Interview: Nina Brazier and Hanna Grzeskiewicz, The Winter’s Tale

This Friday, RADA Studios Theatre will play host to a unique interpretation of The Winter’s Tale from award-winning contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. The hour-long piece combines live music with Shakespeare’s drama, focusing on the jealousy and fury of King Leontes when he believes his pregnant wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend and is carrying his baby.

“It’s the original Shakespeare play, pared down to an hour of its core elements and portrayed through a musical as well as a theatrical perspective,” explains director Nina Brazier, who adapted the original text for the production. “The Hermes Experiment are a group dedicated to pushing the boundaries of their craft, and it is their first project involving theatre.

“Alongside The Hermes Experiment, composer Kim Ashton and myself have led the devising process with five extraordinary actors: Christopher Adams, William McGeough, Sadie Parsons, Robert Willoughby and Louisa Hollway. The music plays an equal part as the text in bringing the drama to life, with the actors, the music and the musicians become intrinsically intertwined.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The Hermes Experiment are Héloïse Werner (soprano and co-director), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Marianne Schofield (double bass), Anne Denholm (harp) and Hanna Grzeskiewicz (producer and co-director) who explains, “We’re a contemporary ensemble made up of harp, clarinet, soprano and double bass. We are mainly a musical ensemble, but we are very interested in working with different art forms – we have worked with a photographer, dancers, and now also actors. Aside from work with other art forms we commission new music for our group, and have commissioned now 40 composers to write for us, arrange better known works, and improvise. We started in late 2013, soon after we all graduated from Cambridge University, which is where we all met – and we all wanted to do something unique and innovative musically.

“We’d been planning to do a project that fuses music and drama for a while – we were interested in what would happen if we brought all these creative minds together, and we hoped that the practice of the actors and the musicians would be enhanced by working with the other – and luckily we think it did! We had a few ideas, but eventually settled on Shakespeare: people know the plots so we could play around with it, the musicality of his language lends itself to working with music, and who doesn’t love Shakespeare!”

The show was developed during a residency at Aldeburgh Music in September 2016. “The devising process gave us permission to think in a completely new way about how we approached the text, and allowed us to explore Shakespeare from a musical as well as theatrical perspective,” says Nina. “During the process we used movement and gesture as much as text and music, feeling that we were creating a theatrical language that extended beyond the written and spoken word. As composer Kim Ashton said in his blog, we began ‘layering text, music and movement together in a variety of ways, such that each strand is dominant or subordinate at different moments, sharing equally in the unfolding of the narrative’.

“This heightened theatricality is fully integrated with the music, not only extending the emotions of the character but communicating the symbolic content of The Winter’s Tale.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The piece was first performed in a one night showcase at the Cockpit Theatre in December, where it was well received by critics. “It’s a completely new and original way of seeing Shakespeare,” says Nina. “Following our performance at the Cockpit, The Winter’s Tale was described as ‘groundbreaking’ (The Reviews Hub), ‘resourceful and inventive’ (The CUSP) and ‘skilfully crafted’ (London Theatre 1). The performance ‘gripped the capacity audience from beginning to end’ (Early Music Reviews) and was seen as ‘an exciting trend to start’ (Schmopera) with ‘tautly-directed action’ (The Evening Standard).”

The show is far from the only project for The Hermes Experiment, who have a busy year coming up. Hanna explains, “After The Winter’s Tale, we have about a month off and then we are performing as part of Colourscape Festival, we are doing a recital as part of the Park Lane Group concert series, and in November we are going to Russia to perform at a contemporary music festival in St Petersburg. We will be revealing even more projects we have coming up in the coming weeks so keep checking our website and social media for updates!”

Catch The Winter’s Tale at RADA Studios Theatre on Friday 11th August. And you can follow The Hermes Experiment on Twitter and Facebook for news and updates.

Review: I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre

I recently reviewed a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and while the play was excellent, I was reminded, not for the first time, of how much its conclusion bothers me. Hero, who’s just been publicly shamed on her wedding day, cheerfully takes back her fiancé and forgives everyone for doubting her, despite not a word of apology ever being offered. The audience’s attention returns to the more colourful characters of Benedick and Beatrice, and Hero – having served her purpose – is instantly forgotten.

David Fairs of GOLEM! is having none of that. His dark rearrangement of the text of Much Ado places Hero at the centre of the story – in more ways than one. Using only Shakespeare’s text, he’s created an entirely new story in which Hero’s dead and Beatrice (Sarah Lambie), Benedick (David Fairs) and Claudio (Conor O’Kane) meet in the chapel on the night before her funeral. In an attempt to ease his guilt over his treatment of her, Claudio decides to bring the warring Beatrice and Benedick together, with predictably amusing results. But there’s no escaping Hero this time, because her coffin dominates the room – many of the conversations take place quite literally over her dead body, and the shocking circumstances of her untimely death must eventually be dealt with.

