is no pressure. I am extending an invitation for real interaction but the audience always has a choice. At the end of the day, it’s just us, a small group of people sharing our dreams and our fears. Oh…and there’s tea!
Tell me some more about The Lab Collective, and its past and future work. What’s next after Ophelia Rewound?
The Lab Collective is a group of creatives that all met during our studies at Rose Bruford. The work that we create is interactive, visceral live experiences that tread the line between theatre, game and installation. We strive to empower the audience to collaborate in our performances and we have worked in a variety of traditional and non-traditional performance spaces, exploring and playing across disciplines to generate an innovative theatrical experience.
Our work consists of three strands; interactive installations (like Between Us), socially relevant performance which explores current social questions (like Incoming/Exodus), and large scale immersive performance for festivals and alternative sites (like the work that we do at BoomTown Festival).
Much of our work is socially and politically engaged (like The Candidate) and asks questions about issues which impact us all, giving a voice to unheard stories – told not only by our performers – but by the audience themselves.
In October The Lab Collective will be presenting Vector (an interactive experience, which uses elements of performance, game and integrated technology to open up dialogue and shed light on the ethics that society faces when using animals as part of medical research) at Oxford’s Festival of Ideas.
In that same month we will also be launching our series of workshops for interactive performers and theatre-makers as we are committed in sharing our practice and creating connections and collaborations with artists.We are also hoping to book some time away as a group soon. We are keen to get away from the busy streets of London for a bit as we are looking into developing a new performance in the next 3 months.
Regarding Ophelia Rewound‘s future (which is my first full venture as a solo artist even though I’m collaborating with Joseph Thorpe), that is unclear at the moment; I can only see as far as The Camden Fringe! But what I am certain of, is that it will have a future.
What’s the best thing about the Camden Fringe, and the Camden People’s Theatre in particular?
Camden Fringe went from feeling like a community of artists to feeling like a family in a heartbeat. Just the sheer support that we’ve been offered by Michelle Flower and Zena Barrie, and also Natalie Beech, is unmeasurable.
Every question, every worry, every email; the response is immediate and reassuring. There is a real sense of solidarity with the other artists and the level of professionalism and quality of work is incredible.
I believe that for someone like me, an emerging artist who has never done the Edinburgh Fringe (as it used to scare me to my core) this experience right now, this festival baptism of fire, is just what I need to gain the confidence, center myself as a creative and take this beautiful platform and leap into the unknown with no fear.
Camden People’s Theatre is a dream come true for me. It’s one of those venues that you dream about performing in it since you are a drama student. In fact I think I have spent pretty much most of my income throughout the years watching shows at CPT.
It’s such an inclusive, open and supporting venue that puts on such innovative and ground-breaking work, and I am beyond happy to be presenting Ophelia Rewound there. All of the team at CPT has been so helpful and I can’t wait to get started. I do hope that this will be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”!
Finally, what’s been your biggest joy and your biggest frustration as a solo creative?
This is a loaded question! I guess if I had to pin it down to one thing, I would say that my biggest joy – or if I may rename it – my biggest relief is that I don’t have to explain myself.
It’s very convoluted in my head and also there are multiple voices who sometimes speak different languages, so my train of thought is very difficult to follow. I also find it very stressful to express myself when put on the spot. I prefer to go away, think, think again, write it down, erase it, write it again and by the end I will still not be happy with it (which I guess has to do with my scientific background). So being able to just run with something without taking 20 min to explain how in the hell my brain got to that point, is indeed a relief.
The biggest frustration as a solo creative is hitting that wall and not being able to bounce off of someone else in order to overcome it. Having said that though I consider myself extremely lucky to be surrounded by a community of people (friends, family, colleagues) who by now can read the panic and frustration signs a mile away and always come to my rescue.
My thanks to Antigoni for her thoughtful responses to my questions!
Missing Cat are taking their radical version of Woyzeck to the Edinburgh Fringe from 2-17 August at Greenside @ Infirmary Street’s Forest Theatre.
Before they did their London previews, I asked Joshua Silverlock (director/producer) and Saul Barrett (producer/adaptation) to give a flavour of what audiences might expect of their show, and to answer a few more general questions about the fringe scene.
I love your company name, so let’s start with that. Who, or what, is the “missing cat”?
