Merely Theatre has just embarked on a new national tour with productions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night in repertory. But there’s a twist in these tales, as company member Ffion Jones explains:
“Each character, or set of characters, is played by both a male and female actor from the full company of ten. Each male-female pairing will play the same parts as each other across both shows.
“All of the actors are off-script before we begin and we rehearse very quickly but precisely, applying what we call our ‘Merely Principles’ from the get-go. The principles are a set of rules we all abide by in rehearsal to create exciting and audience focussed work. They include things like striving to tell the story at all costs and never looking out into the middle distance when we speak. Each actor within the male-female pairings gets tagged in and out whilst rehearsing scenes; this rotation process means that we get used to listening and responding to whichever actor happens to be in front of us, because we can perform with any combination of actors from the other four pairs.”
This unique approach to rehearsal and performance presents a number of challenges. “For example, I am playing only male characters in both plays, purely by chance,” says Ffion. “I can’t help but think about how an audience might receive or judge my performance in comparison to men in other productions. However, because I’ve been with the company for three years now, I have learned to embrace the freedom this can give me as a performer. I don’t really feel inhibited at all and I enjoy bringing the essential humanity to each part that I play and representing the character regardless of gender.”
Merely Theatre was founded in 2010 by Artistic Director Scott Ellis to perform stripped back productions of Shakespeare’s work, and evolved over time to become the first fully gender blind Shakespeare company. “I think that Scott and Merely Theatre are leading the way with gender-blind casting in such a humble, experimental and joyous way that I am so proud to be a part of,” says Ffion. “I was inspired by Scott and Simon’s vision to strip away the unnecessary in Shakespeare and present the heart of the matter. During 2014, Merely produced a season of Shakespeare with no props, no set and no costume. I think our company’s gender-blind ethos goes hand-in-hand so simply with this attitude and it also means that I don’t have to think twice about my gender limitations, which is so liberating and enriching for an actor.”
Following the success of last year’s rep productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, Merely Theatre’s 2017 tour brings us another double bill of classic Shakespeare. “Romeo & Juliet is arguably the most famous Shakespeare play,” says Ffion. “It’s renowned for its love story, but with our simplistic style and raw energy we also hope that we can depict the friendship, familial love and ultimate tragedy found within its poetry. It pairs itself beautifully with Twelfth Night, which showcases Merely’s humour and mischievous nature. It’s a raucous comedy of errors that allows us to really show our silly side as well as remaining true to the compassion of the characters.”
As a repertory company, Ffion explains, the team have been growing and progressing together as performers for a number of years. “Scott Ellis and Tatty Hennessey, who have co-directed on both tours, have developed their ideas on how to create great Shakespeare and we have all been working on our craft as actors from vocal technique to text work. All of this groundwork serves as the foundation for these shows which, hopefully, will be felt by our audiences in even slicker, more accessible shows. Interestingly enough last year was also the first time in quite a while that Merely weren’t working in-the-round. It may seem rather backward to any other theatre company that we had to work hard to adjust our style to end-on and proscenium arch spaces. Our aim is to create the audience feeling of involvement that in-the-round or outdoor theatre gives and bring that magic to the theatre royals.”
There’s been much debate in recent years about the decline of repertory theatre, but Ffion believes it still has much to offer, for both actors and audience. “Rep theatre allows a company of actors to expand their skills. It has allowed us to take risks, which has led to some great discoveries. Because we continue to make work with the same company of actors it means that we know each other really well and it creates short cuts in the rehearsal room. There’s no awkward ‘getting to know each other’, we know each other’s skills and talents and we know how to encourage each other to make the best work possible. If audiences like our work then they know that they are guaranteed a good show every time they come to see us, and they too can see us grow and continually surprise.”
The 2017 tour is giving Merely the chance to return to some familiar venues: “The joy of the tour is that we can travel the length and breadth of the UK, hopefully entertaining fellow Shakespeare-fans, inspiring the next generation of theatre-goers and introducing Shakespeare to people that may not have engaged with it thus far. I am particularly looking forward to a week touring Northern Ireland at the end of March; we are returning to a number of venues where the company had an incredibly warm welcome and an overwhelming and kind response to the shows. My male acting ‘twin’, Robert, was lucky enough to take that leg of the tour last year, so I can’t wait to see what all the fuss was about!”
So what can we expect from the tour? “You can expect to see a fresh and rarely seen approach to Shakespeare,” concludes Ffion. “Merely Theatre provides simple, energetic and accessible performances of the bard’s best works, affirming that he is indeed a writer that transcends the ages.”
Merely Theatre perform Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night on tour until 25th May. Visit their website for dates and venues.