TAITMAIL Surviving to dazzle
On Wednesday a capacity audience in the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, witnessed an interpretation of “The Scottish Play” like no other.
This production, the Faction theatre company’s Macbeth: Partners of Greatness, can be seen as a signifier of how essential economy for theatre-making in this post-Covid cost of living crisis is not only providing some financial surety, it’s inspiring new thinking about how we do theatre, including classical theatre.
It's Faction’s take on perhaps Shakespeare’s most intense psychological thriller, with the action distilled down to a filmic study of the two principal characters - for the play is all about them, after all. If anything the treatment makes the narrative more penetrating, still very much Shakespeare’s play in Mark Leipacher’s adaptation and direction. The best lines - even the Porter’s - are still there but delivered via these two, played by Sophie Spreadbury and Christopher York, in a close study of the murderous pair that is directly focussed on their relationship and the consequences of it.
“It’s never going to feel like concrete, this play” Leipacher explains. “It’s going to feel like quicksilver, moving all the time.”
Faction is an ensemble company that works with both classical theatre and new writing and is based on the time-honoured tradition of rep, having a repertoire of productions and a team of players that act them. It was founded by Leipacher, now 40, in 2008 when he was a tyro director at the Bristol Old Vic (the oldest rep company in the country) straight from university - he knew about rep companies before he knew there were drama schools. He got his early inspiration from the Edinburgh Fringe where he saw the unconventional and sparkling presentations of companies like Schaubühne that transcends conventions of language and space.
Leipacher dates his company’s history from 2012, however, when following a five-year residency at the New Diorama in London Faction’s form was established. Flexibility, absence of preconceptions and, well, democracy, are the driving forces for the company of 11 actors and a handful of associate writers and designers that won them the Peter Brook Ensemble Award and the OffWestEnd award for best ensemble. In 2016 they famously took over a space in Selfridge’s Oxford Street store to present Much Ado About Nothing as part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations.
They've talked to the Arts Council about applying for National Portfolio status but decided against, preferring flexibility freedom from form-filling when projects funding is doing nicely.
In line with the need to pare down the processes, each of the ensemble members has worked up their own monologue piece that can slot into a schedule as required, and their last appearance at Faction’s London partner venue, Wilton’s, had a programme of three from Amelia Donkor, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Jude Owusu, workshopped and developed within the company. They also work in pairs, devising two-handers that they take to the company and Leipacher as the artistic director (and usually director) to discuss, and Macbeth: Partners of Greatness is a result of this practice. “It wasn’t even a matter of choice” Leipacher says. “It was a set of circumstances”.
Survival as a medium scale theatre company has been as much to do with partnerships, often informal, with playhouses such as the Stephen Joseph and the Northcott in Exeter, the next destination for Macbeth, and friendly associations with the likes of the Lowry in Salford where Leipacher learned filming techniques that have not only allowed Faction to get productions on screen but added to his own armoury as a director.
The pandemic, he says, saved Faction. If, as had been the plan, the company had established its own building base at about the time Covid first struck, they would not have made it past the dwindling audience income, the rocketing cost of living, the rising costs of materials and decreases in guarantees. Instead they have diversified and are flourishing. The actors in the ensemble are not exclusively contracted so can work elsewhere, giving flexibility all round, and Leipacher himself teaches when he is not working within Faction.
Their productions, too, are adaptable and Leipacher is linked with the Theatre in the Round Consortium that is encouraging touring associations for theatre in “non-front end” venues, especially where the audience surrounds the action as they do with this Macbeth, playing into the growing taste for a festival format.
Until earlier this year Leipacher was joint artistic director with his wife, the director Rachel Valentine Smith, who has moved on to be a creative associate at the women’s theatre company Clean Break. “We’d moved on from the joint artistic director model, it needs to be more of an executive director and artistic director, and Rachel is still very much part of the Faction family” he says.
Both are interested in multinational theatre, and that is the subject of Faction’s most ambitious project to date: Pericles. It is Shakespeare’s least performed play, because of its complexity and perhaps because of how few quotable lines it has, but Leipacher and his team are taking it to the Barbican in the spring for research and development that could see it emerge, perhaps with overseas festival partners, as an international sensation. “It feels like a make-or-break moment” he says, though it’s not clear whether he means for the company or for theatre as a whole.
Pericles, set in the biblical state of Tyre, is episodic, which suits the Faction style. The idea began in his and Smith’s minds when they were invited to Lebanon to stage their Lear with a Lebanese cast in an amphitheatre there. They realised that Tyre is in modern day Lebanon: Pericles is a Lebanese play even though few Lebanese have heard of it let alone seen it performed. “What’s exciting, though, is that it’s also set in Greece, Libya, Turkey, Syria, and there’s an English character as well. It’s not a terrific leap to say that the leading character should be played by a Lebanese actor, and then that all the others would be played by people in their own nationality, a trans-national and multi-lingual Pericles”. It’s never been done before, but there was never a time for breaking barriers like the present.
“Theatre will survive” Mark Leipacher says with certainty. “The question is what form do we want it to survive in? Do we want more of the same, dead on arrival, or do we want something a smidge more exciting? Can’t we find a dazzling way of doing theatre rather than a sort of inoculated form? For me, I’d rather be dazzled…”
Macbeth: Partners of Greatness is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, until October 15. Check websites for Northcott Exeter and Wilton’s London dates.