Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Coffee House: an Afterpiece

Mr Harpie, a Scrivener & Kitty
The Coffee House is an "Afterpiece" written by James Miller (1706-1744).  Miller was educated at Oxford, and was ordained soon after. He turned playwright when a satire published at university offended the bishop from whom he had expectations of advancement. The Coffee-House reflects his interest in satirising the fashionable delusions of society. 

All of life passes through the Widow's Coffee-House; hacks, politicians, fops, drunkards and of course, a dashing young officer courting the Widow's daughter Kitty. The play is a farce, revolving around young lovers attempting to elude the clutches of a scheming parent, mistaken identities, various deceptions and misunderstandings, all leading to a happy resolution.  

The Widow - owner of the Coffee-House
The pace is frenetic, the whole play lasting no more than 40 minutes - a perfect dramatic arc achieved in a third of the time of a full-length play. We performed the Coffee House in 2009 in the North East and at Fairfax House in York
Bays the Poet

Harpie and Gaywood

Puzzle the Politician & Bays the Poet

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Parson Yorick's END

Setting up for A Sentimental Journey at Shandy Hall in 1989

Having spent 9 months in 1988 writing and rehearsing an adaptaion of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, we were spared 20 years of embarrassment by Peter de Voogt, Editor of the Shandean. He had seen us perform the play in York and afterwards, though complimentary, quietly pointed out that we had probably not been using the most helpful edition of the novel as our source.  As part of our set, we used an easel with cards on which were written the various places on Yorick’s journey – London, Calais, Amiens etc – which replicated the chapter headings in the novel.  Our edition finished with Parson Yorick saying “When I stretched out my hand it caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s -----  ; and then a card was revealed with THE END written on it. We thought the innuendo resided in Yorick’s sentence, accompanied by his hand stretching out towards the Fille de Chambre’s !@**# being interrupted by the end of the volume.  Peter suggested that if we used a more accurate source we would find that the author’s text (the “story”) and the typographical devices that framed it worked as one.   It’s a good joke – we dropped “THE” leaving “END” on its own & over the years we’ve got some good laughs from filthy minded audiences.  Of course it’s about comic  timing too – the line accompanied by the action; a freeze followed by  one and a half beats, a swift move to the easel by Mrs Slurp and a twirl of the card to change it from AUBERGE  to END.  If the timing is right the laugh will follow, that final little word giving voice to the thoughts of the audience.

One of my favourite editions of A Sentimental Journey (published in 1910 & beautifully illustrated with tissue paper over the colour plates) ends like this: “I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s ---- EPILOGUE - after which there follows an extract from Chapter 43, Volume 7 of Tristram Shandy, which, though very good in itself, is here deployed to take the heat out of the situation. It fails to do so of course...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Adapting for the stage: A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

2011 Parson Yorick & the Old French Officer

In 2011 we performed our own adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s unfinished novel, A Sentimental Journey.  We wrote the script in 1988, performed it on and off for 6 or 7 years in the North East of England, Yorkshire and Germany.  Then, after a gap of 17 years we were asked to resurrect it by Fairfax House in York.  We took the opportunity to re-examine the text and re-work some of the scenes which turned out to be a fascinating exercise because it inevitably required that we reflected on ourselves and what the passing years had done to us and our powers of interpretation.  We therefore offer this circumnavigatory insight into our deliberations and why we felt that Sterne lends himself so well to adaptation for the stage for a small touring theatre company with limited resources.

Yorick & Grisset

  • Sterne creates “dramatic conversations” – he talks to his audience; addresses individuals directly -he makes them concrete.

  • HC Productions is a long-standing team with 3 actors at its core. The adaptation was essentially a collective endeavour. After the 3 of us had read the book we agreed the parameters within which we would create the play. For example economics dictated no more than 3 actors and 1 backstage (Stage Manager, props, costume)

  • We started to experiment by taking a scene, for example the opening, and simply put it on its feet  -  we acted it out.  It quickly became clear that the first person narrator translated perfectly to a dramatic device that had the potential to draw the audience in and keep it entertained:  Parson Yorick continually “buttonholes” his audience .  Hard on the heels of that discovery was that it didn’t feel as if we had to change any of the words (we did change a few: for example we replaced “bidet” with “horse” – “La Fleur, what is the matter with this horse of thine?” At this point we were aiming to get laughs by using coconuts and having poor La Fleur falling off his horse. Therefore, we didn’t want to create a distraction by people catching themselves thinking – “what did he just say?”). Apart from these minor changes, the adaptation was an exercise in omission rather than complex plot elision and re-structuring.

  •  As the narrator is the key to the structure we decided early on that one actor should playParson Yorick and that all the other parts should be played by the other 2 actors.