SB: One day I came across a poster in a street for a cat that had gone missing and I thought if we called ourselves Missing Cat it could save us money on printing…
JS: That is actually true by the way. Plus it sounds cool.
SB: We chanced upon it as a name – it felt both evocative and open enough for us to be anything.
Woyzeck is an interesting piece to adapt. Tell me about how you have created a radical version which runs just fifty minutes!
JS: Well to be honest the play itself doesn’t run much longer than an hour [note: this is true but Buchner left the play unfinished and the opera by Berg is considerably longer!] so it’s been a case of making small but judicious cuts and alterations which Saul has done really well. The way Buchner writes is incredibly lean and pared back, there is hardly any flab to the story. Each exchange is essential.
SB: The biggest change we’ve made is to reduce the cast to only three actors – one playing Woyzeck, one playing Marie and a third covering all the others. The idea behind this was to give an already economical text a tighter dramatic focus.
Is your work at all influenced by wars and conflict currently happening across the world?
SB: The key strength of the play is that it feels incredibly contemporary while also directly borne of the time Buchner was writing. It has a timeless appeal, the issues at its heart still preoccupy us, while remaining deeply personal.
JS: To a certain extent the military aspect is incidental, ultimately it’s about a man and a woman struggling to provide for their son and fraying at the edges as a result. Buchner, who died at a very young age, mainly wrote political essays, Woyzeck being one of his few plays – to us that’s a really vital clue into staging it – it has a political conscience but it can’t exist on a page – it’s about people, atmosphere and emotion.
You’re playing at the New River Studios in London and at the Forest Theatre on the Edinburgh Fringe. What attracted you to these particular venues?
SB: Both spaces are (at least by fringe theatre standards!) very large, open and expansive – we really wanted a blank canvas within which to create this world.
JS: The majority of the stage will be covered with soil, within which all scenes occur. Just outside this are all the mechanics used to create the show (sound equipment, lights, props etc.), manipulated onstage by the actors. For these two ‘layers’ to work we needed an unobtrusive space that would blend seamlessly with our starkly visible design.
How important is music to your creative process?
JS: Both music and sound are the bedrock of this production. Johnny [Edwards – sound designer] and Finn [Carter – Composer] have been in rehearsals throughout and the play has been built around their work. We’ve worked really hard to blur the line between music and sound design, underscoring the action without ever making their presence too obviously known.
SB: Having such a present soundscape to work against is a real treat for me as an actor. In this production the sound is almost another character to be playing against.
What’s the single most exciting thing happening in fringe theatre right now?
SB: The blending of different performance genres feels very exciting at the moment. Just like we as individuals are increasingly avoiding simple classification, the shows I’ve seen lately seem to defy pigeonholing and embrace nuance.
JS: I think for me what makes fringe theatre special is that it feels like a more immediate artform – most commercial and even subsidised theatre it seems to me has to jump through so many hoops before it gets to an audience that the end product can often bear no resemblance to what might initially imagined. The fringe I think manages to avoid this issue – sometimes for better sometimes for worse!
Where is Missing Cat heading after this production?
JS + SB: Well! To quote a memorable exchange from the play:
“Let’s go, Marie. It’s time.”
My thanks to Josh and Saul for their time and responses, and please consider watching Woyzeck if you are at the Edinburgh Fringe. You can follow the further adventures of the Missing Cat on their Facebook page.
Sushi Girls, a new play by British-Ukranian playwright Tony Leliw opens at the Theatro Technis next month from 25-27 July.
It features a company of four actors: Mark Keegan (Anton), Kate Winder (Anna), Shina Shihoko Nagai (Ichika) and Rina Saito (Shizuko). It also features songs and sounds as if it will be an intriguing addition to this summer’s fringe theatre scene.
The play is based around Leliw’s experience of over two decades as a host family welcoming foreign students to London, who have come here to study English.
The play is “a rollercoaster of linguistic and cultural mishaps” and a tug-of-war between one student, Ichika who wants to study and stay in London, and the other, Shizuko, who does everything to sabotage the trip to be back with her boyfriend in Tokyo.
I asked Tony to tell me a bit about Sushi Girls, which I will be reviewing on the 27 July.
What should an audience expect when they come to see Sushi Girls? How would you describe the show?
