Folk, Birmingham Rep

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Music gives lives meaning. It gathers communities; marks the rituals of births, marriages and deaths; soundtracks moments of happiness and heartache. A song can be a solace or a spur, a souvenir or a scar.

For the trio of characters in Folk, it’s the music of the title that lends significance to these individuals’ ordinary existences. Tom Wells’s play is, in many ways, a classic story of unlikely friendships. At its centre is Winnie, a gleefully singing, swearing and smoking nun, whose enthusiastic knowledge of the saints is only matched by her love for a good jig. On Friday nights, she’s joined for a sing-song and a pint of Guinness by her quiet best friend Stephen, a man who never quite got the hang of life. Where Winnie is all vivacity, Stephen is all reserve.

Lobbed into their lives like the brick she sends smashing through Winnie’s window, teenager Kayleigh is the improbable third member of their makeshift folk group. Unfolding over a series of their Friday evening jam sessions, the play slowly envelops us in these people’s lives. Bit by bit, Kayleigh opens up about her problems and worries, while Winnie and Stephen strive to conceal theirs. The supposed goal is an Easter Folk Night at the local church, thrust by Winnie upon a reluctant Stephen and Kayleigh, but really it’s the friendships between the three characters that are gradually built up through their playing and singing.

And that’s it. Folk is a slight little thing, its ambitions as modest as those of its characters, yet it’s sort of exquisite in its own tender, unassuming way. It gives the same measured, compassionate attention to unremarkable people and unremarkable lives as Barney Norris’s gentle, muted Eventide or the plays of Robert Holman. Like the writers of folk songs, Wells has an ear for the everyday rhythms of small joys and sadnesses. These things deserve to be sung about too, he seems to be saying.

In terms of plot, it’s easy enough to see where everything is headed, but at heart this is a piece that’s more about character than it is about story. The attention of Tessa Walker’s unshowy production is likewise firmly fixed on the people at its centre. Bob Bailey’s bare frame of a set, filled with the cosy religious paraphernalia of Winnie’s life, is a scaffold for these lives to hang on, while Walker’s direction creates vital breathing space in which the characters can discover one another. Silence and song say as much as words.

As the irrepressible Winnie, Connie Walker vibrates with constant energy. Even when sat down talking, her legs jitter to an inner beat, and when the music starts up she’s instantly transformed, leaping into jigs that are exhausting just to watch. It’s no wonder weary exasperation seems to radiate in waves from Patrick Bridgman’s Stephen. But there’s warmth and care, too, in her uncompromising, non-stop approach to life. Those sentiments are infectious, thawing gruffly protective Stephen’s initially frosty attitude towards Kayleigh and visibly softening the brittle, seemingly self-sufficient exterior of Chloe Harris’s confused teenager. As they play music together, the distance between these three very different people simply slides away.

Folk music is, as Kayleigh puts it, “centuries of troubles and struggles and not-to-worrys”; it’s tunes that lodge in the head like “little ribbons, half-remembered”. In Wells’s play, those songs become tools for living, at the same time as sounding an empathetic ode to lives half-lived and the stories that are so often left untold.

Photo: Graeme Braidwood.

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Captioned and signed performances have become common in theatre, with BSL interpreters and LED displays a familiar presence at the side of the stage. But theatres are increasingly making their work accessible for deaf and disabled audiences in a more creative, integrated fashion and are placing issues of access right at the heart of their design.

Graeae theatre company’s touring production of Jack Thorne’s play The Solid Life of Sugar Water, which arrives at the National Theatre in London this week, imaginatively incorporates live captioning at all of its performances. Birmingham Rep, meanwhile, is preparing to open a new version of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector with an integrated cast of deaf, disabled and able-bodied performers. Rather than being hidden away, the latter show’s audio describer and sign language interpreters will be incorporated as characters within the world of the play and have been involved in the production right from the start.

Roxana Silbert, artistic director of Birmingham Rep, is enthusiastic about the ways in which creative access can open up aspects of Gogol’s play. “Sign language is great for The Government Inspector,” she says, “because there are a lot of secrets and lies in the play and a lot of people who are saying things that other people don’t understand. So having that second language enhances what the play is already trying to do.”

