‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ and why theatre is becoming more diverse than ever before
I didn’t realise it at the time, but last week something wonderful happened. In the grim greyness of a rainy day near Old Street station, desperately trying to find some mobile reception during a break from onsite rehearsals, I saw two local teenage lads walk past the poster for my current show.
The play is a reworking of The Revenger’s Tragedy, taking place within Hoxton Hall, a fabulous old Victorian music hall near Old Street. Boy One, with that brilliantly unfiltered extremity and volubility that drives every passing thought at that age, declared to Boy Two; ‘Oh my god, that looks sick’. Boy Two dutifully took a photo on his phone.
At the time, it barely registered – I was after all talking to my designer about whether the giant crucifix for Act Two could conceivably be any larger – but when I finally got home that night, I found it was the first thing I reported to my flatmate and that it mattered enormously. I’ll kick myself, quite possibly for the rest of my life, for not talking to those boys and converting that spontaneous enthusiasm into definite attendance, but they’ll be the two I’m looking out for every night at the show.
I have a relatively unusual background when it comes to making theatre. I grew up on a council estate outside Whitley Bay. My mum, who speaks little English and arrived there with my father in the 1970s. When I was 10 my father passed away and the four of us were brought up on mainly benefits by my mother. I bloody love Britney Spears and would rather go to a Madonna concert than anything in the West End. However, more conventionally for a British theatre director, I also read English at Cambridge.
I see my work as an act of synthesis – theatre offers a context for me to take these disparate parts of my personality and turn them into something coherent. The Revenger’s Tragedy continues an exploration I’ve been making over the past few years in taking great classical works such and putting them through a ‘pop culture’ filter – my Medea took place in a backstage limbo, incorporating street dance and live DJing. Othello was a horror installation within the remains of Shakespeare’s original theatre, The Rose, under the South Bank. While my Winter’s Tale was a Christmas promenade unfolding over a two-acre hidden forest behind Kings Cross.
The Revenger’s Tragedy will be a Vaudeville-tinged Halloween romp through one of the oldest surviving Victorian music halls. What has been exceptional for me is the fact this work has been relatively well received not only by ‘the industry’ but also by young and diverse audiences.
My Othello had great reviews, but the best one for me came from three young boys from a local comprehensive who came on a school trip to see it but stayed outside the venue for the cast to tell them ‘That was better than The Lion King!’ On the closing night of Medea at Stratford East, a group of kids from a comprehensive in Leytonstone took to their feet and shouted ‘Go on, Medea!’; and hopefully those two young Hackney boys checking out the Revenger’s Tragedy poster will feel a similar way in a week’s time.
We exist at a time when arts funding is under exceptional scrutiny and the massive organisations are, quite rightly, having to justify their subsidy by showing that a cross-section of artists and audiences engage with their work in line with the diversity of the tax-payers and Lottery-players who fund them.
What’s been interesting for me in the past few years is that diverse engagement is an unconscious and automatic part of my artistic reflex – I simply put together shows that I think are cool and ensure people nearby know that they’re happening. Having experienced what I have with my own work, it’s been simultaneously humorous and terrifying to find myself in rooms full of arts organisation managers stressing out about ‘diversity and engagement’, when the answer seems patently obvious: if you want young and diverse people to engage with art, then help more young and diverse people actually make it.
With The Revenger’s Tragedy, a huge personal achievement has been being able to secure the funding to enable me to have a young assistant director, the wonderful Stella Odunlami. She has in turn recruited a group of diverse 18 to 24-year-olds who are at the very start of thinking that theatre matters to them, and who will be working together to create a response piece to the main show and get the opportunity to be mentored by the professional team.
Revenger’s Tragedy will be the clearest statement I’ve made yet of my identity as an artist, fusing my classical background with my love of unexpected, immersive experiences, and also allowing me to make a full on exploration of bringing a pop-inspired vocabulary to a theatrical event.
It’s amazing to have all of the things I love about live performance come together in this way. Given that it’s a play about seeking justice and the chaos unleashed when the upper class take advantage of those beneath them, I’m hopefully creating something timely, unusual and provocative in the heart of Hackney a year on from the Riots. I am trying to engage and give back to that community pulsing under my every artistic move. We’ll see what happens.
I’m excited to be making theatre at a time when major shifts are taking place within the industry. Indhu Rubasingham and Madani Younis being appointed to the Tricycle and The Bush, marks diversity becoming an unquestioned part of the theatre mainstream. Lyn Gardner advocating the death of the great institutions in favour of locally engaged arts provision shows ‘community’ ceasing to be seen as simply a process of data capture of the local schools and social clubs to help drive group bookings for previews, but rather the very reason the art starts in the first place. While the genius of Danny Boyle and Jenny Sealey’s Opening Ceremonies shows the world that something as seemingly distant and academic as The Tempest can be the springboard for cutting-edge pop spectaculars that bring us all closer together.
What I feel unifying all of this is a confident commitment to art that reflects both the variety and commonality of our experiences, which inspires change, and which is truly for the people. I hope those two boys in Hoxton realise then my show is for them.
‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ runs at the Hoxton Hall until 10th November
For more information visit www.therevengerstragedy.co.uk
Tagged in: danny boyle, Hoxton Hall, Kings Cross, Medea, Othello, Revenger's Tragedy, Shakespeare, theatre, Winter's Tale
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