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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Honest to God With... Flipping the Bird
27th September 2013

Following previews at St Albans' Maltings Theatre and a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe - to a raft of four and five-star reviews - Flipping the Bird have transferred Jonathan Holloway's Jekyll & Hyde to London's Southwark Playhouse. We were very pleased to spend some time in the company of the charming creatives behind the show - director Jessica Edwards, writer Jonathan and leading lady Cristina Catalina - where they gave considered and insightful answers to the usual questionable guff (sorry, stimulating queries) we put forward.

Although we reviewed the show during its initial run (which can be found here), we fully stand by the original review and, if anything, think their piece has become even better. You must try to catch their gothic masterpiece at the Southwark Playhouse before it closes on Saturday, October 19th.

Before you see the show, discover the origins of the production as we discuss the holy trinity of death, sex and religion with the trio of talent...

Production shot from Jekyll & Hyde

Photography supplied by Chloé Nelkin Consulting

VFTG: So let's start at the beginning. Given that there have been so many interpretations, 30-odd film versions, some of which involve male-to-female transformation and vice versa, what was the thinking behind this version of Jekyll & Hyde?

JE: I saw and read an early draft of what you saw today. It was very interesting because it makes the story contemporary, in a strange way, even though it's set in the early days of the 20th century. It confronts a lot of things women are still facing now. Female scientists, women who are unmarried - who are completely sexually unbridled as Jekyll is - face this crazy Victorian stigma even now and that was a really interesting lens to look at the tale through. Whenever I talk about it feel so po faced, I think it is a lot of fun as well.

CC: You've explained exactly how I feel about it.

JE: And that grew and grew and made us feel like it was an exciting story to tell for now as well as being a period piece, with the melodrama and juicy ridiculous elements.

VFTG: Was that gender politics element in the back of your head when writing it, or did you simply want to tell a ripping yarn or penny dreadful tale?

JH: It's a collision of different things. There is an absolutely dreadful Hammer version of the book from the swinging Sixties called Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde which is just execrable, unwatchable. But it is an interesting idea - if you suspend your disbelief while watching it because it's so terrible - if you just can make the stretch to imagine what it's like for someone to find themselves in the body of the opposite sex and them being treated as though they really are a member of the opposite sex. That's one thing.

Another is that I have a long childhood odyssey that I won't go into any great detail about which is a collision of fundamentalist Catholicism and going for pilgrimages around Europe - usually to look at a 200-year-old corpse of a saint, and also before I was 10 I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Italian exploitation vampire movies. My parents spent time in a British Forces garrison in Malta and every village had a cinema, all air-conditioned, so I used to go around all of these places and watch the films - and they were all horror films. I was the only person in there, nobody said: "How old are you?" to which the reply would have been: "Eight."

The whole notion of the gothic has been ever present in my life. My brother was a very peculiar individual. I'm not joking - his boyfriend was an apprentice embalmer who played the tuba in the Salvation Army and he walked with a limp. So I kind of have always lived in that twilight world and been fascinated with it.

Jonathan went on to explain that, unbeknownst to him, Jessica had seen a production of an earlier version of Jekyll which Jonathan initially wrote for a small rep company. That version was never staged, but an 11th-hour problem at his son's theatre - The Courtyard in Hoxton - saw Jekyll come to life. Jessica was in the audience and the pair had a conversation about it, which spun into the current show.

JH: As far as the sexual politics are concerned, you take all that nonsense I've just told you about and slam it together with the fact I am a child of the 1970s and politics was an important issue. I was at the same demonstration in Southall where Blair Peach (an anti-Nazi activist) was beaten to death by the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group. My world has always been a combination of the ridiculous artifice of gothic living hand in hand with hard politics...you asked a question - you got your answer.

VFTG: I'm glad I did get an answer because that was probably the best answer I've ever gotten!

With Jonathan's inspirations laid bare, I wanted to do the same with Jessica as the piece takes a lot of elements from Germanic, Brechtian dark cabaret - currently made popular by bands such as the Tiger Lillies and Dresden Dolls - and oversets them on the tale with live music performed by actors on stage.

VFTG: There seems to be a trend towards dark cabaret and very theatrical bands, like the Tiger Lillies, at the minute. Were any of those in your mind when putting this show together, and why do you think this "Brechtian punk cabaret" style has become so popular recently?

JE: It's interesting you should mention the Tiger Lillies as they are definitely a big inspiration to me. Shockheaded Peter is a bit of a forerunner for Flipping the Bird. I think Phelim McDermott (director/designer of Shockheaded Peter) changed the way we make theatre with music in using the Tiger Lillies for that show. So yes. But I hope we're not too derivative! I've not seen their Rime of the Ancient Mariner yet. I saw them up at the Fringe and was excited by what they're doing right now. They've been going forever.

