Verge of Strife
Assembly George Square (Studio Two), Edinburgh, EH8 9LH
Thursday 4th – Monday 29th August 2016, 14:15
Jonny Labey (EastEnders, In the Heights) leads this poetic and spirited ensemble production, based on the life and works of WWI poet, Rupert Brooke.
A man who exploited and despaired at his ability to play the parts required of him is put centre stage for the first time in this dynamic production.On his death in 1915, Brooke was feted as ‘the voice of England; his patriotic sonnets had caught the imagination of a people in the early days of the war with his voice of early-war naivety.
His poetry depicts the struggle to find a voice capable of expressing all he experienced, a struggle shared by all young contemporary artists caught amongst the conflicts of human nature.
Rupert Brooke led an incredible life. By the time he died at 27 he was held up as a war hero despite never having actually seen battle. It's an irony that sums up Brooke's many contradictions nicely.
One of the reasons the play is so good is that it doesn't shy away from the darker sides of his life; it is interested in the hold he had over people, how he could charm and manipulate some of the most gifted men and women of his generation, who also populate our play. We want to conjure up the spirit of that age, while creating something new.
How did you go about gathering the team for it?
The producer, Arsalan Sattari, the writer, Nick Baldock, and I have known each other for a while now. We have worked together developing other scripts, but we felt this was the right one for Edinburgh before any form of touring or transfer. With the commemoration and the centenary of WW1, we felt this was the right time to tell this story.
We've assembled a great team to help us do that, with a fantastic
cast, led by Jonny Labey. Ben Newsome Casting brought Jonny in to read, and we were really struck by his talent and work ethic - he was always willing to try new things out, and I knew he'd be perfect for leading our talented ensemble cast - which we built at a separate casting session, around Jonny.
How did you become interested in making performance?
When I was a kid I would read a huge amount, and as I got older I started to be interested in film, but the theatre has always had an incredible hold over me. When I got the the chance to go onstage, I found connecting with an audience the most amazing thing.
Making them laugh or cry or lament - all the clichés about stories and going on journeys with those watching you, come alive. Now as the director, I'm back where I started - in the audience, (hopefully) enjoying the show.
Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
This show requires a balancing act. There's so much historical material to deal with Brooke and his contemporaries- he was part of an extraordinary generation - but at the same time the script demands, and this is how I like to work anyway, that we take a fresh approach to it.
So rehearsals are about marrying the historical and the new, inspiration and creation. This is very much an ensemble piece, we're creating the story together, everyone's invested in making the play something fresh for the audience. So in that sense it is fairly typical - that feeling of collaboration, of building something together, is something I like to foster as much as possible.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Brooke was a complex and often unlikable man, but as I've
researched him more and more I find myself falling under his charm more and more - his combination of wit, naivety and self-deprecation make it hard not to. Hopefully the audience will go on a similar journey.
Most of all, I hope they understand why we're making a play about him, and enjoy the play, whether they like Brooke himself or not.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Nick Baldock's script is really brilliant at capturing the different facets of his personality, so we really get a complex character, which is always interesting to watch on stage. Then the other characters in the play offer us glimpses into a world that was changing rapidly; strong women and men, all of whom were captivated by Brooke.
I also think it's important for this story to be told in an unexpected way. Brooke's poetry was controversial and pushed boundaries in his own time - he wrote a sonnet about vomit - and his story needs to be told in an equally creative way. This could easily have been an Edwardian drawing-room drama, but I think far more interesting to use the best elements from that genre and blend them with a more innovative style of story-telling. That's why Edinburgh, and a Fringe audience, is the perfect place to debut Verge of Strife.
Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
I take inspiration from things that I like in all traditions. The exciting thing is figuring out what works together, and constantly learning from other theatre makers from all backgrounds and approaches. Theatre is a collaborative medium - learning and experimenting are paramount.
Based on his letters and told through his poetry, Verge of Strife goes back to Brooke’s early years, looking at the young poet who embraced Socialism, atheism and the counter-culture of Edwardian England. Described as ‘the handsomest man in all of England’ his looks, charm and wit left a trail of bruisedegos and broken hearts right to the upper echelons of British society.
His life and inspirations are reflective of so many classic and contemporary artists and reveal an extraordinary man whose star burned incredibly brightly during his short lifetime.
Director Quentin Beroud (Richard II, House of Parliament) comments, I’m amazed we haven’t explored Brooke on stage like this before - he was a mystery that everyone around him, and even he himself, seemed to be constantly trying to figure out.
To encapsulate the many facets of Brooke, the creative team gained access to his poems and private archived letters in King’s College, Cambridge, where Brooke was a student.
Nick Baldock is a Cambridge University and Yale graduate with a PhD in History. He went on to train at New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) and is an alumnus of Royal Court's Young Writers' programme. Nick is a playwright, lyricist and librettist. His latest musical, an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Winer’s Tale, was performed at a rehearsed industry reading in New York early 2015, composed by Leo Hurley, following the success of The Better Part in late 2012. His work has been seen in London, New York and Boston, most recently at Manhattan's Duplex Cabaret in late 2014. Nick’s future work includes Mrs Fleming & Mrs Mallowan, about a meeting between Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Nothing to You, a thriller set in an alternate reality of 1949 and two other commissioned pieces.
Jonny can be seen in the role of Paul Coker as a regular in EastEnders. He was nominated for the British Independent Film Awards best newcomer as David in Soft Lad (Brown Boy Productions). Jonny trained at Bird College of Dance, Music and Theatre Performance. Theatre credits include: Graffiti Pete in In The Heights (Southwark Playhouse); Eddie Cochran in Rock'n' Roll Heaven (UK Tour); White Christmas (Dominion Theatre).