The show’s aesthetic has been affected in more subtle ways by the access needs of its performers. “Once you start looking at it from the actors’ point of view and what they need to make the stage work for them, actually what it does is make the stage a really interesting place,” Silbert says. The set for The Government Inspector suggests the lobby of a hotel, with various levels accessed by ramps and a lift as well as stairways and ladders.

Graeae has championed disabled artists and accessibility since it was founded in 1980. Those decades of work are now informing new initiatives aimed at improving access and widening opportunities for disabled artists across the sector. One of these is Ramps on the Moon, a collaborative network of theatres being funded by Arts Council England and supported by Graeae to create three new pieces of touring theatre that put disabled artists and audiences at their heart. The Government Inspector is the first of these.

Graeae’s Amit Sharma, the director of The Solid Life of Sugar Water, is also interested in how access can be incorporated in ways that speak to the themes of the piece. Thorne’s play tells the story of a couple attempting to overcome grief and regain intimacy. The whole show is set in the protagonists’ bedroom and takes an incredibly candid approach to relationships, sex and the difficulty of communication.

“Because of the nature of the text and it being very explicit in how it’s describing certain sexual acts, I made the decision very early on of not using British Sign Language,” says Sharma. Instead, captions are projected on to the bed that the two characters share, which the audience see as if from above. “When we were working with the set and the elements of access … we always said there are three characters in the play: there are the actors and there’s the bedroom,” he says, stressing the importance of the design. The prominence of the captioning in this intimate shared space highlights the play’s themes of communication – and lack of it. As Sharma puts it, “to have those words spelt out gives it an extra meaning, an extra layer”.

Within the play, references to the specific disabilities of the performers are incidental rather than integral. “We just went for the actors who felt right for the roles,” says Sharma. After Genevieve Barr and Arthur Hughes had been cast, Thorne made small changes to the script to refer in passing to Barr’s deafness and Hughes’s arm impairment – details that are always secondary within the narrative. “Disability is irrelevant,” Sharma says. “It’s the story that matters.”

The Solid Life of Sugar Water was staged at the Edinburgh festival last summer where it was one of many shows representing a game-changing year for disabled artists at the fringe. It prompted audiences and theatre-makers to think about accessibility in different ways. This kind of work, however, requires support. In addition to the backing of the Arts Council, which has awarded £2.3 million of funding to Ramps on the Moon, Silbert stresses the importance of safeguarding schemes such asAccess to Work. “It is about performers who have specific requirements being able to get the Access to Work support they need,” she says. “That’s where the problem is going to lie, not in theatre funding.”

Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Playing the Fool

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There is a common misconception about the origin of Told by an Idiot’s name. Most people tend to assume – “quite understandably”, co-artistic director Paul Hunter admits – that it is a quote from Macbeth. Instead, it acts as a gesture towards the company’s perspective. The Idiots aren’t interested in typical heroes; they prefer to look at narratives from the edges, picking up the fools who usually provide the comic relief and dumping them right in the centre of the action.

This skewing of narrative focus says a lot about Told by an Idiot’s approach. The company, who are this year celebrating their 21st anniversary, are committed to their own distinctive brand of theatrical anarchy, one that walks a giddy tightrope between the silly and the serious. Using comedy as a vital tool, they bring clowning to dark or cerebral topics in a way that makes their theatre accessible without sacrificing intelligence.

“I don’t think theatre should be elite,” insists Hunter. “Not to say that you still can’t do difficult, interesting, profound things, but you can do that in such a way that lots of people can engage in it.”

Their current production, Never Try This At Home, is a case in point. The show, which playfully prods at the dark underbelly of 1970s children’s TV, was born out of a provocation from Birmingham Rep’s artistic director Roxana Silbert. Asked to work on a show rooted in the city, Birmingham born and bred Hunter lighted upon a memorable childhood appearance on Tiswas, the chaotic Saturday morning magazine show that was recorded in Birmingham’s ATC/Central television studios. Although Hunter and the company were always interested in exploring the uncomfortable edge of the behaviour exhibited on such shows, real life events soon overtook the piece they were working on.