I think Brechtian punk cabaret has always had a cult following, it's just that it's recently come into the mainstream more. I'm not sure why this is - I think it's a visceral and powerful way of telling a story and it's intensely theatrical. And it also walks on this knife edge between being funny and ridiculous and camp and silly, and being very very dark and disturbing. That's why I like it. It's kind of a medium for outcasts.

JH: The current vogue is just one of the current fashion pendulum swings that happens when it's remembered by a new generation of theatre makers. This script (and the style it points to) would have happened if the Tiger Lillies and Punchdrunk didn't exist.

VFTG: How did the theatre with music element come about, as that is what sets it apart?

JE: Flipping the Bird is a very collaborative company and live music is central to how we approach things. The core of the company includes me as director, Fionn Cox Davies (movement director) and the composer Laurence Osborn. Both Laurence and I found this piece very satisfying in terms of process - he was very present in rehearsals and casting and really co-authored parts of the show with me. We wanted to create something weird and unsettling, but also very funny, and I think he has done exactly that. It's a real honour to be working with him and I see us continuing to work together for the foreseeable. He is an integral part of the company.

In terms of casting - the music was actually written with Joel Phillimore (Worsfield) in mind, as he is another core part of the company. So we knew the piece would be scored for mandolin and melodion. We had an idea of the sound we wanted and initially looked for a violinist before thinking of Elliott (St John). He and I worked together on The Trench with Les Enfants Terribles and so I knew what a pleasure he was to work with and what a talented actor-muso he is. So I suppose we were relatively lucky with casting. Laurence definitely composed with these guys in mind. He is a very responsive and original mind. It's incredibly exciting to work with him. Similarly Joel and Elliott are committed musicians and brilliant actors - they are both, rather than one and the other.

VFTG: So we've talked a lot about the genesis of the show and its inspirations, but what about the actual here-and-now of the show. Cristina, how is it to play a character so difficult, torn but with dual identities that sometimes coalesce as Jekyll?

CC: We started off by going from the script and finding all the facts you can - that's your cement, your base, then you go of and do a load of research. As you think, you keep seeing films and reading books and articles, talking to people and keep seeing more and more connections. It's a bit like when you write a paper for university and your whole world is that. But there are also a lot of conversations in the rehearsals, looking at the rationale of it. Now (playing the part) it's just mad and it's just funny.

You talk about the duplicity of the character but now there's a further duplicity between the seriousness of the motives and the enjoyment of a very voracious, very fun piece. It's two-sided in many ways. Sure enough every day I discover something new or make a different decision - not to alter completely the character, but just because there are so many avenues you can take.

JE: It's so rich, yes. We have to constantly remind ourselves it's not Chekhov and there was a lot of research in there - historical research, looking at people with multiple personalities and things that are founded in fact. I hope the performance is founded in truth - but we also had to remind ourselves it was funny and silly and melodramatic and sexy. There's a particular heightened style that needs a certain wryness in the play.

VFTG: Was that difficult to do? To balance this and try not to make it too one or the other.

JE: It's a real knife-edge. As long as all the decisions we made in every respect, from the largest to the smallest, was be founded on truth - why would a character do this? - it's okay. It's a character who lives in a strange unfamiliar world but we need to know why they are doing it then we could justify the more outlandish decisions.

CC: And you discover this with an audience too, when you play it.

JE: It's fun to do, as well. I thought tonight, I love making theatre that is outrageous, I think there's an outrage at this piece too.

VFTG: So is this the vision you had in your head when you were writing it?

JH: That Jess saw some of my earlier work produces a situation where she can second-guess how she feels how it ought to be done. I also try to write so that to a degree I'm encoding the tone and texture of the piece in the writing. We sometimes look at each other across the gulf of age and I'm quite amazed how this particular show has come into existence without any resistance. It's as though by accident of these wonderful actors, lovely design, great crew, all Laurence's music, it all drops into place. And it doesn't happen to you, really. The way that the piece is quite nimble and moves from being unpleasant to actually quite funny, that way it juggles different elements of theatricality quite comfortably easily and without too much effort.

The nice thing about the production is, so often when you watch one of your own shows it's almost as though it's happening in spite of your script rather than because of it. On this occasion there's this really strong feeling - which I'm very grateful for - that the show enjoys showing off the script.

VFTG: One interesting script omission is the "classic" transformation scene of Jekyll to Hyde. The only thing like it we have is one of Henry from rakish to drunkard. Why decide not to include such an iconic moment?

JH: A "classic" moment is almost always an over-familiar moment, which as a consequence has no real impact. Audiences think they know what they want, but I think what they really want is the unfamiliar. When I did The Third Man for the stage I left out the cuckoo clock speech. When I dramatised Nineteen Eighty Four I left out the opening lines - "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

VFTG: You did your first run in St Albans, then took it to the Edinburgh Fringe - now you're back in London. How has it developed along that way?