  • We wanted to use the idea of a play-within-a-play as a device to draw attention to the “unreliable narrator” , and to the digressive and apparently unstructured narrative.  So, we developed the idea of a chaotic character, Mrs Slurp, who would attempt to set the scene but is somewhat inebriated and rather baffled by the lack of a beginning and an end (“it is a very large middle”). As the play progresses we wanted a widening gap to appear between what Yorick is telling the audience and what the audience is seeing behind him.  At first this is merely an exercise in the suspension of disbelief.  We set a convention (2 actors playing all the other parts) and off we go.  But as the play progresses the audience might notice a certain ubiquity about all the women (Yorick inveigles himself and flirts every time he sees one, and the fact he repeats his behaviour with the same actor throughout gives a certain Groundhog day quality to his encounters) and behaviour that is at odds with what he is saying.  We made a choice not to be unsubtle about this (i.e. not to go for too much slap stick) but to allow it to build until it culminates in the end scene where the play simply runs out of actors and obliges the male actor to play the chamber maid.

1991 Yorick in the Auberge: end scene

2011 end scene

  • Related to this point is the use of sexual innuendo.  Performing the novel on stage brings echoes of  the Carry On films and to Frankie Howerd’s “shush missis” in a way that perhaps the rather more intimate act of reading the novel does not. There is certainly something very satisfying (if you’ll pardon the pun) in being able to accuse an audience member of having unsuitable thoughts in front of the whole of the rest of the audience – in that sense there is less distance between the actor and the audience than the author and the reader, close though that is in Sterne

1991 Yorick & another Grisset
2011 Yorick still up to his tricks

  • We settled on a simple device: a screen behind which the props and costumes would be arranged to facilitate quick changes. The set would be very simple comprising 2 stools, a table and a portmanteau – these could easily be arranged into different positions to denote changes of scene.

  • We were keen to draw attention to the fact that we were creating theatre, as a parallel to Sterne’s drawing attention to the act of writing and the physical nature of the book as an object.  We therefore came up with the idea of the easel and the cards which corresponded to the chapter head
  • With these ingredients in place we could start to select (or omit) scenes based on for example, was it physically possible (too many characters?), was it “dramatic” enough  (did it have the potential for a verbal or a physical joke?); how inventive could we be with props and costumes, wigs etc (for example the coconuts for horses hooves)

  • Developing the piece was a matter of balancing art and logistics. Alongside the words,  we needed to develop the “journey” of the furniture, the props, the costumes and the wigs.  By logistics I mean – it’s only half the battle to decide what item of costume or prop or wig will denote a particular character. The other half is to work out where these items will end up. Will the flow of physical objects dovetail with the narrative structure?.  It is always an issue about whether these items enhance or distract.  For example, in our production of Dr Faustus, we used a similar style – this time, 4 actors with one playing Faustus and the other 3 all the rest.  We designed and constructed the most magnificent costume for Beelzebub.  He had a cloak, a Hannibal Lector mask, a red goat’s skull on the end of a staff. He looked magnificently scary and all was well, except that it was always a struggle to get into the costume quick enough behind the scene as the actor changed from one character to the next.  Disaster struck in Mannheim when the objects took over: the mask was not put on properly and Beelzebub, with restricted vision,  upstaged himself by walking into the side wall rather than the wing.  It got a big laugh and so we abandoned the costume and accessories and the actor relied merely his ability to create character through voice and movement.  It was a salutary lesson: Less is More.  So we try to achieve the odd moment when the audience might think ...mmmmm, how did they do that? But not at the expense of the overall effect.  If the audience is so impressed or distracted that they dwell on it, the production will lose its momentum

1991 Yorick & Count de B

2011 Yorick & Count de B

  • Most of the book was omitted – we recognised that there is a cathartic moment to which the novel appears to lead, and that is the party scene in Paris which culminates in “I grew sick”.  Once we had fixed that, the lead up to it and the passages from that to the ending became a question of balance – it was imperative to get that right in order to give the play shape and to enable it to resolve; so that the “chaos” and apparent lack of form worked because it was bound together by a structure.  It was mainly to preserve the structural integrity of the play that we left out the Maria episode – we did agonise over that, however.

  • Seventeen years on we took the opportunity to re-examine the novel and re-work some of the scenes – though we changed almost nothing of the original script.  For some reason, in 1988 we played the Monk as some sort of trixter, delighted with his exchange of snuff boxes from one of little value to a rather grander one. Looking back, I don’t think we understood the scene (or, at least, found it too hard to represent on the stage). This time we emphasised the sentimental feeling generated by the exchange, genuine on the part of the Monk, a bit more ambiguous on the part of Yorick “who had not quit the lady’s hand all this while”. Dramatically it became an opportunity to undercut Yorick’s fine feelings by contrasting them with his physical position in relation to the fine lady.

