Interview: Alexander Knott, Renaissance Men

A bleak and bitter comedy about toxic masculinity and the millennial generation, Renaissance Men is a new production from writer James Patrick and Bag of Beard. The show will debut at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November, with tour dates to be announced for 2019.

“On the face of it Renaissance Men is about three art school dropouts who discover a lost masterpiece in a charity shop in Streatham,” explains Bag of Beard co-director, Alexander Knott. “But beyond that concept, the play is about what happens when men don’t talk to each other. When masculinity gets in the way of human connection. What happens if three young people are faced with a life changing opportunity? Does huge wealth generate huge contentment? What is the relevance of art in a society that values only capital? Is there a voice for Millennials that aren’t just obsessed with their phones? Is there a voice for nostalgia? And through this, can we connect to each other on a fundamental level?”

The story was inspired in part by the personal experience of writer James Patrick, combined with the company’s interest in discussing how the millennial generation connect with each other – or fail to do so. “We weren’t interested in the clichéd image of millennials; we’re not telling a story of iPhones and Instagram, but a kind of counter culture, as James puts it,” says Alexander, who plays Quentin in the show. “With our productions, Bag of Beard are interested in a sense of the timeless, of a heightened reality, but one that we can see society reflected in.

“We explored this in our first production Bath, at The Bread and Roses Theatre, but it was almost an unintentional discovery. With Renaissance Men we wanted to intentionally look at the idea of nostalgia, along with a discussion about toxic masculinity and how friendships can disintegrate. Without giving any plot away, we also examine the oppressive nature of depression, and how so often men fail to communicate what they’re feeling, which luckily is coming more to the forefront of awareness.”

The play has been about a year in the making, and had evolved significantly during the development process: “James started developing an idea of a couple of criminals who stole a priceless painting during a burglary, and then had to deal with the repercussions of this when they discovered how valuable it was. Fairly soon into the writing process, the characters evolved to be art students, and the piece became semi-autobiographical. Through a process of devising and improvisation, followed by scripting the dialogue and shaping it into a narrative, we had the framework of the narrative we have now.

“We went from what we thought was a dark comedy, into a story that has a resonance about our generation, we hope. It’s a satire in parts, we’re not advocating the lifestyle that these characters live, but we think it has a truth in it. During the rehearsal process, we’ve worked a lot with music – the original music for the show was composed by Sam Heron, who also plays Irvine, and elements of physical theatre, to create the semi-heightened world of the piece.”

Alexander is co-director of Bag of Beard along with Ryan Hutton, who also directs Renaissance Men. “The company was formed when, sat in a rehearsal room in South London, working on a classical play, we started discussing how we would do it differently,” he explains. “The ideas we threw around were stylised, surreal, almost grotesque versions of these classical characters – pulling at any threads of naturalism and distorting them into an abstract shape. It was from this discussion that the idea behind the company came together. We’ve yet to make our abstract version of that particular Jacobean tragedy, but ever since we’ve been creating theatre that is darkly comic, uses elements of physical theatre and poetry, and offers a comment on our generation, and how we engage with the world, with original words and original music.”

Renaissance Men will be performed in a special sharing on 25th and 26th November, at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre. “The Old Red Lion has an incredible reputation for being a hub of great new writing, and such an amazing launchpad of new work, writers and companies,” says Alexander. “We saw Kenneth Emson’s Plastic earlier in the year, and the poetic storytelling really made it electrifying. A fascinating working class story, brought into an almost heightened reality by the use of language. That’s something we strive for with Bag of Beard, and the Old Red Lion’s track record of supporting really ambitious new theatre speaks volumes.”

Following these initial performances in London, the company are hoping to embark on a regional tour next year. “We have good relationships with some really exciting theatres in the north of England, so it’d be great to see what the reaction is up there. It’s always good to try and share the work with as many audiences as possible – one of the cornerstones of Bag of Beard is an idea of a national ensemble, as half our company is London based and the other half hailing from Yorkshire, so that’s the aim, is to share the show up there.

“We hope that the audience will leave with questions, stimulated minds and a sense of unease when considering where the characters will go next. This play evokes a sense of a generation devoid of a cause and one which tries to fill that hole with so much; politics, memes, nostalgia etc. We hope the question of how the generation can hope to survive in the real world is raised. But conversely, we hope they have a bloody good laugh!”

Book now for Renaissance Men at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November.

Interview: BoxLess Theatre, LOOP

Opening next month at Theatre N16, LOOP is the debut production from BoxLess Theatre. The show charts three generations of one family, from 1965 to the present day, and explores how they evolve, change and fall in love along with the music that they listen to.

Resident Writer Alexander Knott and Artistic Director Zoë Grain collaborated on the creation of LOOP, combining words and moves with music from the 60s, 80s and present day. “The show was inspired by Zöe, who knew she wanted to do a piece that was intrinsically about music, and how it can be the soundtrack to our lives,” explains Alexander. “That, and the image of a Walkman and a set of 80s headphones. From there we brainstormed the characters and arrived at different ways of how they could be related. It was quite late on in the writing that it was apparent that they were all one family – for a while, it was just a series of unconnected vignettes, but now it’s more of a sequential story.”

“The project was jumpstarted when Second Sons Theatre asked us to devise a ten minute piece for their ‘Play Time’ festival of new writing, last September,” continues Zoë. “Alexander worked up some draft monologues and we devised a short scene, that gave the essence of the play. Half a year down the line, the rest of the play is written and that extract now comes in the middle of the story. Actors Aaron Price and Rubie Ozanne are reprising their roles as ‘The Boy’ and ‘The Girl’, with Emily Thornton and James Demaine completing the cast.”

Choreographer Zoë set up BoxLess Theatre last year, after graduating from Italia Conti. “My aim has always been to make physical theatre something accessible to people of different disciplines and experience, not just for classically trained dancers,” she explains. “The training at Italia Conti Acting, where the cast and creative team met, has always shown movement as a way of expressing the story of a play in a very immediate way, and BoxLess is taking this a step further with a piece that combines physical theatre and new writing. Dance for everyone, essentially, and not just for the few.”

After months in development, the show finally opens on 6th June at Balham’s Theatre N16. “We’re all feeling excited, with a definite hint of butterflies, and there’s still plenty to do,” says Alexander. “But N16 is a great space – intimate, yet versatile, and with a lot of atmosphere. The preview of the show was performed there, so we feel like we know how to move in that space. Rehearsals have a great, collaborative energy to them, with everyone bringing ideas to the table. There’s always going to be that ‘going out on a limb’ nervousness when creating a new piece of theatre, but the show is taking shape, and we’re starting to see it come to life.”

LOOP offers a great opportunity to enjoy a bit of musical nostalgia, but there’s a lot more to the show than a simple trip down memory lane. “We’d like audiences to go away with that feeling of having seen a satisfying story. Seeing the characters grow and change – after all, the story covers the best part of 60 years – and how something that happens to one of them in 1965 might influence choices made in the present, should be really engaging. We want the movement to be as slick and expressive as it can be – there’s something intensely satisfying in well-executed physical theatre. Also, perhaps, leaving the theatre with a sense of hopefulness; the play is, we think, about hope, about looking forward and letting go of the past.”

Book now for LOOP at Theatre N16 from 6th-10th June.