Interview: GOLEM Theatre, “We’re taking a comedy and looking at the darkness and shame at its heart”

Interview: GOLEM Theatre, “We’re taking a comedy and looking at the darkness and shame at its heart”

For more information on I Know You Of Old, please refer to the accompanying news article.

William Shakespeare is not a playwright to be messed with, but one to be respected and honoured with accurate, classical reconstructions from his extensive portfolio… Not the opinion of this particular journalist, but one that is entrenched within a certain breed of theatregoer even among the cosmopolitan, progressive landscape of London. These are the people that scoff at Emma Rice, the ones that balk at such drastic notions as re-enacting Shakespeare in the modern day.

Thankfully, GOLEM Theatre do not fall into such a category – their latest production, I Know You Of Old, bases itself initially on Much Ado About Nothing, albeit with a few changes to the plot, characterisation, time period and location. Nothing major then… Hero is dead, fiancé Claudio is grief-stricken and attempts to assuage his guilt by matchmaking Beatrice with Benedick.

I caught up with I Know You Of Old‘s writer David Fairs and director Anna Marsland to discuss the idea behind the second show from this fledgling theatre company, one for whom I predict a very bright future:

I Know You Of Old is an alternate reality to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, rather than a play that follows on from its end.

Anna: We keep discussing about how different the play is from Much Ado About Nothing – there is a familiarity to the characters and some of their conversations, but they’ve got a completely different history, a different set-up. The world as well is contemporary – it’s 2017 here and we have technology in the show, so how that adds to the communication within the setup. The big initial alteration is that Hero is dead.

David: That’s the centre of the play – it immediately departs from Much Ado About Nothing at that point. The characters have the same DNA, but have different experiences – they’ve gone on a journey to an alternate reality.

“It’s important not to consider the texts themselves as sacred.”


Is the background of the characters influenced from Shakespeare?

Anna: The show constantly makes us question preconceptions in the way that the characters might traditionally be played. I want to make sure that we rigorously understand how this new situation alters what the character would say. The hope is that this is a perceived as a new play, a new piece of writing that only uses the words from Shakespeare.

David: Words are words, but meaning is context in this case. I love Much Ado About Nothing so that provides the raw material. But the meaning of this play and the lines within it are different – we’ve built a new story out of the existing material. The lines are taken from the whole of Much Ado About Nothing, but the only characters that speak in this play are Benedick, Beatrice and Claudio. Their source points are in their original script, but diverge hugely and go on completely separate journeys.

Anna: The idea is that you don’t need to know Much Ado About Nothing – you are coming to see I Know You Of Old, a story in itself, but there is an added level of fun for anyone that does know the original.

Our aim is to make sure the storytelling is clear in this world. For example, the lines that Beatrice speaks in our play are an amalgamation not only of her lines but that of other characters from Shakespeare. So, just by the nature of what they say, they are immediately different composite characters. The other conversations give a different facet to a personality that then shines a light on other interactions.


Has a prior understanding of Much Ado About Nothing been helpful or a hindrance?

Anna: It isn’t one of the plays that I know as well. We did a version of Macbeth last year called Macbeths, which did a similar thing in using text from the whole play but just assigning it to two characters. We took a tragedy and told of the love story between the main characters. In this we’re taking a comedy and looking at the darkness and shame at the heart of it.

I’ve seen this play a couple of times, so I know the story of it but not inside out. When we started working on this earlier in the year, I wondered whether I should go back and read Much Ado About Nothing.

David: We decided that it’s not relevant at all to this play.

Anna: It’s become a good writer-director distinction. David has spent a lot of time piecing it together and has an intricate knowledge of the text; I’m able to come into the room with fresh eyes and focus solely on this play and not on Shakespeare.

David: I wanted to frame the story around what I consider to be missing pieces of Shakespeare’s play. For me there are two key things – one is the shaming of Hero on her wedding day, such an awful, monumental event that takes place but is side-lined as the play progresses. Nobody apologises – the things her father or her fiancé said to her in public on her wedding day aren’t apologised for at the end. But that’s all ok because she didn’t die – there is no necessity for the men to admit their wrongdoings.

In this scenario, it’s not a pretence. She did die, so now we come to the point where everybody has to deal with that and consider the role they played in her death.

The other thing is examining the relationship of Benedick and Beatrice, seeing that they’re a strange, damaged pair. That’s never really dealt with, so let’s put them into a pressurised context and see how that would work, how much they are in fact drawn to each other and to what extent.

Is Shakespeare the focus behind GOLEM as a Theatre Company?

Anna: It’s not necessarily solely the work that we are going to produce. We’re interested in the idea of taking raw materials and shaping them into something else – how far you can stretch adaptation.

David: It’s important not to consider the texts themselves as sacred. If there are boundaries, where do they lie and can we step over them? I love what people such as Mark Rylance has done with Shakespeare – you can respect it but not revere in such an extreme way. It’s there to be played with, for you to explore and to use. Most people are introduced to Shakespeare in an academic context – it makes you feel like there are rules, that there is a right way to respond to it.

Anna: There can be a fear around reimagining work. I worried for a while that I would direct Shakespeare wrong because of the opinions and criticism out there of it. It was through dissecting the language, the way rhythm and metre are used and through the shared love of Shakespeare that GOLEM have, that I’ve realised you can be bold in stretching the work and the interpretation of it.

“The hope is that this is a perceived as a new play, a new piece of writing that only uses the words from Shakespeare.”


Emerging directors often tell me about shows they would like to direct in a few years, as if they aren’t ready for them just yet. Is that to do with the way in which the work itself is put on a pedestal?

Anna: For me, it’s more to do with scale and resources, making the right work for the right space. With the Hope Theatre, we’ve had a great relationship in creating two intimate works in their space. I love immersive work, work that feels like a world an audience can step into. We decided to set Macbeths in the bedroom of the couple, the audience sitting invisibly within there. I Know You Of Old is set in a small chapel, again to make you feel as though you are stepping into a single location.

David: The key in this show is intimacy, allowing the audience to feel as if they’re no supposed to be there and giving the production a voyeuristic quality that can be really satisfying.

As both writer and actor for this show, do you have to separate different aspects of the process?

David: Writing and acting are such different processes but are also intrinsically connected. I don’t need to switch one on or off – it’s more that I trust Anna, as the director, implicitly with the play. I really enjoy the evolution of the process – in the beginning it was just me with the text, then in the first workshop I didn’t get involved in discussing the character I’m going to play. Now the script is final, I want to concentrate on my character and let Anna take over the overall vision.


What is the dream for the show? And what is next for GOLEM as a whole?

Anna: We’ve now got these two Shakespeare shows that both deal with women, both tell a concise and different version of a play and are both made for an intimate space. We’d love to tour them and then take them as a duo to Edinburgh 2018 so that they can run as companion pieces – a tragedy with a love story versus a comedy with a dark heart.

David: Somewhere like Underbelly, an underground cellar, a stone-walled, cavernous space would work wonderfully for both settings.

The next potential idea could be a direct follow-up to Macbeths, something that picks up a week after the end and tells a story that comes from the end of that play.

Anna: With each piece, we’ve tried to stretch the idea of adaptation. This would potentially use text from multiple Shakespeare plays, so it extends the narrative even further.

“We’re interested in the idea of taking raw materials and shaping them into something else – how far you can stretch adaptation.”


Who are your inspirations?

David: It’s evolved for me over time. My first huge inspiration was Laurence Olivier – I was about seven and I saw his film of Richard III. He’s a phenomenal actor who modernised the way that we now approach acting – you can go on such a journey throughout your career, start in one place and end up pioneering a completely new genre. The trajectory of a career can be huge.

Over the last few years, I’ve been really inspired by the stage work of Andrew Scott – the way he approaches acting, the lens he puts in front of characters is so unexpected. There aren’t any rules, he steps outside the mould.

Anna: I love to find interesting places where I can play. I love the work of Punchdrunk, all those things that invite an audience to be an imaginative participant. I’m always grateful of the opportunities to play myself – sometimes you can get that from a piece of music, or from visiting an art gallery.

I’m currently really fuelled by the people that I work with, working in a company with the same set of people on multiple projects. We can all challenge each other more because we know each other.

I Know You Of Old plays The Hope Theatre on 13 June – 1 July. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.

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