Interview: The Lark (Bellfield, Portobello 4 – 8 June ’19)

“Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.”

WHAT: “Joan of Arc. Saint, saviour or someone who heard voices?

Against the backdrop of one of the world’s longest wars, a 17-year-old peasant girl led an army of men into battle and carved a victory that defined France. She claimed God told her to do it; the church says she’s a witch and should be burnt alive.

Jean Anouilh’s classic play tells the tale of how Joan convinced the church, the state – and her dad – to let her tackle an apparently impossible feat. And then plays witness at her trial: a nineteen-year-old uneducated woman held to account for her successes by the world’s most educated men.”

WHO: Claire Wood, Director

MORE? Here!


Why ‘The Lark’?

I’ve always loved the story of Joan of Arc. I was brought up Catholic so feel as if I’ve always known the story. I didn’t realise how much of a cult comes with her story. Look up Joan of Arc tattoos on Pinterest – it’s incredible. I discovered the plays as an adult. At first I was interested in the story of a young peasant woman who claimed God was talking to her – much to the outrage of all the educated men in the church who assumed that only they had a direct line to the Lord’s intentions. Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.

One of the characters in the play, Bishop Cauchon, who has his own darkly sinister agenda, says “when a man can keep his dignity and purpose in that loneliness, in that silence of a vanished God, that is when he is truly great.” Joan’s story is relevant to activists and political prisoners, religious or not, across the world.

The real Joan lived 600 years ago but looking at people like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, the story also feels incredibly current. They’re both about the same age as Joan was, both doing incredible things in their field. This is a slice of history that has all sorts of messages about the courage and determination needed to hold your ground in the face of fierce opposition.

Do you see Joan as a revolutionary prime mover, fighting for the timeless cause; or was she simply a pawn on the familiar medieval chessboard promoting the self-interest of the real players?

She was both. Isn’t Greta Thunberg? Joan was fighting to get France out of the control of the English. Getting the rightful king crowned was a significant step towards that. At the same time – to my modern day mind! – she was fighting for the right, as a woman, to do the things she wanted to do. To wear what she wanted to – which wasn’t a skirt. To be listened to. To be taken seriously. To make a difference. Rather than festering away in skirts in her sleepy little French village.

Anouilh (and translator Gill Taylor ) do a brilliant job of condensing the history but if you look at what actually happened, it looks as if Joan’s confidence did finally outstrip her ambition. She started losing battles, her soldiers started abandoning her. She first attempted to march on Paris to drive the English out of France’s capital city – without the king’s permission. And then it all started going wrong. The history doesn’t all fit in the play necessarily – or we’d be there for hours!

But back to your question, at the same time as she was trying to achieve all these things, the establishment were busy there using her for their own ends. And this comes through really neatly in the script. The king’s mother-in-law, Yolande, trying to persuade the king to see Joan as she might help give him some much-needed celebrity sparkle. The Church’s various representatives greeting her with suspicion and then conspiring to squash her when their godly status has been affirmed. The army taking pains to point out that she’s nothing but a puppet soldier – albeit a puppet who achieved more than they had in fifty years of fighting. Few of the characters in Anouilh’s play have any interest in her as a person and are interested only in what Joan can achieve for them.

What makes Gill Taylor’s new translation of the original special?

It’s easy to tell this story in a way that’s very black and white. She was certainly hearing god talking to her. The church thought she was lying and burnt her. It’s my bugbear with the Shaw version of the story. I love Anouilh’s script for acknowledging the convenience of this girl turning up at a time when the country was in a political mess and had lost its sense of self. Joan gave them an opportunity to rediscover that. Where Christopher Fry’s translation from the 1950’s feels very much like a script from the fifties, Gill Taylor’s script does a brilliant job of highlighting how current the story is. Joan’s dad swaggers about cursing his daughter for the shame she’ll bring on the family with her claims of hearing voices – then calls her a slut for sneaking about in the fields meeting someone he’s certain is an illicit boyfriend rather than the holy St Michael. Gill’s use of the sort of language we use now to diminish women – particularly topical now as gender equality is so high on the public agenda – make the story that happened six hundred years ago feel really current.

What will a band and choir add to the mix?

At one level, we’re performing the show in a church – so it seemed rude not to have a choir. The shape of what’s now the performing space was perfectly suited to locating the choir in the balcony above what used to be the altar, acting as real live angels on high!

Looking purely at the words in the script, and getting your head around all the protagonists in the story and their respective agendas, it’s easy to lose sight of contemporary resonances. The pop music we’ve woven into the story is there as a reminder that these are all issues we’re still tussling with today.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

What a big story this is! Unusually for that time in history, we’ve inherited an enormously thorough record of her story as the transcripts from her trial still survive. The trial lasted for over 80 days, Joan was on her feet for 12 hours a day being quizzed by a conveyor belt of clerics trying to catch her out, and throughout her interrogation, her story remained remarkably, impressively consistent. The one thing she refused to tell the court was what her angels looked like. She said that was between her and god.