It’s not very often when you go to the theatre, that you see two native Japanese actresses land major roles in a British stage play. So for this reason, our play is more out of the ordinary than others.
Being professionals, Shina and Rina speak with Japanese accents when talking English. When they converse with the host family they have a heavy accent, full of grammatical mistakes and mis-pronounciations, while when chatting amongst themselves, they speak clearly and properly, except when they do cockney, which is a whole new ball game.
Without giving too much away, our audience will be blown away when they hear the girls speak with a cockney accent, picking words up from Anton the host father, and host mother Anna getting annoyed, ‘when they rabbit and pork’ and don’t speak ‘proper’..
I am hoping our audience will be partially made up of foreign students, who will in a subtle and fun way learn about British culture, while our domestic audience will pick up on a few Japanese habits and traditions.
For those coming to our opening night (Thursday, July 25, 7pm), the first 50 will be offered a free shot of sake from Tom and Lucy, who run the Kanpai London Craft Sake Brewery. They will also get a chance to meet a Pearly King and Queen. Other Japanese beverages may be on offer from theatre barman Leo.
Why did you decide on the Theatro Technis as a venue? What do you particularly like about it?
I grew up in Islington, and as Camden is a neighbouring borough, I believe you should support your local nstitutions, otherwise they will fade and disappear. I did my first play You What? He’s Ukrainian at Theatro Technis, so it feels a bit nostalgic coming back.
Theatro Technis is on the doorstep of central London, so is easily accessible. It has a good bar, decent dressing rooms and an amphitheatre atmosphere with 120 seats. The theatre is run by a Greek family, George and Aris Eugeniou and his team of volunteers. As the Greeks invented drama, it seemed the perfect venue for my play.
Who are you aiming at with your publicity, social media, trailer etc. How can interested potential audiences spread the word further?
People who have studied abroad, been away from home, experienced a foreign language or culture, or are from a different country now living here, will relate to this play.
I specifically put this play on during the holiday season to attract tourists and foreign students. Equally, in this country is a whole group of host families who will be able to share in some of the experiences featured in the play.
I have targeted English language schools. Those that have been receptive so far include: Lemy School in Harrow, International House London in Covent Garden; and Tti School of English in Camden, who have made students aware of our play. I have also promoted my play through a Sushi Girls page on Facebook, created a dedicated website, Twitter account and shared information with the APL – UK Host Family Support Group.
I am hopeful we will attract a large Japanese following. The Japanese Embassy in UK has included our play in its Japan-UK Season of Culture and our play has been listed by The Japan Society of the UK. Nestle Japan have allowed us to use their Matcha KitKat logo on our poster.
Doki Japanese Tableware in Harrow, my local dry cleaners and Chinese take-away Ming Sing, have put our posters up. Sophie’s Japan Blog interviewed me and our director Antti Hakala. During our last rehearsal we put up a promotional video on YouTube called ‘Sushi Girls coming to London’.
I hope that those that can’t make it will tell their family and friends and share any information we put into the public domain through various social media channels.
Sounds as if you have covered all the bases! What’s next for you after Sushi Girls?
I would like to revisit my last play UktheNuke. It’s a political satire on recent and current political events in Ukraine. It’s about a super hero, set in the future, who liberates his country after it gives up its nuclear weapons and is invaded.
UktheNuke reclaims his country’s territory by making his enemies nuclear weapons redundant with his army of hackers.
Welcome to a new, occasional, feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.
The first of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Latimer Road in West London and to The Playground Theatre. I asked artistic directors Anthony Biggs and Peter Tate to answer some questions on this small and flexible space, which I visited earlier this year to see My Brother’s Keeper.
Interview with Anthony Biggs (AB) and Peter Tate (PT)
The Playground started life as a bus garage on an industrial estate. What made you see its potential?
AB: The building has a really wonderful atmosphere. Simon McBurney from Complicite commented on this when he worked here. The space is so unexpected and inviting. It is a place where artists instantly feel at home. There is no other theatre in the immediate area, and there is a large local audience base.
PT: I literally had a gut feeling when I walked into the empty space. I felt that the space was already creative and had a very good energy.
The programming has been very eclectic and challenging, yet accessible. What plans do you have to reach both the discerning and adventurous theatre-goer, andthe North Kensington locals?
