Originally written for Exeunt.
“The text always comes first.” These emphatic words from artistic director Mark Leipacher might well serve as a creative philosophy for the text-focused Faction Theatre Company. As we chat in one of the rehearsal rooms at the labyrinthine Bridewell Theatre, where the company are poring over Mary Stuart downstairs, I am told that every read-through is conducted “as if we hadn’t read the play before”.
The Faction is an ensemble-based theatre company dedicated to interpreting classic plays, producing their own brand of “big, classical, epic theatre”. When we meet, the company are in the middle of intense rehearsals for their upcoming rep season at the New Diorama Theatre, an ambitious rolling programme of three plays, all incorporating the same cast of ten actors.
Leipacher and executive producer Kate Sawyer recognise that this traditional rep system is one that has largely fallen out of use in the UK. Their artistic inspiration instead comes from across the Channel; they aim to eventually run like a European theatre company, with a permanent ensemble, a home venue and a rolling repertoire of plays. Mounting their first full rep season in January and February is a decisive step in that direction.
“Rather than it being confusing, it actually clarifies things,” replies Sawyer when I ask her about the challenges of rep theatre. She compares the process to writing a university dissertation at the same time as studying additional courses, explaining that the plays all inform one another. Sawyer also believes that a rep season, as well as being more financially sustainable, provides more interest for the audience.
The trio of plays that Faction have chosen to perform in rep – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Strindberg’s Miss Julie – are linked by the theme of ‘women and power’ and all three, as Sawyer puts it, “refract each other”. Leipacher explains that while the thematic connection was “not entirely by accident”, the individual plays were selected first before it became clear that there was a gender political thread running through them.
If there is any other key defining element of Faction’s work, other than their attention to classical texts and their revival of the rep system, it is its distinctly physical style. Style, however, is never imposed at the expense of text. “Our style is physical and muscular and very bombastic,” says Leipacher, “but it always comes from the text. This is not a physical theatre piece inspired by a text; this is a production of a text and the aesthetic happens to be physical”.
At a time when there is an increasing focus on new writing, I ask Leipacher and Sawyer what so attracts them to classic texts. The reply is instant and decisive: “there is no better material,” states Leipacher. “If you want a theatrical experience, you need material that has real substance and grit and scope,” he continues. “These texts are still human; they still have universal truths in them.” Sawyer adds that “it might have been written 400 years ago, but it absolutely describes what you went through last week”.
One classic playwright who has had a particular influence on Faction is Schiller, a writer whose work is often neglected in this country. Hoping to turn this around, the company have decided to produce his complete dramatic works, culminating in the first ever London production of William Tell. The aim is to reinvent the public opinion of Schiller’s drama.
“It’s pure guts and passion,” enthuses Sawyer, contradicting the popular opinion of German classics as being heavy and dull. Leipacher goes on to explain that “all of those words that we use to describe our work and everything that excites us about our work, Schiller has those in spades. His characters are impulsive, willful creatures.”
The impression given by Faction, and one that turns out to be overwhelmingly true, is primarily of a hard-working company. There are few other theatre companies that would take on a challenge like the complete Schiller with such tenacity, but hard graft has been something of a philosophy for Faction from the beginning. They have not stopped working since their conception, regularly performing one production while preparing for the next – as Leipacher laughs, “we literally didn’t stop!”
This hard work has recently seen their efforts recognised with the Peter Brook Equity Ensemble Award. Although Faction say that it is too early to measure the real difference that winning this accolade will make to them as a company, Leipacher is quick to admit that “having some sort of marker or validation becomes important” when trying to stand out among the plethora of other young companies.
They attribute a measure of their success, however, to the support they have received, particularly from the New Diorama Theatre. This young theatre in the heart of London has provided a space exclusively for emerging theatre companies of the likes of Faction, who are now an associate company. Leipacher firmly states that “we certainly wouldn’t be at the stage we are at now without their support”.
The creative atmosphere at the New Diorama, I am told, is freeing yet supportive. “They really do enable,” says Leipacher, “it’s not just a case of ‘here’s the auditorium, bye’, they’re with you beyond that”. David Byrne, the theatre’s artistic director, is full of enthusiasm for the company, describing their work as having a “raw, young energy” and explaining that “they’re really dedicated to making sure they do it properly”.
Doing it properly is a concern that seems to be at the centre of Faction’s creative approach. For their next rep season, the company are already asking their audiences what they would like to see, using this input to help them provide what theatregoers are looking for.
As we wrap up our chat, I ask if the company has any tips for other young theatre companies who are just starting out. Leipacher’s response is simple: “just keep working”. After all, it’s a tactic that seems to be working out for Faction.
Photo: Richard Davenport