I would love to have known at the start of rehearsals whether Joan was really hearing God talking to her. Really hearing some sort of voice in her head. Or capitalising on prophecies that had been doing the rounds for several centuries – which she would have heard from travellers visiting their house as she grew up – about a virgin girl who would come from the countryside to save France.

There’s a fabulous podcast by an Italian professor called Daniele Bolleli (‘History on Fire‘) that sees him reviewing all of the evidence and concluding that we can’t possibly tell whether she was mad, whether she’s was God’s spokesperson on earth or whether her talent was putting herself in the right place at the right time – and consequently, having a ball doing all the things that women weren’t allowed to do at the time. I’ve been boring the poor cast with the history – as most of the cast are based on known historical figures – since we started rehearsals.

So I wish I’d known the answer before we set off. But I suspect that the reason Joan’s story continues to fascinate us – is precisely because we don’t know that answer. And that’s what makes it such a brilliantly intriguing tale.

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Interview: Hand to God (Assembly Roxy 9 – 13 April ’19)

“I wish I had appreciated how difficult it is to focus when you’re laughing your head off!”

WHO: David Grimes, Director

WHAT: “Mild-mannered, shy Jason has sought solace in his mother’s Christian puppet ministry after the death of his father. In the basement of a conservative church in Cypress, Texas, Jason discovers a blossoming talent for puppetry and thinks that things might just turn out okay. His mom and Pastor Greg seem pleased, the local bully is largely indifferent, and his puppetry has even caught the eye of the cute girl in the youth group.

But the youth group has a monster in their midst: Jason’s puppet, Tyrone. As Tyrone’s foul-mouthed, irreverent, and devilishly funny influence over Jason steadily grows, no one’s secrets are safe. Not content with mere anarchy, Tyrone won’t be satisfied until
he’s dragged everyone to hell and back.

Is Tyrone simply Jason’s voice of grief and rage, or is Tyrone something far more sinister? Is Tyrone what he claims to be: the devil?

Hand to God, a play the New Yorker called Sesame Street meets The Exorcist, is a hilarious, lightening-paced, very adult comedy that explores the startling fragile nature of faith, morality, and familial ties that bind.”

WHERE: Assembly Roxy

DATES: 9 – 13 April (not Friday 12)

TIMES: 20:00

MORE: Click Here!


Why ‘Hand to God’?

I was fortunate to see ‘Hand to God’ in the West End in 2016, multiple times.  Perhaps it’s my southern US upbringing, but the play really resonated with me.  I found it to be one of the funniest plays I had ever experienced, and also one of the most moving and thought-provoking.  At the interval of my first viewing, I was already thinking about how much I wanted to get my hands on the material.  I come from the same area of the US that the play is set in.  I understand these characters.  I know them.  And yes, I’ve actually seen these youth ministries… I probably even participated in them during my childhood!  While the events may be exaggerated for humour, they are absolutely rooted in a US reality.

This is famously a script with a lot of premise and a lot of edge.  What’s at its heart?

‘Hand to God’ uses shock and extreme humour to slip important issues and an emotional punch past your defences.  Yes, the sweary puppets are funny.  Sure, the ending is gruesome.  Yes, the puppet sex is outrageous and you’ll hate yourself for laughing at Margery and Timothy, but you won’t be able to stop yourself from laughing.  All the while, the play delivers a deep message about grief, family, hope and healing.  After the laughter ends, you’ll still be thinking about the deeper messages and moments from the play.

Have you ever worked with puppets before?  And will you again?

I had a limited amount of experience with puppets prior to ‘Hand to God’.  I wasn’t a newbie, but hardly an expert.  Thankfully, most of the performers who manipulate the puppets were in the same boat.  Two had been in productions of Avenue Q previously.  Our puppets are dual arm rod puppets, which make them more difficult to manipulate.  We allowed for a longer rehearsal schedule to give the actors plenty of time to practice with their puppets.  We also built all of the puppets from scratch, as opposed to hiring them in.  Creating the puppets ourselves allowed us to tailor each puppet to meet its specific needs.  I’ve really enjoyed working with the puppets – they know their lines, always hit their blocking, and never complain!  I certainly wouldn’t shy away from another show with puppets, but the show would have to live up to the amazing script that we’ve had with ‘Hand to God’.

What will the EGTG production have that the original production missed?

We hope an audience!  In all seriousness, our production has a lot of heart.  Everyone involved is passionate about this project.  The performers have thrown themselves in with everything they’ve got and have produced a show that is really special.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I wish I had appreciated how difficult it is to focus when you’re laughing your head off!


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Interview: All About My Mother (21 – 24 Nov ’18)

“I still find it breath-taking that Almodovar was talking about gender, identity and sexuality in the totally commonplace way he did nearly 20 years ago.”

WHO: Ross Hope, Director

WHAT: “Spain, 1999.

