Richard III, New Diorama Theatre

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There are plenty of shape-shifters in Shakespeare, but few as sinister as Richard of Gloucester. In The Faction’s characteristically stripped-back production, the play’s world of secret plots and political machinations also shifts shape around its scheming protagonist, its performers moulding themselves around the text. As a company, The Faction have always been committed to physicality over props, bodies over stuff. Here, that minimalist aesthetic is pushed to its limit. In the black box space of the New Diorama, the storytelling relies on nothing but the bare stage, the ensemble cast of 21 and the sculpting effects of light and sound.

So limbs contort to form thrones, ghosts, even Richard’s horse as he rides into battle. The most fascinating physical work, though, is done by the aptly named Christopher York as the eponymous rogue. Often, much is made in performance of Richard’s deformity – he is “not shap’d for sportive tricks”, he tells us in his opening speech – but here his physical impairments are as chameleonic as his mood. Confronted by his mother, he retreats into himself, fingers shrivelling up and back hunching over. Elsewhere, his disability is a tool for manipulation, emphasised to plead his case. But then in moments of confidence he suddenly straightens up, tall and broad-shouldered as a soldier.

And soldier he is in this take on the play. When we first see York’s Richard, it is at the close of a dynamic opening sequence of fighting, his vanquished opponent at his feet. But as civil war melts into uncertain peace, he looks less and less comfortable. This Richard itches as much for action as he does for power and the throne. The path he pursues is one of chaos and destruction – eventually for him, too, alongside the mounting bodies of his enemies. While early on he has the air of a confident, calculated politician, summoning and dismissing his pawns with little sweeps of the hand, in the latter stages of the play York suggests the instability and senselessness of Richard’s actions. He has the look of a man driven on by objectless blood-lust, regretting his crimes – such as the killing of one-time ally Buckingham – at the same time as he seems powerless to change his own power-hungry course.

Elsewhere, the success of director Mark Leipacher’s ambitious stage choreography is more patchy. While he’s brought together an exhilaratingly large and hearteningly diverse cast, the quality and tenor of the acting is often inconsistent – in some cases even across the duration of one individual performance. It makes for an odd mixture of styles, as some lines are declaimed as if from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, while others are intimately or hurriedly delivered. Even worse, the effect of such dissonant contrasts finds itself amplified: in a production so reliant on its ensemble, small weaknesses can cause large fractures.

And while a muscular approach suits a text with epic scope like this, the use of movement can be as distracting as it is illuminating. There are some absolutely stunning moments: the light touches of multiple couples highlighting Richard’s initial isolation; the chanting fervour of the final moments before the interval; the chilling crawl of corpses towards the king’s sleeping body in the tent where he lies haunted by his deeds. At other times, though, action on the periphery drags our eyes from the supposed focus of a scene, unhelpfully splintering the drama.

2016 marks the fifth year I’ve kicked off by watching The Faction perform in their adopted home at the New Diorama. The company now feel like an established feature of the new year – part of the theatrical furniture of January and February. At their best, they have the ability to crack open classic texts, finding whole hidden worlds to inhabit. But while this latest production may have all of The Faction’s familiar hallmarks – stripped-back aesthetic, inventive physicality, an emphasis on the ensemble – it offers only a limited window onto Shakespeare’s drama.

Photo: Cameron Slater.

The Talented Mr Ripley, New Diorama Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

All the best monsters are consummate performers. Think Shakespeare’s Richard III, stylishly murdering his way to the throne, or the deadly flair of Goldberg inThe Birthday Party. Tom Ripley, the brilliant sociopath created by Patricia Highsmith 60 years ago, is no different. He lives or dies on his ability to impersonate, relying on his quick-thinking skill as a performer to quite literally get away with murder.