“When we started two years ago, none of this was in the news at all,” says Hunter, alluding to the Operation Yewtree revelations that now form an unavoidable backdrop for the show. While Hunter insists that this cannot be hidden or ignored, he was keen that the show remained “robustly comic” and operated on its own terms, rather than becoming a vehicle for exploring the scandals unfolding in the news.

“For a show that’s incredibly anarchic, we were very rigorous about how we presented the material,” Hunter explains, adding, “I was very clear that I wanted a completely fictitious world.” Their fabricated Tiswas equivalent is Shushi, a show that was abruptly cancelled in the seventies following an escalating series of catastrophes broadcast live on air. While there are certainly parallels with real behaviour and situations, Hunter stresses that the show’s power lies in its lack of specificity. “As soon as it becomes specific, it becomes too small,” he argues. “Because theatre’s a metaphor, for me it doesn’t hold a lot of water when you become too literal.”

Watching back old footage of Tiswas and its like during the research and development of the show has been an eye-opening experience for the company. “Even stuff that’s seemingly innocent, you go wow, I can’t believe they’re doing that,” says Hunter. This contemporary vantage point is reflected in the staging of the piece, which is framed with a modern day documentary looking back at Shushi’s demise. This structure allows audiences to challenge the habitually misogynistic and racist attitudes they see in the seventies segments, Hunter explains, but also to question the behaviour of the 21st century presenter, whose prejudices are “more insidious and more subtle”.

 

The bold discomfort of the piece – “there are moments when it’s literally buttock-clenching” – is layered with Told by an Idiot’s characteristic humour and anarchy. The chaos, confusion and custard pies of shows like Tiswas have all been retained, while brave front row audience members are being ominously equipped with plastic macs. “It sort of explodes off the stage,” warns Hunter.

While Never Try This At Home stops just shy of direct audience involvement in the action, Told by an Idiot have always believed in the importance of acknowledging an audience’s presence; “we never ignore them,” Hunter emphasises. This awareness of the live theatrical situation, he believes, is central to the work’s success, and is what it can offer audiences over film and television.

“We want the feeling that we are making it up,” Hunter says simply. This, he recalls, was the primary impetus behind Told by an Idiot’s formation in the early nineties: “Initially it wasn’t about starting a company, it was about doing a show, and it was about doing a show that was ours, that we had made up”. After the success of that first show, On The Verge of Exploding, the company quickly settled on another driving creative principle for their work: not doing the same thing twice.

As if to demonstrate the variety of their output, the other show that Told by an Idiot have coming up this year is a world away from the custard pies and casual sexism of Never Try This At HomeMy Perfect Mind, returning for a second run at the Young Vic in September, intertwines the story of classical actor Edward Petherbridge’s recovery from a stroke with text from King Lear, the title role of which Petherbridge was rehearsing for at the time of the stroke. The show is performed by Petherbridge and Hunter; a Lear and his fool.

It is, in many ways, an improbable pairing. “On paper, the notion of me and Edward Petherbridge as a double act is very unlikely,” Hunter concedes. But Told by an Idiot have a habit of seeking out challenging and surprising collaborations, from working with poet Carol Ann Duffy to being commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Typically, these partnerships are the result of a gut instinct on the part of the company. “I use the word hunch a lot,” says Hunter. “It’s just a feeling about something.”

While on paper My Perfect Mind’s premise is absurd, in practice Hunter’s hunch pays off. Petherbridge’s theatrical anecdotes and acerbic asides are delicately balanced by Hunter’s zany tomfoolery, just as the tragic poetry of Lear is offset by the clowning that surrounds it. Here, in the marriage between the solemn and the ridiculous, is where Hunter and Told by an Idiot have drawn the creative inspiration that has kept them going for the last 21 years. “That’s what interests me, that you can have those moments of comic ludicrousness right up against some of the most extraordinary writing ever written.”