AB: We are positioned in a very diverse area, surrounded by expensive residential properties, large housing estates including Grenfell, commercial developments such as White City Place and Westfield, the Imperial College campus, Wormwood Scrubs prison. We have a huge potential audience on our doorstep and reaching out to them is our first priority as a local theatre.
PT: As you say our programming is eclectic. There are local issues that are a very strong thread through our community like the appalling Grenfell fire that brought our community together and wiped away whatever social divides existed. Last year we did two projects that were around this issue – Shirleymander based on Shirley Porter, the Tesco heiress, who undertook social cleansing when she was leader of Westminster Council; and Dictating to the Estate, a verbatim piece based on the transcripts between residents of Grenfell and the council. We intend to bring the latter back next year in a fuller production.
What is the USP of The Playground Theatre?
AB: We aim to be the heart of our community, where artists and audiences can celebrate bold and imaginative storytelling from around the world.
PT: Work that challenges both the artists and consequently the audience, and that has a deep resonance to the world we live in now.
You have playing cards instead of traditional theatre tickets. Does this mean a tripto The Playground is a game of chance and adventure?
AB: Every time you step through the doors of The Playground, the space will be different. We actively programme work that will transform our space and give our audiences a new experience.
PT: One can never hope to please everyone, or even should attempt to. One has to commit to the work and do it fully, leaving no stone unturned.
What is in store for audiences over the next few years? Where do you see The Playground fitting into a crowded and diverse London fringe scene?
AB: We love collaborating, so expect to see shows mixing a range of art forms, from rap music to fine art, that defy traditional description. International stars will rub shoulders with local artists and members of our community to create exciting and diverse theatre. Expect stories that reflect all areas of our community, that celebrate our culture and tackle the big issues. However crowded the Fringe is, The Playground is unique because our local community is unique. We welcome all artists who want to create work with us, and we look forward to building relationships with friends in other theatres.
PT: Personally, as an audience member, I come to a place that has great possibility to transform, to challenge, to make people think. I believe we have a few productions in the next year that will do this.
The theatre doubles as rehearsal space – have your creatives and actors found the stage and room a fertile ground for inspiration and innovation?
AB: Many leading companies and artists have created work at The Playground. It feels like an engine room for creativity. The more open we are to innovation, the more exciting the theatre we create.
PT: I have had the building for twenty years and set it up as a creative hub for artists to explore the unique voice within each and every one of us. The space has inspired artists such as Simon McBurney, Rufus Norris, the Polish director Henryk Branowski, the Japanese director Hideki Noda, plus countless other artists both known and emerging.
As an audience member, you notice the frequent train sound as an additionalaspect of The Playground sound space. Have you been able to utilise this as a positive force?
AB: It gives the space another dimension and seems to add rather than distract from performances. Unlike some theatres which have the trains running overhead, the tracks run behind The Playground so we get the sound without the vibration. It’s part of our lives and it is part of our community’s lives.
PT: I don’t think that we have consciously incorporated it, but accepted it for what it is – another ambient sound that exists in so many theatres that can’t afford total sound proofing.
What are the future plans for the cafe? It’s a really friendly place with free wi-fi and an interesting food and drink menu. What will make this a must for a foodie in the area?
AB: Our daily menu is created by The Grocer on Elgin, and the delicious cakes and brownies are made by Sally Clarke, both of whom are local businesses. We want to celebrate the rich and diverse culture of the area, and over the next few months we will be adding new dishes created by some of our wonderful local chefs. As a theatre café we often have play readings, discussions, parties etc happening in the space.
PT: It is an evolving process and we now manage it. The level of food has improved over the last few months by incorporating Sally Clarke’s cakes and quiches, and the food from The Grocer on Elgin. This has led to more customers, certainly during the day.
Finally, the theatre currently seeks financial support to keep evolving. What can audiences and creatives do to put this fab new theatre firmly on the map?
AB: The best way to support us is to come to The Playground, and encourage your friends and family too. You can engage with us on social media: we love to hear from you. If you have any spare time you can help us by volunteering as part of our front of house team, or perhaps on one of our many outreach projects with local community groups. Running a theatre is expensive and donations of any amount are always welcome. You can do this in person or via our website. We also run a membership scheme which gives you priority booking and access to special events. We are always keen to develop other ways of engaging with our community, and if you have an idea of how you can support us then please let us know.
