Interview: Ffion Jones, Merely Theatre

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.

Review: I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Carousel

As I took my seat last night for Pop-Up Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I heard someone explain, ‘It’s basically Romeo and Juliet without any of the nice bits.’ Which, as it turns out, is a pretty accurate summary of this opera by Vincenzo Bellini. By the time our story begins, Romeo and Giulietta are already embroiled in a secret love affair, helped by their friend Lorenzo, and Romeo’s on the run for killing her brother. Giulietta’s father, Capellio, decides to marry her off to Tebaldo, and in desperation she fakes her death. But Lorenzo’s prevented from getting a message to Romeo, who – as in Shakespeare’s version of the tale – goes to Giulietta’s tomb to kill himself.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Now, I haven’t seen a huge amount of opera, but I think it’s fair to assume this was quite a unique experience, even for those who have. First, the venue. Pop-Up Opera are a touring company who bring opera to new audiences in unusual locations; this particular tour will take them to the Asylum Chapel in Peckham, the London Museum of Water and Steam, and the spectacular Minack Theatre in Cornwall. In comparison, our venue – the basement bar of a restaurant in Marylebone – may not have been the most romantic, but it was still a suitably intimate and atmospheric setting, and my only complaint was that occasionally events took place on the other side of a concrete pillar.

The classic love story of Romeo and Giulietta has been reworked by stage director James Hurley into a modern thriller, in which the Montecchi and Capuleti are rival gangs locked in a long-running feud. Instead of swords and potions, this version has guns and pills, and unfolds on a set illuminated by harsh electric light and littered with crumpled paper and overturned chairs. From the outset, there are moments of brutal violence (I know I wasn’t the only audience member who flinched when Capellio advanced on a captive Romeo holding a pair of pliers), and the fact that we know how the story’s going to end does nothing to dispel the tension in what turns out to be a gripping drama.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

In another original twist, Harry Percival’s English captions (inspired by Eurotrash, apparently) don’t seek to translate everything word for word, instead summarising each scene in the style of an old black and white movie. This has a dual effect: it means we get to concentrate on the action, and not spend an entire evening staring at the wall, and it allows a little more artistic licence with the translation – I can’t help wondering how Bellini would have felt about his hero being called an ‘asshole’, but it made me smile all the same.

But the modern translations, as amusing as they occasionally are, don’t detract from the beauty and emotion of Bellini’s score, or the quality of the performances – proving once and for all that you don’t necessarily need to understand every word to appreciate what’s going on. Each member of our cast – there are two on the tour – gives it everything, and it’s easy to forget there are only five of them, and that they’re backed by a single piano (played by musical director Berrak Dyer), not a full orchestra. Flora McIntosh’s Romeo is brash and reckless, while Cliff Zammit-Stevens is a sympathetic Tebaldo; an enemy he may be, but it’s clear he genuinely loves Giulietta and is as broken by her ‘death’ as his rival. Andrew Tipple’s proud Capellio is every inch the mafia boss, concerned only with family honour, even if it means rejecting his beloved daughter, and Matthew Palmer, in stark contrast, is a far gentler presence as the lovers’ mutual friend Lorenzo.

But it’s Alice Privett who gives the most memorable – and emotional – performance as Giulietta, a young woman caught between love and duty, and pulled this way and that by the headstrong men in her life. Her visible pain during the lovers’ final farewell means that emotions inevitably run high offstage as well as on.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Pop-Up Opera’s aim is to make opera accessible to a wider audience, people who may perhaps have dismissed it in the past as pretentious or boring. In this they certainly succeed, taking a classic story and giving it a modern twist, so that it feels fresh and exciting. And while it’s clear that they’re a company with a cheeky sense of humour, this doesn’t come at the expense of a high quality performance.

So if you think opera’s not for you, maybe give these guys a try, before you decide for sure…

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Theatre round-up: 19 July 2015

Just the two trips this week…

Shakespeare’s R&J

A unique take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which four students at a strict boys’ boarding school read extracts from the play to each other after class. What starts out as a bit of fun soon turns more serious as story and real life merge, and the boys are forced to confront their feelings of love, jealousy and friendship. The result is funny, moving and at times violent, and though the words may be familiar, this is unlike any adaptation of Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen.

The play itself, by Joe Calarco, was written almost twenty years ago, and has been performed all over the world, including the West End. This production by the Chapel Lane Theatre Company features an impressive young cast, and will be at the Tabard Theatre until 8th August.

Shakespeare’s R&J review for

The Gathered Leaves

A family drama written by Andrew Keatley and directed by Antony Eden, The Gathered Leaves explores the complex relationships between three generations of the Pennington family. For the first time in seventeen years, the whole family are all together for the long Easter weekend, trying to put the past behind them in the face of an uncertain future.

An excellent cast is led by Jane Asher and Clive Francis as William and Olivia Pennington, along with Asher’s real-life daughter Katie Scarfe, and father-son duo Alexander and Tom Hanson. But for me, the star of the show is Nick Sampson, who’s delightful as the Penningtons’ autistic son, Samuel. The Gathered Leaves is a story of one family on the brink of significant change, but is also a more general reflection on what family really means. It’s on at Park Theatre until 15th August.

The Gathered Leaves review for

The Gathered Leaves and Shakespeare's R&J

Next week’s theatre

A Land Without People (Palindrome Productions), The Courtyard

To She Or Not To She (Joue le Genre), Morley College