Interview: David Fairs and Anna Marsland, GOLEM!

“David Lynch colliding with The Godfather – and a bit of Cruel Intentions…” is David Fairs’ intriguing summary of GOLEM!’s second production. Following the success of last year’s Macbeths (check out my review for LondonTheatre1), the company are back at The Hope Theatre on 13th June with I Know You Of Old, a fresh take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

I took the original text and then built a new story out of it,” explains David, who also plays Benedick in the play. “So it only has three characters, and the starting point for our play is two weeks after the actual death of Hero. We pick up the night before her funeral, when Benedick, Beatrice and Claudio all encounter each other in the chapel of rest, and the whole play takes place over about twelve hours leading up to the funeral the next morning.”

“You don’t need to be familiar with Much Ado,” adds director Anna Marsland. “Our hope is that you’re coming to see a new play in which you know someone’s died and you know these three people are connected to her, and you’re uncovering the story as the play goes on. But my hope is that anyone who does know the play gets an added extra in terms of seeing that dialogue repurposed.”

GOLEM!’s first production, Macbeths, followed the same narrative as Shakespeare’s original but placed the Macbeths’ domestic relationship at the heart of the story. “I’d always had this fascination with examining Shakespeare’s great characters as real people who are brilliant examples of the human condition,” explains David. “So I just started to think about how we might do that, and the first thing that came to mind was Lady Macbeth, and I became really fascinated with the idea of isolating those two characters and seeing what story could be told.

“Then after MacbethsI started thinking about other relationships it would be interesting to isolate and examine. Much Ado is one of my favourite plays, and I was most interested in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, why they behave like that – they’re very entertaining but when you actually look at them, they’re very odd. They know each other so well that they can play whatever game they want, they can tactically pick up on what the other person is doing and destroy them with it. You have to know someone incredibly well to do that, and it was interesting to me to put that relationship into a pressurised environment.

“And the other element that’s always struck me as missing is a real deep examination of the shaming of Hero – because it’s something that occurs and is then forgotten. The thing that happens to her is horrendous; she’s destroyed on her wedding day by her father and her fiancé, and yet in that final scene nobody offers her an apology.”

So this play is putting that completely at the heart of it,” says Anna. “She’s been slut-shamed, she’s been destroyed – and that has gone so far that she’s died; that pain has killed her.”

Unlike Macbeths, development for I Know You Of Old has been a collaborative process from the start, with input from both David and Anna, along with fellow company members Sarah Lambie (Beatrice) and Conor O’Kane (Claudio). “Dave and I often have very similar instincts about things,” explains Anna. “I think we are artistically very much on the same page, and I think it’s important that we trust each other a lot. But I think that trust has allowed us to make that distinction quite smooth: I trust Dave to go off and write the thing – after we had the idea, we signed the contract to go and do it at The Hope and then I said, ‘Okay you need to write it now!’

“And we were quite strict with ourselves – workshop, second draft, workshop, rehearsal draft. And once the rehearsal draft is done, that’s when Dave hands it over to me. And of course there are little tweaks but the fundamental set-up and structure are there – and I feel like we’ve tested it as a piece of writing rigorously enough that now we’re in rehearsals I’ve got Dave the actor in the room, not Dave the writer.”

“I do implicitly trust Anna with the script and the play,” agrees David. “That became so evident immediately when we were doing Macbeths in that I had the script, but as soon as I gave it Anna to direct she brought things out of it that I hadn’t even dreamed of. So it’s a really nice process – I prepare it, we have that crossover period where we’re workshopping it, and we work out that we’re on the same page and streamline it down to that shared idea, and then I’m happy to hand it over.”

I’ve not really worked on a play in the same way before, in terms of being so involved with the actors who are going to be in it,” says Anna. “And as a company it feels like we had the luxury of a lot of development time, which has taken the pressure off rehearsals because we’ve had all those conversations over the last six months between the four of us about where this piece is heading.”

And what of those people who think Shakespeare is not to be messed with? “I have no problem with this being polarising, I think that’ll be very interesting,” says David. “And I don’t think there’s any disrespect in any of it – I’m very much coming from the point of view of someone who absolutely loves Shakespeare. He is my favourite playwright, my favourite thing to act and to watch. I have a huge amount of respect for him, and it doesn’t feel like that is in conflict with what I’m doing.

“None of this is arbitrary – the structure and form of this play is very much designed to almost be an extension and a compliment to Much Ado, not a rehash of it. I think you can revere Shakespeare and the words he wrote, without considering that it’s sacrilegious to do anything to the text. I love the idea that actually what he gave us was an incredibly rich raw material that is so brilliant that we actually don’t lose the DNA in the expansion of it.

I also love what previous – and the current – artistic directors have done with Shakespeare’s work at the Globe. Going back to Rylance, I love the idea that you can take this and you can play with it – the idea is that it’s something to be enjoyed and experimented with.”

“We wanted to take it a step further this time,” adds Anna. “The idea of setting up GOLEM! was about how much we can take a text and change it some way, and one way of doing that is this re-orchestration. And it’s how far we can push that, so there we just changed the text to the story of Macbeths and reshaped it; here we’re taking the text and the characters and some of the plot, and veering off in another direction. And I don’t know what the next step would be – maybe taking the text and telling a completely different story, or even taking multiple texts.”

Anna and David first worked together at university, an experience he remembers for one very specific reason… “My overriding memory of what Anna had me do was get covered head to toe in ice cream for the final scene of the play – but we discovered ice cream doesn’t look like ice cream when you’re covered in it. So ultimately I was covered in gallons of Angel Delight, performing in a theatre that didn’t have showers, and had to leg it across the city to a friend’s room and shower, then head back for a drink!

“Once the prospect of the R&D space for Macbeths became available at the Catford upon Avon festival last March, I obviously knew that we needed a director and Anna was top of my list to approach. I knew that she’d worked at the RSC and the Globe, and that she was London-based at the moment because she was – and still is – Resident Director on Curious Incident in the West End.”

“So it was quite a chance reunion in a way,” says Anna. “I love working on Shakespeare and I also really love prioritising those female stories in Shakespeare. So interests-wise and working-wise, it was just a happy collision really.”

And what’s next for GOLEM! after I Know You Of Old? “Our hope is that what we’ll end up with is two nice companion pieces – two adapted Shakespeare plays: one tragedy that’s become a love story and one comedy that now has a much darker heart,” says Anna. “And the idea is maybe to tour them as a double bill or a pairing that could be on alternate nights. We’re kind of hoping we might take them up to Edinburgh next year.”

“And another idea once we’ve finished this run, the next thing I’d be interested in looking at is a direct sequel to Macbeths, picking up and seeing where all of the characters might have ended up,” suggests David. “And potentially with this one forming a story and a script out of multiple plays, out of the whole canon, and seeing what story I can build.”

Book now for I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre from 13th June to 1st July.

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