PT: We are now garnering support for a lot of the outreach work that we do (which is led by my co-Artistic Director Anthony Biggs). By supporting us, as a theatre, the very important work that we are doing in our community will help us expand our current programmes in those areas – like the work we do with the survivors of Grenfell and the Well Read programme at St Charles Hospital’s psychiatric department.
My own observations on The Playground
I found The Playground an interesting and friendly space.
To find it from Latimer Road tube station, you have to walk past all the Grenfell memorials, and clearly this is an event which has had a major impact on the local community. Latimer Road itself is part residential, part industrial, and it is very exciting to find such a hub of creativity in an area which has traditionally lacked performance spaces.
The cafe itself is spacious, and as well as offering a range of food and drink options, also has free wifi and both indoor and outdoor seating. I could imagine this as a good local place to study, chat, or collaborate over a coffee or a glass of wine.
The theatre is an appealing room, which had seating in an L-shape configuration when I visited. Sightlines are generally very good, with well-raked rows, and seats are unreserved and fairly comfortable. Sound and lighting is excellent and the space is interesting and intimate for audiences.
As a new fringe theatre – it opened in autumn 2017, with a capacity of between 150 and 200 – it joins over 200 other theatre venues within Greater London and has been slowly building up its own niche over the last eighteen months. At the time of its opening, Anthony Biggs stated it “has the potential to be the Almeida of West London … where our audiences are challenged and entertained”.
It has a monthly community reading group, The Playground Readers, in the cafe. It hosts scratch nights and play readings, and has showcased work by Jonathan Lewis, Nina Conti, Jane Austen, Josie Spencer, and many more: plays, comedies, and musicals.
The next major production, from the 2 July, is a new version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
I hope to be able to visit again in the near future to tell you more about The Playground’s adventurous programming.
Known for pushing conventional dance boundaries, Masters of Choreography is back with their worldwide sell out show Beats on Pointe, a dynamic modern story of two opposing dance worlds; street vs ballet.
The Peacock Theatre in Holborn is the venue for Australian’s hit dance fusion show, Beats on Pointe, which returns from 21 May to 16 June 2019. You can expect dance, beat boxing, break dancing, and much more as ballet and street dance comes together, and it looks to be a very exciting show for theatre, dance and ballet fans alike.
I asked Jennifer Masters, the show’s director, producer, writer and director of choreography, to tell me a bit more about the show in advance of its opening.
The advance publicity promises a ballet and street mash-up where “opposing worlds clash”. Is this particularly exciting for you as the main creator and choreographer of the show, and where did the original idea come from?
I am extremely excited to be able to see my vision come to life on stage. Ballet is the foundation of all dance and my personal passion lies within street dance so creating this fusion as a commercial dance theatre production is something that has been whirling around in my mind for a very long time.
I have always loved fusing genres in my choreography as I feel that it makes for exciting and dynamic entertainment, so to take this methodology to the stage in the manner that I have presented in Beats on Pointe is absolutely magnificent!
There are comic moments amongst the classic and contemporary dance moves – what can an audience for Beats on Pointe expect for entertainment?
Beats on Pointe is more than just a dance show, it is a dance theatre extravaganza. Keeping this in mind, I wanted to ensure that I presented elements outside of choreography that would entertain the audience and keep them fixed on what was happening on the stage.
Comedic moments are displayed throughout the entire show, as well as live percussion, singing, beatboxing and audience participation. When I merge all these elements along with an upbeat killer soundtrack, it makes for a fantastic, feel-good experience that is unquestionably breath-taking!
It must be interesting for the dancers to explore different facets of their profession. How has the fusion of styles and backgrounds impacted on the creative process?
I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my dancers train outside their comfort zones and beyond their usual genres of dance and performance. My vision and creative process is thorough and encompassing whereby I ensure that I am able to extract the best artistry out of each of my performers.
I enjoy finding talents beyond their dance training so that I can bring their unique variety of skills to my stage. In this regard, the various backgrounds of training and experience from my cast has definitely impacted on the creative process.
Where possible and keeping in line with my creative vision, I utilise the additional skillsets that these performers bring with them, many times pushing the boundaries of my vision and the abilities of the dancers. I will never compromise my show nor my dancers, but I will push the limits to create brilliance!