  • We also changed the end scene. In 1988 Yorick, rather innocently fell asleep and the lady’s moans woke him up causing him to blurt out “oh my God”. This time, they were both wide awake.  No doubt the passing years and the acquisition of age and experience had similar subtle effects on other scenes within the play.  Looking at the photos, taken in 1991 and 2011, the fresh-faced innocent looking actors of the original production seem to have been replaced by something altogether more “knowing” – altogether more appropriate.

2011 Madame de L & a dashing French Officer

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Beggar's Opera

Here's some more from the archive.  In 1993 we toured Germany with a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The tour was funded by the British Council and included  dates in Jena and Rostok in the recently re-unified East.  Our local paper, the Journal, asked us to keep a diary of the tour. Here's an extract:

Wednesday: En route to Rostock. We have crossed the old East-West border and are travelling along what used to be the "land corridor" to West Berlin. We are surprised how many concrete border fences and machine gun posts remain. Pass a huge convoy of army lorries. Museum pieces. With equipment like this we wonder how the "Reds" can ever have been a threat.

Thursday: Rostok in the ex-GDR. There's a thunder storm outside and the theatre is an ancient, dilapidated building with crumbling plaster on the walls and water pouring in through one of the light fittings. Yet it is equipped with a computerised lighting system.

Rostock Theatre with member of the cast wondering if he's in the right place

Rostock Theatre entrance
It's fascinating to see what happens when capitalism is poured onto an old and crumbling "Socialist" state. You sense a whole nation is trying to catch up by grabbing material things. The streets are blocked with BMW's, bought with interest-free loans, sitting nose to tail with the ubiquitous beige "Trabbies".
Our host used to be a scene painter for the theatre. Since reunification she has been forced to choose between retirement or redundancy. Her rent has gone up 10-fold and her flat is now owned by a West German. "We don't know where it will end," she told us. "We were promised everything by those in the West. Now millions of us have nothing."

A restored house in Rostok

The contrast between West and East in the early 90's was marked.  Cities like Jena and Rostock were huge building sites and the routes to them were characterised by autobahns which quite literally ended where the old borders used to be, at which point they turned into pot-holed single lane roads. Another feature was that there were brand new car dealership showrooms and gleaming petrol stations on the outskirts of the villages and towns along the way.  These monuments to New Money all had one pump reserved for 2-stroke fuel for the "trabbies" that queued alongside the BMW's and the Mercs .
Following the heady days of re-unification, by the early 1990's, attitudes were quite polarised.  It was common to hear a lot about the sacrifices that those in the West felt they were making to accommodate the weak economy of the East and the effects that a "socialist" regime had had on creating a culture of dependency and a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. It was equally common, and a good deal more affecting, to hear those in the East talking about how all the physical and structural improvements taking place would create returns for the rich westerners who had money to invest.
It's 16 years since we toured in Germany.  We did it three times with an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey in 1991, the Beggar's opera in 1993 and finally with Dr Faustus in 1995.  We performed in Kiel, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Trier, Aachen, Hanover and Neuss in the west and in Jena and Rostock in the east. Socio-economic and cultural differences apart, a common thread was the unbridled enthusiasm for theatre (and English-speaking theatre at that). It was the best of times and we made many friends.
There are hundreds of independent, state and municipal theatres and opera houses in towns and cities throughout the country and theatre seemed to be more of a regular past-time for more of the population than in the UK. I remember there was some talk about this network of theatre and opera houses being under threat as the true cost of re-unification began to bite.
I would love to go back - Rostock had some of the ugliest suburbs we had ever seen and some of the most beautiful rococo architecture in the centre. Many building s looked like they were falling down with decay, and they stood right next to ones that had been perfectly restored.  The city was clearly going to look gorgeous, which would be especially nice for all the rich "incomers" who were going to live in it.
We would love to hear from anyone who has been more recently, particularly if you have performed there, or anywhere in Germany.
In the meantime, here are some photos of our production of John Gay's, The Beggar's opera, which we performed with 6 actors and a musician.
Macheath and the rivals for his affection, Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit

Polly in love

Lucy and Polly


The cast

Peachum, Macheath and Lockit

Peachum and Polly

Macheath, Matt of the Mint & the Gang

Macheath in prison

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Dr Faustus - from the archives

I thought it might be fun to marshal some archive material and post bits and pieces from previous productions. I'll start with Dr Faustus which we performed in 1995 - 6.

We toured this production in the North of England (including the Live Theatre in Newcastle and the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, Yorkshire), and then, funded by the British Council, in Germany.  The highlight of the German tour was playing as part of the International Shakespeare Festival in Neuss near Dusseldorf in the Globe Theatre. This was a pre-fabricated building originally designed to be moved about to different Garden Festival sites (remember Michael Hessletine and the controversial English equivalent?) before eventually being "plumbed in" permanently in 1991.

The Globe Theatre, Neuss, Germany

Globe Theatre, Neuss

Dr Faustus at Matfen Hall, Northumberland