The Rep Tide Turns

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Originally written for The Stage.

Repertory theatre might just be staging a comeback. While the Lyric Hammersmith undergoes major building work, the Secret Theatre company is occupying the untouched auditorium with a year-long programme of work driven by the ensemble. Elsewhere, Vicky Featherstone began her Royal Court tenure this summer with a festival featuring an ambitious weekly rep programme, while English Touring Theatre is exploring a repertory structure with Tonight at 8.30, its upcoming production of one-act Noël Coward plays.

The freshly vaunted advantages of the rep model will come as no surprise to The Faction. The company, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, has been working towards this model from the moment of its conception, guided by artistic director Mark Leipacher’s passion for ensemble theatre and muscular versions of classical texts. The company’s ambition is bold but simple: a permanent ensemble, a home venue and a rolling repertoire.

While many have mourned the decline of the great British repertory theatre, which acted as a fertile training ground for the likes of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, The Faction looks to the continent rather than to the past for its chief inspiration. The company’s model is drawn from that of German theatres like the Schaubühne in Berlin, where a large repertoire of plays is presented by a resident ensemble.

“The idea for The Faction was always an ensemble theatre company following the model of a German theatre,” Leipacher explains. “Because it doesn’t really exist over here; even when rep was alive and well, that’s not the format that our rep model had in the UK.”

What The Faction’s ensemble approach does share with the old British rep model, however, is its focus on the actor. At a recent conference, playwright Simon Stephens – who is currently working as a dramaturg for the Secret Theatre ensemble – suggested that the UK’s freelance culture “can stifle bravery in acting performance”. This is just what The Faction hopes to reverse.

“Any director will tell you it’s a requirement to try and make the rehearsal room a safe place,” says Leipacher, “so that an actor can arrive without the need for ego, without inhibitions, and have the confidence in order to experiment and to play. I think with an ensemble that’s inbuilt.”

Although The Faction is still some way from its ultimate aim of a permanent ensemble performing a repertoire of plays all year round, this will be the third consecutive year that the company has presented an eight-week rep season at the New Diorama Theatre. Leipacher tells me that these rep seasons are “essentially a small model of how we want to work full time”, with the plan being to slowly extend these towards a year-long programme. He admits that it’s a “gradual process”, but the final aim is unwavering.

This year’s programme represents a blend of old and new for the company. It is remounting its Peter Brook Award-winning production of Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers, which Leipacher describes as a “quintessential Faction show”, as well as returning to Shakespeare to tackle Hamlet for the first time. Completing the season is Thebes, an audacious attempt to weave together Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ accounts of the Oedipus dynasty. Unlike the more defined thematic threads of previous rep seasons, Leipacher says that “the only condition this year was that they had to be plays that really excited us as directors, as a company – meaty, big, epic material that played to our strengths, that pushed us into new areas.”

Epic is the key word there. This sense of scope – both in terms of narrative and emotion – is what keeps The Faction returning again and again to classical plays. Leipacher insists that “there is no better material”, citing the plays’ timelessness and “universal themes” in contrast to new writing’s preoccupation with the zeitgeist. “It’s much more about human experience, about jealousy, about love, about responsibility,” he continues, “something that’s applicable to everybody and to any time. The purpose of doing the productions now is to do them for this time.”

As much as Leipacher enthuses about what excites The Faction as artists, the company is equally focused on its audience. Leipacher is adamant that repertory theatre offers a richer experience for theatregoers, with whom the company is able to “extend a dialogue” over a longer period. Audiences also have the opportunity to see the ensemble in a range of different roles, which Leipacher argues allows them to “enjoy the craft of the production and the ethos of the company as part of their theatregoing experience”.

Geoff Colman, Head of Acting at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, is in agreement with The Faction about the advantages of the rep model for both theatre makers and audiences, describing it as “a place of experience, experiment, continuing development and trust”. He is also optimistic about the potential for bringing back rep under a new guise, adding, “I am convinced that other theatre makers will be looking at this reinvention of rep very closely”.

Discussing the experiments in ensemble theatre that are cropping up across British theatre, Leipacher says that “any movement towards that European model here in the UK is exciting”, but stresses the importance of longevity. It remains to be seen whether projects like Secret Theatre will go on to create longer term change, but Leipacher hopes that the Lyric and others will make the same commitment to ensemble theatre that is central to The Faction’s ethos. “Hopefully it’s the beginning of a tidal shift.”

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