The poster advertising the show is so vibrant, colourful and evocative. How important is it that the technical side of the production complements the different dance styles, or have creative choices been made which will surprise us?
I like to think that our show poster along with the Beats on Pointe stylistic lettering, with its vibrancy, colour and energy, portrays exactly what I want to convey to anyone considering to see this show – that it will be modern, edgy and electric entertainment.
As with any stage show, it goes without saying that the technical side of the production needs to complement the various dance styles and performances on stage, however, I have ensured that what happens on my stage can stand on its own merits, that the creativity, energy and performance value is always exciting and memorable.
Each component of the show has a ‘WOW’ factor. I wanted to ensure that if an audience member walks into my show at any given time, that they will not be able to take their eyes off the stage.
What have been your influences in ballet, street and hip-hop? Do you like to pay homage to any of the ground-breaking artists of the past?
The influences on this show and my creative process are many and eclectic with both music artists and dancers inspiring my creative process. I can immediately name artists such as Mikhail Baryshnikov whom I also had the pleasure of seeing perform live on stage and whom has always inspired me; there is also Janet and Michael Jackson who impacted my dance career immensely and others such as the dancers from movies like Breakdance and Beat Street which were released throughout my youth and that had a huge impact on the dance scene. I do pay homage to some of my influences in this show but you will need to see Beats on Pointe to see what I have created for your entertainment.
Tell me a bit about the musical choices for Beats on Pointe. Will anything particularly shock or move audiences?
I am extremely proud of the music selection for Beats on Pointe. Each choice of music was made with the thought that it had to portray the energy and positivity of the show, without taking away the fun and feel-good factor I wanted our show to provide to our audience.
The show will not shock anyone because of its music content or lyrics but what may shock is the choice of music made for the piece that is being performed, such as a ballerina performing to an Eminem track. There are also numerous moments that the music and the performance of our dancers will move our audience with a mixture of emotions ranging from joy to a calming awe.
Overall, the response to my musical selection has been outstanding and due to the audience demand, I am proud to say that you can now order the Beats on Pointe soundtrack!
What is coming up next for Masters of Choreography?
London is an exciting part of the global tour we have planned for our Beats on Pointe show. We have dates locked in throughout the world over the next couple of years and are very excited with this tour.
Beats on Pointe has a sister show called Raise the Barre which we will be bringing to the international stage in 2020 as well. In addition to our yearly showcases and events, we also have other shows in the development stage and are also focused on a few new avenues of entertainment that we will announce over the next year. We are proud of our achievements and look forward to taking our shows and events throughout the world. As we like to say – All for the love of dance!
Over at the Etcetera Theatre on Camden High Street, a new revival of Jack Thorne’s Stacy has just opened, produced by Inkwell.
Stacy is a sexually explicit confessional monologue for one male performer and a slide projector. It was first performed at the Arcola Theatre in 2007, and ran at the Edinburgh Festival and in London in 2012.
I wanted to know more about the revival and the contemporary relevance of this play, so put some questions to director Caoimhe Blair.
It’s been twelve years since Stacy was first written and performed. Why is the time right to revive it now?
I read Stacy for the first time about a year and a half ago, and it crawled under my skin and nestled there. Its disturbing and highly complex protagonist constantly popped up in my head when talking to friends about issues usually relating to the #MeToo movement and its lack of spotlighting women without a platform, and women most vulnerable to abuse.
I then came across a copy of Stacy that had the original blurb on it (as my copy was within an anthology) and I was struck by how dated it seemed in comparison to the play text itself. The blurb described the protagonist as finding life ‘confusing’ and spoke of him as being misguided and unlucky. I wasn’t sure if the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude of the blurb was to trick the audience into believing they would be seeing an entirely different, almost jovial show, or if it was sincere and a product of its time (2007).
Either way, it lead me to reread the play, and consider deeply if someone could read that blurb, see the play, and connect the two as being one and the same now in 2019, and putting on a production of it seems the best way to find an answer to that.
What is your vision of how to present Rob to an audience? Should observers feel engaged with him, repelled, sympathetic, or something else?
I want Rob to cause the audience a headache. He is a wonderfully layered character to explore, full of contradictions, instabilities and deep seated issues and his shocking lack of self awareness can pivot so suddenly into absolute clarity making him one hell of a story teller.