The Talented Mr Ripley, then, makes for compelling stage material. Tom is essentially a showman, if an awkwardly intense one. We first meet him in a New York bar, head twisting over his shoulder, convinced he’s being watched. It turns out he is, but not by who he expected. Instead, a wealthy businessman offers to pay Tom to bring his son Dickie home from Italy, where he’s run away on an extended European jaunt. Snatching at the opportunity, Tom soon finds himself in idyllic Mongibello, where jealous obsession with charming, carefree Dickie (an effortlessly suave Adam Howden) turns an increasingly murderous shade of green.

The Faction and director Mark Leipacher have wisely fastened on the narrative’s more performative qualities in their new adaptation. Tom, played with fidgeting intensity by Christopher Hughes, is forever trying on new roles, testing a new sweep of the hair or trick of the tongue. We are first of allhis audience, the crowd of attentive eyeballs that he fears and desires in equal measure. The more immersed Tom becomes in his performance, adopting Dickie’s identity bit by bit, the more he revels in the display. As an actor thirsts for the adrenaline rush of the stage, Tom is hooked on pretending.

This emphasis also lends a distanced, theatrical gloss to the protagonist’s cool and unrepentant acts of violence. To him, as to us, the murders he carries out are little more than dramatic punctuation marks. In one intriguing but slightly clumsy device, Leipacher repeatedly positions Tom as the star of his own (presumably imagined) movie, cutting and reshooting crucial sequences in his trajectory. While jarring, it hints economically at Tom’s emotional dislocation from reality; a brutal murder might as well be a thrilling plot twist.

The language of economy is one that characterises The Faction’s storytelling. Their streamlined version of Highsmith’s novel is loathe to waste so much as a second, rattling over the plot’s terrain at sometimes breakneck speed. The upside is that we move at the same pace as Tom’s nervously frenetic mind, seeing the world through his rapidly blinking eyes. Such furious velocity, however, also makes it easy to miss things. Peripheral characters zoom past and the kaleidoscope of European cities in the second half becomes a dizzy haze.

But for those familiar with the often adapted tale, The Faction offer an engaging enough take on this durable material. As ever, the ensemble manage to do a lot with a little, transforming the stylish, stripped back design – just a raised white rectangle, supplemented by Christopher Withers’ evocative shafts of light – into countless different settings. It’s when the focus is on storytelling rather than speed, though, that The Talented Mr Ripley is most absorbing.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

A Trio of Tragedies

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In this year’s rep season from The Faction, there are a hell of a lot of corpses. Across the span of the trio of tragedies – Hamlet, Thebes and The Robbers – the body count is staggeringly high. If one were to characterise the company’s third season of work in a few words, dark, violent and bloody immediately jump to mind.

Reductive as this is, there is something about death, both as an abstract idea and a concrete reality, which haunts all three productions. When I spoke to The Faction’s artistic director Mark Leipacher about this new season, he explained that the company did not have any overarching theme or narrative in mind when they put together the programme; their priority was simply to find work that engaged and excited them. Still, the simple placing of these plays alongside one another invites a dialogue between them, a dialogue which is repeatedly preoccupied with mortality.

There is perhaps no more famous theatrical consideration of life and death than Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet’s fame and familiarity are often albatrosses to sling around the shoulders of new productions, all of which must fall under the burden of the play’s reputation. The Faction’s interpretation, directed by Leipacher, suffers a little from this predicament. Compared with previous productions of theirs, there is an uncharacteristic timidity to their approach; few moments match the visual boldness of their best work, and there is the sense that each actor is deeply aware of the weight of the words falling from their lips.

That said, there are some intriguing touches to this Hamlet. The characterisation of the procrastinating protagonist himself is perhaps the most striking departure, as Jonny McPherson plays the Dane less as a conflicted hero and more as a whining egotist. Amidst tentative attempts to wrench something new out of the play, this comparatively brave choice stands out, offering novel and occasionally unexpected resonances to Shakespeare’s words. The ever-compelling Derval Mellett, meanwhile, makes a fascinating and nuanced Ophelia, adding vivid colour to a role that can often feel lightly sketched.