In Barcelona, Manuela makes a new life for herself after the death of her son, working on a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She is reunited with an old transgender friend, Agrado, who she finds working as a prostitute, and makes new friends in the shape of Rosa, a terminally ill young nun, and Huma Rojo, the famous and formidable grand dame stage actress whom her late son idolised.As Manuela rebuilds her life in a new city with a new job and new friends, her son’s estranged father returns to her life with tragic and life-changing consequences for them all.”

WHERE: Assembly Roxy 

DATES: 21 – 24 November

TIMES: 19:30

MORE: Click Here!


Why All About My Mother?

Honestly, it’s quite a simple reason. I read the script after seeing the film and enjoyed it so much I knew wanted to direct it. I buy and read a lot (and I mean a lot) of play scripts and I bought this one only because as I was curious about how they would adapt the film into a play. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. The last time I reacted to a script like this was when I read ‘Jerusalem’ by Jez Butterworth, which I was also lucky enough to direct, I knew if I felt the same way as I did about Jerusalem I wanted to direct this too.

You first saw the movie version at the Filmhouse in 2000. Has the story aged well?

I think it has, although you would expect me to say that wouldn’t you? At its heart, this is a story about family, not necessarily the family you are born into but the family you create for yourself; friendship and acceptance. These themes are still important, interesting and relevant nearly 20 years later. So this story of these characters creating families, forming friendships and gaining acceptance has aged perfectly well as far as I am concerned.

The film on which the play is based was a critical success (an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA) can audiences expect to see anything new in this adaptation?

The play is actually slightly different to the film. It is longer for one thing and the tale is told in a different, as you’d expect more theatrical and not cinematic way, and not all the characters in the film are present in this production. If you are an Almodovar aficionado and are wanting to compare the two you’ll just have to come to the Assembly Roxy in November and see where the differences are for yourself!

Art tends to imitate life, but do you think All About My Mother has played a part in developing and progressing our attitudes over the last couple of decades?

I still find it breath-taking that Almodovar was talking about gender, identity and sexuality in the totally commonplace way he did nearly 20 years ago. I am not sure I realised myself then how progressive it was for the late 1990’s as I was a lot younger then because it truly was and still is. Maybe art does imitate life, as you say, but I also think art gives life the kick starts it needs to get to where we are. A lot of the attitudes that are being challenged in the play still need to be challenged today and as much as we have come so far as a progressive society, we still have a long way to go.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I wish I had remembered what an undertaking rehearsing in a small rehearsal space was like. It might have stopped me telling the cast, night after night, “you’ll have more room in the venue!”


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skirt (Royal Scots Club: 6-11 Aug: 18:30: 90 mins)

“Current and compelling”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Becs is leader of the opposition party in Scotland, and first choice of its head honchos to take over as party leader at Westminster (with a good chance of becoming Prime Minister at the next general election). But when opportunity knocks, she’s got to act quickly, and what unfolds is the story of how Becs reaches her decision to follow her dream to lead the country – or not. She must consider her mother’s degenerative disease, her children (one of which is fostered), her best friend’s family breakdown, and the fact that she’s single – wouldn’t having a partner make her so much more electable?

The themes and issues presented in skirt are very current, and it’s compelling to see how the various conflicting interests might be resolved in today’s social climate. The overt opinions of her political colleagues elicit their fair share of gasps and giggles, though her personal politics and views are barely mentioned – that’s not what’s important here. Indeed, the wider discussion of the piece is about choice and the power we (especially women) have over our own destiny.

While Becs’s is the primary storyline within the play, the main scene (which makes up the bulk of the 90 minutes running time) is a birthday party for one of her friends, attended by a host of characters who all share their personal woes. Throughout this scene it’s quite challenging to keep on top of who everybody is, how they are related, and how their story connects to the main narrative. Some interesting scenarios and tensions are shared, but as the characters leave one by one, it feels like there are many loose ends still to be tied up.

Indeed, what’s most frustrating about this performance is how many extraneous branches and avenues Claire Wood’s script attempts to sidle along simultaneously – for me there are simply too many characters and threads running through the piece detracting from the most important one, which could be expanded to give more depth and tension to the dilemma faced by the central character. There’s a lot of excess chat, meaning that important decisions and revelations come about far too quickly to be wholly believable.

From a performance perspective, it’s a tough ask for Helen Goldie as the leading lady to cut through the very busy scenes – especially early on – but in the quieter moments and political meetings she comes across as very natural and personable, carefully balancing sensitivity with authority. In addition, Leanne Bell impresses as moody teenager Bea, Gregor Haddow brings a pleasing calmness to proceedings as Toby, while Dan Sutton is wonderfully repugnant as politician TM.

Overall, it’s really encouraging to see a new piece of feminist writing on this topic being developed in Edinburgh, and while this version isn’t perfect, there is so so much potential for it to become a powerful piece worthy of large audiences. I hope this isn’t the last we see of it.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 9 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED