Friday, 31 July 2015

Heretical Dramaturgy: Matthew Jameson @ Edfinge 2015

The Heretical Historians

The Greatest Stories Never Told
theSpace @ SurgeonsHall (Theatre 1) (V53)
19:35-20:25 (50 mins)
17th-29th August (Off 23rd)

Centuries from now there is a slim chance that the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe will be known as host to “one of the greatest theatrical events of history, in history”: that's right, the world première of The Heretical Historians first show, The Greatest Stories Never Told.

A collection of short comic plays based on true historical events that have never had their absurdity dignified. Featuring figures as varied as Julius Caesar, the Shah of Persia, Lenin and Pope Paul IV, and scenarios such as kidnapping pirates, drunken adventures and large scale emasculations, each story promises to be unknown to audiences but instantly accessible and downright hysterical. 

The Fringe

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Matthew Jameson: It started with the founding of the company. I’d created the company with the idea that it would explore absurd true history, or that it could be used to create new work that had a historical vein, so the issue was what our inaugural show would be. The stories that feature in the production are ones that I’ve accumulated over the years, and to perform them as a collection of shorts, instead of stretching one into a full length piece seemed a better way to showcase the company in our all important first fringe.  

It gives us a chance to test our limits in realising this huge variety in time and location on stage, not to mention it widens our chances of finding something for everyone in the audience.  

Where does your piece at the fringe fit with your usual work?
When I first started writing my work was very satirical or politically charged but still fairly absurd. There are still undercurrents of that, but now it’s more about the stories themselves. 

My work recently has all been historical, specifically adaptations of true unknown stories. Last year my script Dear Mister Kaiser, an alternative WWI play based on a British POW who was given compassionate leave by Kaiser Wilhelm to visit his dying mother, was performed at the fringe. 

We’ve also been touring a short festival piece based on the story of The Hartlepool Monkey, a shipwrecked monkey who was tried and found guilty of being a French spy. This piece has the same level of ridiculousness in its stories, but features known figures such as Caesar and Lenin as well as the unknowns like Jerningham Wakefield or Pope Paul IV.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
I hope they will walk away completely disbelieving that these stories are true, then do their research and realise we’ve been totally accurate. 

While there are contemporary references in each story, they were mostly to help us settle and understand the situations, if people want to take those then that’s an added bonus. We want people to be amused and entertained, to learn something new and to realise just how chaotic and absurd history can be.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
For my work, or indeed any work about history, dramaturgy is invaluable. You’ve really got to know what you’re talking about, or know it well enough that you can justify playing about with it, otherwise critics and audience can tear you to shreds. The more information you gather prior to writing and workshopping a project, the more references and jokes you can include, and even if only one person in the audience (or cast, for that matter) appreciates it, then I feel it’s well worth the research.

With historical work there’s always the question of how much you
wish to reflect contemporary society and current issues in the production. While in some cases I think that historicisation can be a brilliant way of looking at an issue from a different perspective, in others it can become sanctimonious or applying characteristics to figures that are totally inaccurate for the sake of proving a point. I’d much rather have the rigorously researched truths of historical figures than overhaul them so they fit better with the theme of my shows.  

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work -  have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
When I first had my writing reviewed or seen, I often had critics describe it as ‘absurdist’, and at the time I had no real concept of what that meant. Now it is a comparison I’m fairly happy to accept and even embrace, even if not consciously. 

As a writer, I’ll acknowledge a huge influence from the likes of Brecht and Stewart Lee, as I love being able to riff around the edges and play with form. The current show being a collection of shorts makes me think of Christopher Durang or David Ives, who were masters of the form which I adored when I first began writing, so I think this is my attempt to emulate them.

The style of our current show has it’s roots in the travelling theatre troupes and variety performers of the 1920s, specifically the ‘rep’ actor who could quickly transform into any number of characters. This is much more fitting for a collection of shorts, and allows us to make more of our moments ‘out of character’, which gives us room to get quite meta about the show.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
I usually end up finding a little glimmer of a story hidden somewhere, maybe in a book, maybe on the internet, and if it tickles me then I’ll start dusting it off and looking for more information.

 After getting enough material and context, I’ll put it onto paper as a script and begin thinking about how to present it, or how I see it on stage. After that I’ll gather together some of my actor and theatre-maker friends, and we’ll talk about how to stage it and then try to get it up on it’s feet. Despite counting the number of ‘I’s in this answer, I would insist that the process is totally collaborative as soon as it’s out of my head, I’m always open to reworking or incorporating lines from rehearsal and always willing to totally rethink the shows direction if better suggestions or methods come up.   

What do you feel the role of the critic is? 
 They’re definitely there to do more than provide a few pull-quotes and stick on star charts for fringe shows. I think the critic is meant to be representative of the tastes of their reader (and/or associate publication/site) so that they can be taken as a sample of how your work is received by different elements of society. 

So as a theatre-maker it can help you know how different audiences are responding, and critics will also help inform the audience about what they have in store so you can attract those of a similar mindset, or warn those who would be disappointed or would dislike the production. So often there’s a love-hate relationship between the creatives and the critics, but they really do rely on each other: 

The creatives cannot depend on the pleasantries of friends and family if they wish to develop and the critics have to be at least partly constructive, or else they will destroy the dreams of an entire new generation, and have no-one left to review.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
The distinction between a dramaturg as a creative role and dramaturgy as a theoretical practise. (I’ve always loved the idea of working specifically as a dramaturge for a theatre or production. But I’m curious to know whether others see it as different to the academic practise)

How you distinguish the role of a dramaturgy in the UK theatre scene, where it seems to be covered by other members of the creative team, compared to European or American theatre where the role is taken and carried out by someone specifically appointed?

Featuring a diverse creative team, The Heretical Historians are three Northern brunette lads (one of whom wears glasses) and one ginger chap from The South, each with extensive experience as theatre-makers. All graduates of East 15's World Performance programme, having knowledge of both the world and performance, yet mastering neither. Although this show is their première as a company, the team have been attracting laughter and odd glances together for several years, creating many in-house productions during their training. 

Matthew Jameson, director and writer has had plays produced at both Edinburgh and Prague Fringes including the alternative WWI play, Dear Mister Kaiser (2014), the recipient of 5* reviews and well received by a strange man who bought him a pint.

In three words: COME for the ridiculous stories that you can't believe are true. STAY for the most original comedy that will undoubtedly be hailed as "Horrible Histories for Grown Ups" by lazy reviews. LEAVE misinformed, unamused and covered in snakes informed, amused and not covered in snakes. 

David "The Manly One" Archer - Pope Paul IV, brawny, brunette, bearded. 
William "The Posh One" Hastings - Lenin, stout, ginger, bearded. 
Matthew "The Academic One" Jameson - Jerningham Wakefield, stocky, brunette, bearded.
Niall "The Reckless One" Pickvance - Caesar, slender, brunette, bearded. 

Creative team:
Script and Directed by Matthew Jameson
Technical Manager - Lloyd McDonagh
Front of House Manager - Charlotte Barnes

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