The Faction Rep Season

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Putting to one side the rep system at venues like the National Theatre, which is more a question of scheduling than essential artistic structure, the idea of the repertory theatre company has all but evaporated from London’s theatre ecology. Which makes The Faction’s rep season at the New Diorama Theatre, its second annual season of this kind at the small theatre in Regent’s Place, both a rarity and an oddity. Interviewing the company last year, ahead of their first foray into the rep system that they hope will one day be their staple, they spoke of their desire to create “big, classical, epic theatre”, looking to the model of European ensemble theatres. Ambition is one quality they certainly don’t lack.

Despite The Faction’s aspiration to the “epic”, however, their work gains much of its power through its intimacy. In the black box studio of the New Diorama, where the company are currently presenting the trio of Three Sisters, Blood Wedding and the UK premiere of Schiller’s Fiesco, their muscular take on classic plays is gripping in its proximity. Just as last year’s heart-pumpingly visceral Mary Stuart ripped audible gasps from me as I sat mere metres away, the vibrations of their percussion-fuelled, passion-drenched Blood Wedding can be felt in the very bones. When the company are at their most thrilling, “big” is not one of the words that jumps to mind; instead it’s their attention to the small and their inventive use of the limited resources at their disposal that most impresses.

Thrilling as their work may sometimes be, there are gaps and falters in the company’s emerging aesthetic that become more evident in this second – and in some senses more ambitious – season. While previously the performers’ own bodies were their main material, with twisting limbs conjuring tempests and confining arms acting as unsettling prison bars, the addition of more external elements to their spare staging has produced mixed effects. The European influence makes itself more conspicuously if not always successfully felt, as animal masks take their ubiquitous but not entirely justified place inFiesco and the playing space forms the canvas for accumulating mess throughout Blood Wedding. Also, by widening the repertoire with their first attempts at Chekhov and Lorca, there is the nagging concern that the company’s desire for new challenges is slightly at the expense of the thematic intelligence that informed their previous triptych.

If one thread can be seen to run through the three plays that The Faction have chosen this time round, it might be identified as passion – both in its pulse-racing presence and deadening absence. In Fiesco, a society poised on the brink of rebellion rests on the personal passions of the eponymous duke, a fickle revolutionary leader for whom selfish desire and pursuit of pleasure are tangled up with political convictions. As realised in this version, that knot of personal and political motivations is reflected in an extension of Schiller’s musical metaphor for revolution, casting the euphoric crescendo of democratic triumph as just another form of self-gratification. Rhythm and dance pulse through the piece, harnessing sharply choreographed movement to evoke the frenzied late capitalist dance of hedonism at the gates of potential apocalypse. These resonant echoes cannot be an accident, reinforced by the use of masks depicting modern day leaders and despots alongside the crowd of blindly pleasure-seeking animals, although this metaphor feels at times stretched.

Looked at one way, the stranded siblings of Chekhov’s Three Sisters can be seen as embodying three equally destructive strains of passion. Masha’s is passion fierily, unsustainably realised; Olga’s is passion thwarted, left to wither under the weight of years and work; and Irina’s is passion tragically unfulfilled, an embryonic desire never given the opportunity of birth. This new translation by Ranjit Bolt comes at a tricky time theatrically, dogged by the recent memory of Benedict Andrews’ invigorating injection of vodka and anarchy into the same text, but while not quite chasing away that memory, it does manage to hold its own. Visually, it is spare but striking. The stage is dominated by chairs that are slowly shuffled into new positions between scenes, somehow implying both movement and stasis – progression of time, but not of change. By the end they are upturned, speaking of disarray and upheaval, yet it is significant that they remain. Lighting is also used simply but sensitively, with one particularly evocative shaft of light from offstage hinting at the distant, unreachable, almost mythical Moscow. The overall effect of the production is at once beautiful and banal, recalling Irina’s words: “if life is beautiful, why doesn’t it seem so?”

If passion can be uncovered in Fiesco and Three Sisters, half-concealed beneath a veil, then it streams in thick, hot rivulets from Blood Wedding. The company take the use of rhythm in Fiesco up by a few notches, weaving pounding percussion and haunting a capella song tightly into the braid of the performance. The pulsing musical heartbeat of the piece is matched by a vivid visual landscape, all scattered sand and red heat. The spreading grains of sand summon Lorca’s world of scorched land, thirsty for blood and tears, while at the same time being used as currency, highlighting the economic dimension of matrimony. The production also presents us with the startling image of the bride wrapped in ropes, a strange enactment of ritual that visualizes the forces that bind and tug her, forces she understandably struggles to free herself from.

As well as inviting thematic connections and reflections, the other immediately evident effect of experiencing the rep season as a whole is on the ensemble itself. With the same company of actors taking on roles in all three plays, comparisons are inevitably drawn and casting decisions are brought more to the fore than might otherwise be expected. It seems apt, for instance, that the compellingly melancholic Derval Mellett take on the roles of Masha in Three Sisters and the bride in Blood Wedding, each time paired with Jonny McPherson as her illicit lover, though elsewhere the choices feel less calculated. There is also something simply and inexplicably satisfying about watching an ensemble across three separate productions, an experience so unusual that it immediately tickles the interest.

The overall picture that is assembled from these three pieces is not quite a complete, persuasive argument for the ensemble rep model, but perhaps its incompleteness is an argument in itself. One of the most appealing aspects of this structure is the breathing room it gives to discovery, allowing a group of artists to work together as a group, rehearsing and performing in rep, learning and building from both continually and simultaneously. For this reason, and for the captivating moments of inventiveness that emerge from The Faction’s process of discovery, the rep model might have some life yet.

Faction Theatre Company

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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