The journey he takes us on is hugely engaging but Rob can be frustratingly erratic when he chooses to tell or drop his story, and what he chooses to tell us. Remembered events sometimes flows out of him easily, and at other times seems to spurt out of him involuntarily and cause him tremendous pain.
The power of Stacy is that it doesn’t necessarily paint Rob as an irredeemable monster, he is so very human and his desperate need to connect to the audience and make us understand him shows at least at some level that he understands what he has done and now has no idea how to come to terms with it.
Rob is defined by his relationship with power, isolation and the sense of entitlement that comes with growing up pretty, and receiving attention and praise with ease as a result, but what makes him dangerous is his recognisability. Rob is disturbed, definitely, but he lives a normal life, has normal issues and fears, and he is in no way a one off case.
Some productions of the play have chosen to utilise the set to make its own comment on Rob’s state of mind. Without giving too much away, what should audiences expect on stage at the Etcetera?
In terms of staging, we have kept things very simple for our rendition of Stacy, in order to keep the story as focused and as aware of its surroundings as possible. Our Rob knows that he is in a theatre, and that he is presenting himself and his story to the audience.
As a result, it is an actor, a stool and over 700 cued projections, many of which give faces to the people he speaks of. With such a simple set, Rob is free to fill the space with his stories and he paints pictures of people and places wherever he chooses as he takes us on the harrowing presentation of the previous few days of his life.
Tell me something about the company putting on this production. I know you are recent graduates, and I’d like to hear a bit more.
Originally based in the small town of Felixstowe, Suffolk, Inkwell was formed by a trio of theatre makers: Sean Bennett, Ruby Lambert and Keelan Swift-Stalley. The company then began running productions at the University of East Anglia, recruiting fellow student Ned Caderni as a director, and I got involved as an actor having worked with Ned on previous productions. I acted in their 4 star Camden People Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya and during that time pitched to them my vision for this production.
Several months later, after Ned and I graduated, Inkwell got in touch with me and said they were holding a slot for me to direct and have financially backed me throughout, giving me full creative reign, which has been a fantastic and informative experience.
What is particularly appealing as a director about putting together a one-person show?
A one person show means intense rehearsals. There is absolute focus on one performer which gives us the luxury of working through tiny details and nuances as well as lengthy character discussions. Peter Hardingham is excellent at multi-roling but rather than just finding character quirks we were able to hot seat him as each character and find depth to them, regardless of their importance or amount of time being enacted.
Doing a show that focuses on such a sensitive topic with such a complex, unreliable central character, means that Peter and I have been able to work collaboratively to find the humanity in Rob, and safely test boundaries and interpretations of the text until we settle on a version that fet truest to the both of us.
Finally, how does Stacy fit into the recent climate of #Metoo and gender fluid debating?
I was asked a lot during the audition process if my reasoning behind doing Stacy now in 2019 was because of the #MeToo movement but I feel strongly that that isn’t the case. The widespread accounts of sexual abuse were a surprise to no one that has listened to and believed women over centuries of abuse. The notion that a high profile protects you from power dynamics being abused and used against you has been truly dismantled by the movement, which makes it clear that women who have no media influence are even more vulnerable to harassment and abuse. Stacy puts a spotlight on that.
More often than not, perpetrators are known by and close to the victim, and violent crimes are committed in places that the victims should only associate with comfort and safety. Those that have committed the crime can live their entire lives not believing to have done anything wrong, which is truly terrifying.
By placing the narrative in Rob’s hands, the audience must follow a story affected hugely by his perspective, and battle with the self excusing and unloading of trauma he delivers whilst trying to make himself understood. Forcing an audience to listen to and possibly even relate to a character who explains amongst so many other things that he has violated someone that trusted him, makes it harder to dismiss all rapists as monstrous bogeymen that only exist in shadowy streets, and instead opens up the conversation of consent, assault and the effects of toxic masculinity in our society.
The effects of the #MeToo movement may bring in a more critical and open minded audience, and an audience that sadly, may be less shocked by what unfolds, but Stacy was just as relevant when it was written in 2007, as it is now.
My thanks to Caoimhe for her detailed and thoughtful answers, and to Ned for facilitating our interview.