DIRECTOR Gemma Fairlie is directing two productions this season, all while pregnant with a Christmas delivery on the way.
A driving force behind bringing York writer-performer David Reed’s play Guy Fawkes to the stage ever since Reed’s sketch comedy company The Penny Dreadfuls’ radio play more than a decade ago, Gemma is overseeing rehearsals at the Central Methodist Church, St Saviourgate, for the stage world premiere at York Theatre Royal from October 28 to November 12.
Next, this director of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s Henry V at the Castle car park in York in Summer 2019 will return to the Stephen Joseph Theatre Christmas show in Scarborough. After Jack And The Beanstalk last winter, she will be at the helm of Nick Lane’s Cinderella from December 2 to 31.
Here she discusses Guy Fawkes, Reed’s explosive comedy about York’s traitorous trigger man with its devilishly dangerous mix of Blackadder and Upstart Crow.
How did you become involved with the Guy Fawkes project, Gemma?
“The Penny Dreadfuls wrote the radio play about Guy Fawkes in 2009, which I heard and thought would work brilliantly as a theatre piece. So, in 2010, I approached the guys and we started to have conversations.
“It always takes time to get everybody in the room and start to figure out how it might work, but I knew David [writer David Reed] was excited about making it theatrical and exploring the journey of the characters in a different medium.”
What intrigued you about the play?
“Guy Fawkes gets caught. Everyone knows that. But how can you shift an audience’s perception about a story they think they know? Are there moments where we hope he doesn’t get caught? Are there moments when we are on his side and want to blow up Parliament?
“It’s like Hamlet or King Lear. Everyone knows they die but you want the audience to have that moment where they don’t want that to happen, where they want a different ending. Can we have Guy as a hero and an anti-hero? And can a story that is so clearly a tragedy about a man that fails actually work as a comedy that makes us question that failure?”
When did York Theatre Royal first come on board?
“That was around ten years ago when we brought the play to York with the idea of the theatre being a co-producer or partner. I came to a programme meeting at the Theatre Royal and pitched the idea. They were really excited.
“Of course, it absolutely is a York-originated story although it’s set in London, and that’s a vital part of it. The North-South divide, particularly what that meant in the 1600s and how that relates to the characters and their experiences, is vital to the story.
“Then Covid happened and the planned York production was postponed, but what’s great is that this is absolutely the right time to put it on. What put Parliament back between 1604 and 1605 was the plague. What kept stymying them was this awful medical emergency and in the same way Covid has shifted our perspectives and our timescale over the last three years. It feels very prescient in that way.
“I think there’s disappointment and frustration with our current political system and a great deal of tribalism happening. It’s obviously very different to the persecution of Protestants and the Catholics, and what was happening politically in Guy Fawkes’ time, but there is a parallel in terms of the underlying tension and fear, with nobody knowing if they’re safe or quite knowing what’s going to happen next, what the next government will bring. Now is the perfect time to be doing this play.”
David’s play is billed as a comedy but the Gunpowder Plot – an attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605 – was a serious matter. Discuss…
“What we’re brilliant at in the UK is satire. This comes from a long tradition going back to pamphlets about the Whigs and political cartoons in general all the way through Monty Python, The Fast Show, even Spitting Image, which has recently had a renaissance.
“We love to skewer our political leaders; we love to question and cause trouble with humour. That’s absolutely what the arts should be doing: questioning our society and our values and what we hold dear as humans. Otherwise, what’s the point?
“For us, as a team, it’s about finding the right tone for the play – between comedy and the ultimate tragedy. So, sometimes there’s slapstick and it’s very silly but there’s an underlying truth and passion to this story and a real darkness to Guy’s fervour.”
What should Theatre Royal audiences expect?
“We want people to discover the story of Guy Fawkes afresh. It’s really important people come in knowing it’s a comedy, so that doesn’t freak them out, but I think of it a bit like Blackadder Goes Forth. The end of the last series where they have to go over the top is a really heart-breaking moment.
“You have a bunch of clowns and they’ve been ridiculous; you’ve laughed at them a lot but you’ve also invested in them and grown to love them. That’s so important. The moment at the end where you think they’re all going to die, that’s incredibly moving, and that’s what comedy can do.
“If you laugh at someone, you start to care about them and really invest in their journey. We want our audience to laugh, laugh, laugh and then hopefully cry at the end.”
You held the casting auditions in Yorkshire. How important was that?
“It was absolutely essential we represented York in the show and we have that authentic voice. We wanted to put York actors in front of York audiences and celebrate local talent. Also, having the right mix of people in the room that (a) an audience would love and (b) who would have comedy bones was key.
“You have to know very clearly who they are as characters and they’ve also got to work together as a team. We’re very lucky to have found a wonderfully talented bunch and it’s a total joy for David (Reed) and I to see it come to life, and see what the cast bring to it [including Reed in the title role].”
Did you ever think you might not direct Guy Fawkes because of your pregnancy?
“Absolutely not! I was always aiming to direct it, whether it was with a babe in arms or the day before being induced in hospital. Guy Fawkes has been my baby for so long, so what’s really lovely for me is to see this theatre baby come to life while my son grows in utero.
“It’s kind of crazy to know they are both finally going to be out there in the world as both babies have taken me quite a long time to bring to life. Plus, laughter is really good for you in pregnancy and I’m getting lots of that in the rehearsal room!”
“Directing Cinderella at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this Christmas. I’m very lucky I get to have this time in the rehearsal room at two incredible theatres, doing the thing I absolutely love, before I meet my son.”
What sort of theatre work are you attracted to?
“I do a lot of Shakespeare, new work, and I come from a physical theatre background so I do movement and choreography within that, and occasionally a bit of circus as well. The pieces that I’m drawn to tend to have an epic edge to them, and they always have to have heart. Generally, they will have moments of big physicality and lots of comedy.
“When I go to Scarborough, I’ll be directing and choreographing five actors playing the whole story of Cinderella, playing multi-roles and singing their hearts out. I love that I go from Guy Fawkes with a stage revolve, pyrotechnics and sword fights to Scarborough, to work in the round with lots of Strictly Come Dancing moves and glitter. That’s the real joy of being a freelance director.”
Guy Fawkes runs at York Theatre Royal from October 28 to November 12, 7.30pm, except October 30 and November 6; 2pm, November 3 and 10; 2.30pm, November 5 and 12. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Cinderella, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, December 2 to 31. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.