THE Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre had to cut short their 18-month international tour last March, the pandemic forcing Alexander Wright and Phil Grainger to fly back to North Yorkshire from Australasia.
A year later, however, a brand-new work, created in tandem with fellow theatre-maker Oliver Tilney, arrives in the form of Half Man//Half Bull, a narrative-led double album of two ancient myths and 20 original tracks to be “experienced at home”.
Fusing spoken word, electronica and soul, Half Man//Half Bull retells the interlinking myths of Theseus & The Minotaur and Daedalus & Icarus, presented in a listening pack designed by Lydia Denno that will be sent out in the post.
“We wanted people to be able to hold a beautiful piece of art in their hand, like holding an album cover, so Lydia’s artwork is part of the whole experience,” says Alex. “We also want people to carve out a bit of proper time to really listen to the work, rather than listening to it for the first time when you’re doing the washing-up or while you’re cooking.
“We’re also asking you to reach out to connect with other people by sending out postcards, and there are four cards from the listening pack to hide around your community too. You could even give someone a call, knock on someone’s door and say hello.
“The two stories say a lot about isolation, so it feels good to do something that’s an antidote to that. We didn’t set out to tell a story about this time of Covid lockdowns, but it just seems to have seeped into it.”
Over the past few years, Alex and Phil, friends since Easingwold schooldays, have taken their international award-winning shows Orpheus, Eurydice and The Gods The Gods The Gods to packed rooms across Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Bali and New York, performing an enthralling, electrifying brand of spoken word and live music.
Once back home, they teamed up with long-time collaborator Oliver Tilney – he played Jay Gatsby in Wright’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby for the Guild Of Misrule at 41 Monkgate, York, in 2016 – to create Half Man//Half Bull.
“From the get-go, we wanted to make a new piece of work that wasn’t contingent on being performed live,” says Oliver, who first brought the idea to Alex and Phil last June. “We didn’t want a watered-down version of something to give to audiences; we wanted to create a new piece of work in its correct form. For us, that form is a double narrative-led album.”
Oliver set about reading various Greek myths, seeking a way to connect two together. “The ones we’ve chosen are about becoming a parent; one is about a father loving a son, the other about a son loving a father,” he says.
“Most people don’t carry any sympathy for Icarus, thinking he’s rather brash, but I thought, ‘no, let’s make these characters human’.”
Alex, Phil and Oliver began work on Half Man//Half Bull on Zoom, but lockdown easement then enabled work to develop in Covid-safe conditions, both in Stillington in Alex’s studio at The Mill last October and at Crooked Room Studio in Strensall, York.
“There was a moment I recall where Ollie’s daughter was in a push chair and I was writing these ditties, and Ollie’s lyrics were so clearly coming from his experience of being a dad,” says Phil.
“More than before, the writing was a mixture of all three of us. With Orpheus, it was very clear that I wrote the music and Alex, the lyrics, but for The Gods The Gods The Gods, there were a couple of songs where Alex came up with the melody.
“Whereas with this project, we’ve all stuck our noses into all of it. Ollie and Alex were writing the first drafts of ideas, while I was building some benches at Alex’s mill. Then I came up with a few bits of guitar, but once that had been done and they’d come up with the skeleton of the stories, we fleshed everything out, with everyone coming up with lyrics and me writing tunes. We all pushed ourselves more than ever.”
Alex rejoins: “We’re lucky that we’ve all known each other and worked together for so long, so it never felt like we needed to define who was doing what, or who was in charge. It just felt organic.”
The trio have partnered up with 15 organisations to bring the idea to life, among them the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Theatr Clwyd, Leeds company Slung Low, Rural Arts, Thirsk, and The Barn Theatre, their involvement affirming the appetite for this type of work.
Alex says: “We started talking with our brilliant pals at Streatham Space Project [a project that Oliver was involved in setting up], where we managed to bring a socially distanced version of Eurydice in September. It quickly became clear there would be an appetite for a theatre, or an organisation, to be able to deliver content to their audience while people couldn’t gather in a more traditional setting.”
Oliver adds: “Those 15 theatres and organisations around the country are helping us by each agreeing to distribute 100 copies, so that means we’ve pre-sold 1,500 copies, either to be given away to pockets of the community they want to contact through outreach work, or for some to be put on sale through the venues.”
An Arts Council Project Grant allowed the Half Man//Half Bull team to grow: the trio have collaborated with producers, designers and host of musicians to realise this project, alongside the family of theatres, venues and partner organisations.
After years of touring, lockdown has provided a longer opportunity to create and develop, says Phil. “Alex and I have been writing and touring shows for a while, with an ambition to grow our sound. This felt like a great opportunity to work with more people, collaborate with more artists and, crucially, create some work for as many freelancers as we could afford,” he explains.
That team includes Aminita Francis, from BAC BeatBox Collective, as Theseus; Zimbabwean-born musician Tendaii Sitima, as Daedalus; designer Lydia Denno; music producer Isaac McInnis and project producer Charlotte Bath.
“We were also able to spend a lot of time at Crooked Room Studio working with Isaac McInnis, which really helped grow the sound,” says Phil. “It’s crucial that as this is an audio project, that it sounds flipping great.”
Lockdown 3 was imposed just as Alex, Phil and Oliver were part-way through the last recording session. “But because we were already ‘bubbled up, we were already in the right place to allows us to continue,” says Alex.
“It was lucky that we could continue unimpeded,” says Phil. “Pretty much everyone else, apart from our producer Isaac, was able to send us their parts, recording in their own homes or on Zoom.”
Billed as “an epic storytelling adventure for our time”, Half Man//Half Bull is designed expressly as an At-Home experience. “For a project that is an album, a listening experience, something you do with your ears, we were really clear we didn’t want to make a cast recording of something that already existed; it had to be something that stood in its own right,” says Alex.
“For the vast majority of musicians and creative people, they are hard-wired to connect with other people, preferably gathered in one room, but this had to be different – though it does feel odd that we can’t all be together to launch it!”
Instead, Half Man//Half Bull is a form of home service. “If you buy it, you’ll get a physical pack through your door with artwork, listening instructions and an invitation to step back out into the real world,” says Alex.
“Normally we would be thinking about the physical space we’re performing a show in, but this time it’s a listening experience designed for people’s homes.”
Yet might Half Man//Half Bull be turned into a live performance? “While we were writing the album, we had a catchphrase that we banned each other from saying: ‘When we do the live show’,” recalls Oliver. “Instead, we concentrated on the album, but having worked together for so many years, we all have ambitions to do it live.
“We haven’t had many conversations yet, just touched on a few ideas so far, because our focus has been on the album.”
For further information and to buy the albums, go to: halfmanhalfbull.com.