Whether you know Much Ado or not doesn’t really matter. I Know You Of Old stands confidently on its own two feet as an original plot that in many ways is even more compelling – and certainly more intriguing – than its source material. Placing these three pivotal characters in Hero’s story into a pressure-cooker situation, where there’s nowhere to hide (though Benedick gives it a try), allows us to examine the dysfunctional relationships between them in a whole new light. And one thing’s for sure; while the play’s conclusion is rather open-ended, it’s far from unsatisfying.

Shakespeare lovers need not fear, though – by taking apart the text, GOLEM! aren’t being disrespectful, but instead demonstrating the astonishing versatility and enduring relevance of the words written so many centuries ago. In keeping with this, director Anna Marsland brings the story bang up to date; this is Shakespeare with iPads, motorcycle helmets, teddy bears and even Cher – suffice to say it isn’t your standard pre-funeral vigil. And yet somehow the 400-year-old text describes perfectly everything we can see, a reminder that while the world around us may change, human behaviour and emotions remain as messed up as they’ve ever been.

The play’s casting could hardly be more perfect. Conor O’Kane is every inch the heartbroken bridegroom, but with an appealing childlike quality that makes it easy to see how he could have been tricked into believing Hero’s guilt. All three actors are skilled comedians, and succeed in getting a laugh out of a single word or the simplest look or gesture; the verbal sparring between Sarah Lambie and David Fairs – who also starred together in Golem!’s previous production, the excellent Macbeths – is a comic delight (the layout of the theatre is such that watching their exchanges begins to feel like being on Centre Court at Wimbledon). But with Beatrice grieving for her cousin, their flirting takes on a darker edge that eventually spills over into something altogether more disturbing.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Anna Marsland’s production is its extraordinary attention to detail. There are real candles burning, a smell of incense in the air, and sombre music playing as we enter the dark chapel, and the stiflingly hot weather – however uncomfortable – conveniently helps to complete the claustrophobic effect. The use of modern technology isn’t just for show, either; the letter that Benedick reads out can be clearly seen on the iPad screen, as can the incriminating video he later views on his phone.

I Know You Of Old is an astonishing achievement, and a brave choice to take apart a play so many people know so well. David Fairs has succeeded because he’s used the opportunity to tackle some of the unfinished business in Shakespeare’s work – like the appalling, unpunished treatment of Hero, and what makes Beatrice and Benedick behave the way they do. Consequently it’s clear that this is not a gratuitous ripping up of a classic, but rather a fitting and respectful complement to the original, a gripping new tale which can be enjoyed by Shakespeare fans and newbies alike.

I Know You Of Old is at The Hope Theatre until 1st July.

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.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing at the Bridewell Theatre

The Tower Theatre Company begins each performance with an announcement of their next production – which is usually only a week or two (if that) in the future; in addition to this week’s Much Ado About Nothing, they’ve got four more plays lined up between now and mid-July. Yet even with such a hectic schedule, the quality of each production remains consistently high.

Perhaps it helps in this case that the Tower Theatre are no strangers to Much Ado About Nothing; in fact this is their eighth production (the first was way back in 1933). On this occasion, the play is directed by Jean Carr and John Morton with an Austen-esque vibe. This feels rather fitting since all the romantic misunderstandings in the story wouldn’t be out of place in one of Austen’s novels – though I suspect she might have had something to say about Shakespeare’s depiction of Hero; I can’t imagine Elizabeth Bennet forgiving her fiancé quite so easily for publicly shaming and dumping her at the altar.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

The story revolves around two main plots – that of Beatrice (Sarah Evans) and Benedick (Shane Sweeney), whose constant bickering hides from nobody but themselves the fact that they’re madly in love, and that of Hero (Asma Mani) and Claudio (Paul Isaacs), who fall in love at first sight but whose engagement comes to a swift and unhappy end on the wedding day after Claudio’s tricked into believing she’s been unfaithful. Somehow, in true Shakespeare comedy style, everything still ends happily – thanks largely to the intervention of local constable Dogberry (John Chapman) and his nice but dim band of minions.

In a strong cast, Sarah Evans and Shane Sweeney stand out with excellent comic performances as Beatrice and Benedick; taking obvious delight in their characters’ “merry war” when on stage together, they also have fun individually in the physical scenes as they dive behind screens and pillars to eavesdrop on their friends. Paul Isaacs and Asma Mani are equally well matched as the far too trusting lovers Claudio and Hero, and natural comedian John Chapman is a joy as Dogberry, whose good intentions are matched only by his hilariously terrible vocabulary.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Much Ado is probably one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays to follow, and this straightforward production is extremely accessible and thoroughly entertaining throughout. And if it all gets a bit ridiculous towards the end – well, we can blame Shakespeare for that. The show also looks great and has an infectious energy, the sun-kissed Mediterranean courtyard of Leonato’s home filled with ladies in colourful gowns and gentlemen in military uniform with nothing more pressing to do than sing, dance, fall in love and play matchmaker for their friends. As problematic as some of the gender roles undoubtedly are, and whether or not we subscribe to the view that the solution to all life’s unhappiness is to “get thee a wife”, this is at its heart a feel-good play, and another excellent and highly recommended production from the Tower Theatre.

Much Ado About Nothing is at the Bridewell Theatre until 20th May.

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.