JE: We've been so lucky in the structure of how this has been performed. Maltings very kindly hosted our first run which was a great luxury. With Edinburgh you just have a very tight tech time and so we had a very beautiful non-fringe space before we went out there. You really have to protect yourself with Edinburgh.

Then we had this great month with packed houses and many and various responses which was also fascinating, illuminating and told us a lot about the text. I've done Edinburgh many, many times and it's always important for me that it's not an end in itself - you learn so much about the show that you want to take work on afterwards. I knew from the beginning I wanted to take it on to London and it was an immense pleasure to bring it here. We've been very lucky to be offered this slot a month after the Fringe closed, giving us enough headspace to get away from the piece, but also do a week of rehearsal and that was amazing. I'm really thrilled to bring it here, to the show's spiritual home, as it starts on a Southwark back street.

I suspect the press and audiences will be harsher because it's London but we're hungry for that as well and want to see how people feel about it.

Cristina Catalina

Photography supplied by Chloé Neklin Consulting

CC: In terms of time, I'm from Romania originally and people in my part of the world rehearse for much longer, as we all know. Three weeks, plus four, we're on seven, so we've just arrived on Russian time. It's nice because you get to know a show really well, meet your character then with a bit of space look at it again and very clearly see what feels right and what doesn't more than you can at three weeks.

JH: I think that when you first rehearse a show it's a contrasting process of solving problems and having moments of really pleasurable illumination. What you end up with is a production that has solved a problem in terms of connecting issue with tissue then goes on to a Baroque enjoyable moment, then flat space where you know you're only getting fromt here to the next thing, so there are bits that are finished and then unfishined.

Not seeing it in Edinburgh but seeing it now is like having a time machine. Effectively I've missed the three-and-a-half weeks during which the connecting tissue turned into theatre that actually justified itself. All of the changes of beats, changes of mood, the actors trying to work out how a character moves from one scene to the next has a chance to bed in and enables the performers to get to the point where they can own the whole thing rather than bits. That sense of the whole is very strongly present now.

Inevitably there's going to be some people that aren't going to like it and might think it quite facile. In a way I'd say: "Yeah, well...one of the things I'm really pleased about is that already the shopping channels are selling stuff for Christmas and it's all s***. If there's nothing else to watch go to the shopping channel as it's entertaining in its own right." I truthfully don't give a s*** what anyone else says about it - so long as it entertains me, then I know I'm on safe ground. I've never written or directed a show in my life in anticipation of pleasing an audience. If other people come along and like it, that's fine, if they don't then they can f*** off as far as I'm concerned.

VFTG: Obviously you should be happy with the show and the reception, but was there anything you felt you couldn't quite manage to pull off and would have liked to have done?

JE: Hm. Good question. I am very proud of the show. I am humbled to have worked with the creative team and company I have - I think they're cracking and I feel lucky.

One thing I have learned over the years is that Fringe theatre does not have to be a compromise. It's the art of the possible - but it can and should be the absolute best you can do. As polished and drilled and tested as it can be. I believe we have done this. Too often, Fringe work, especially in Edinburgh, is a bit rough round the edges, as if there is some kind of glamour to this. If you're asking people to pay for tickets, in my mind this is unacceptable. So I always try to make my shows - particularly FTB shows as it's my company and I theoretically have more control over rehearsal timings etc - as polished as they can be. This show is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. I applaud and relish those that hate it. But I think it would be hard to dispute the hard work that's gone into it - and the skill of the team. I guess the only thing I might change with a fistful of cash is the prosthesis - and get something film-standard. We did a lot of work on that though and even with thousands it's hard to get something realistic.

The talk then turns again, inevitably, to that constant pushing and pulling between comedy and tragedy, the duality at the heart of the show.

JH: But when my mum died, she was crossing the living room, coming to me. She'd just come out of hospital as she'd had a cancer operation and she had a heart attack on the way across. She dropped down onto one knee and my dad said to her...there she was, on one knee about to keel over and die - she died a few moments later - my dad said to her: "Stop messing about Anne." And I can't help but think about my mum's death as being on the one hand tragic and on the other comic. It was funny, it was a funny moment.

VFTG: I'm really sorry I'm grinning...

JH: But that's it!

JE: That's what brilliant theatre is, when it goes on that knife-edge.

JH: They happen at the same time. Academics will say: "Oh, that juxtaposition of the Porter's speech is necessary..." Yeah, you think "F*** off". The truth is, things are funny and terrible at the same time and that is what human existence is like.

Jekyll & Hyde runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 19th October 2013. As well as starring in the show, Catalina also produces and co-curates a festival called All Change: New Horizons in British Theatre. The event is taking place in early 2014, with a weekend of scratch performances in late November 2013. Visit firehousecreativeproductions.com for more information.

Jekyll & Hyde opened on 25th September and runs until 19th October 2013 at the Southwark Playhouse.

Nearest tube station: Elephant & Castle (Bakerloo, Northern)



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