The season really hits its stride, however, with Thebes, Gareth Jandrell’s ambitious attempt to slot together the full story of the Oedipus dynasty from the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. It stands out as the clear highlight of this year’s programme, offering this most famous of classical sagas in a form that makes it feel thrillingly fresh. What adds the sense of urgency and momentum is primarily the production’s shift of focus; as signalled by the title, it is the city and its beleaguered people who become the heart of the narrative. This city is both Thebes and nowhere, The Faction’s non-specific updating dislocating it from time and place and positioning it instead as a potent metaphor for power, corruption and revolution.

Following the template established by McPherson’s moody Hamlet, The Faction are unafraid to highlight the tragic flaws of their privileged but doomed characters, who are increasingly detached from the seething masses they rule. Lachlan McCall brings arrogant swagger to the ill-fated Oedipus, while his two sons are suitably vile, self-centred and ruthless in their competition for the throne. This is an elite who are either blindly wrapped up in their own problems or coldly fixated on power. Cary Crankson – another performer who impresses across all three productions – epitomises this calculated power-grabbing with his Creon, a supremely slippery politician who soothes with one hand as he snatches with the other.

The pulse of the piece, however, lies firmly with the people. In Rachel Valentine Smith’s production, the Chorus are transformed into a writhing, revolutionary mob, variously whispering, sighing and stamping at the edges of the action. When gathered together in this crowd, the ensemble move fluidly as one, exploiting the physical vocabulary that they have developed over years of working together. This is where the muscularity of previous work returns in force, creating a population to be reckoned with and a sparse but captivating visual aesthetic to match Jandrell’s lyrical, punchy script.

Following the epic scope and revolutionary fire of Thebes, the scrappy, overblown drama ofThe Robbers feels like a significant step down. This is a remounted production for The Faction and forms a key part of their project to stage the complete works of Schiller, but it is far from the playwright’s best, lacking the tense political machinations of Mary Stuart and Fiesco, which were showcased in The Faction’s last two rep seasons. Here, instead, the drama is centred on a father and his two sons, the younger of whom attempts to usurp his older brother. It is all blood and passion, heightened to the extent that it frequently tips over into melodrama.

There is still the muscular approach of The Faction’s preferred aesthetic, alongside some inventive visual devices. Chalk is a key material, used first to compose the letters that seal the fate of cast out older brother Karl and later by Karl’s band of rebels to strikingly tally up the men they kill on their numerous rampages. It is in the scenes between these eponymous robbers that the production is at its strongest, once again playing on the group’s strength as an ensemble to build a convincing sense of camaraderie. At their centre, overshadowing conflicted Karl, is Crankson as the cocksure, rebellious Spiegelberg. Yet even Crankson’s undeniable charisma flags in the final scenes, as the bodies stack up and the overwrought emotion becomes wearing in its relentlessness.

After the slightly more cluttered sets of last year, this season wisely reverts to The Faction’s bare, stripped back minimalism, using the New Diorama’s black box studio and their own bodies as canvas and paint. The bare black wall is particularly well used, whether seemingly being held up by the defending soldiers of Thebes or treated as a giant blackboard in The Robbers. In this largely empty space, the brilliant work of lighting designers Chris Withers (Hamlet and Thebes) and Matthew Graham (The Robbers) is crucial in carving up the scenes, skilfully offering both shape and atmosphere. Light spills in from offstage, casting interesting shadows, or glows dimly from a single, dangling light bulb. In line with the morbid subject matter, gloomy visual landscapes abound.

This is now the third year in a row that I have attended The Faction’s annual rep season, allowing a line to be traced through their work over that time. In many ways this year feels like a return to the company’s essential aims and aesthetics, focusing on the kinds of text and staging that most enthuse and inspire them. There is also, of course, the return to one of their landmark productions with The Robbers, but this fails to match up to the best of what they have created since. It is instead in Thebes, arguably The Faction’s most ambitious work to date, that the company’s aspirations and strengths are found in their purest form: a bare but thrilling staging, an approach to classics that makes them feel like they were written yesterday, and an unshakeable faith in the power of the ensemble.

Photos: Richard Davenport.

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.”