WHAT a sight to greet new chief executive Paul Crewes at Tuesday’s opening night of Frantic Assembly’s pulsating reinvention of Kafka’s Metamorphosis: a full house at York Theatre Royal, with excited school groups to the fore.
Appointed in June, after Tom Bird flew off to Sheffield Theatres in January, Paul took up his post last week, when Rambert’s Death Trap marked his arrival with two Ben Duke works full of the turbulence of life and death.
Metamorphosis? Death? New life? Re-birth? Paul will give himself time, letting his feet settle under his desk in St Leonard’s Place, before making his mark on the way forward post-Covid, post-Bird, post-De Grey Rooms.
His official statement put it this way: “I am thrilled to have now joined the great team at York Theatre Royal. Over the next few weeks and months, I’m looking forward to meeting our audiences, participants, creatives, members, donors and partners and hearing from them what makes this fantastic theatre so important in the life of our wider community.
“I will continue to build on all that work – supporting great artists and practitioners as well as attracting and growing new audiences. This is an exciting time at York Theatre Royal and I’m looking forward to getting started.”
Impact on the wider community. Supporting artists and practitioners, locally, nationally and internationally. Cultivating new audiences. Exciting time to arrive. These are the bullet points, the right goals, at the right time.
No wonder his appointment made so much sense to the York Citizens’ Theatre Trust board of trustees, whose chair, Ann Green CBE, said at the time of his appointment: “Paul has a huge breadth and depth of knowledge and experience, and a passion for the positive role theatre can play in community life.
“Building on all the fantastic work the team have created in recent years, we are all excited to be embarking on a new, fresh and confident chapter in the life of York Theatre Royal together.”
At 62, Paul’s vast experience in theatre and the arts as a chief executive, producer and artistic advisor takes in organisations both in Great Britain and the United States. From 2015 to 2021, he was artistic director of the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Los Angeles, where theatre, dance, music and film vied for attention.
Before that, he was executive producer and chief executive officer of Kneehigh, the Cornish company that went national and international in a model of groundbreaking, exhilarating, innovative theatre expansion.
Earlier, Bristol Old Vic, Paines Plough, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Plymouth Theatre Royal, the Lowry, Salford, Phoenix Dance Theatre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse (2001-2004) in Leeds all benefited from his producing skills, and he had three years as director of technical training at RADA too.
“I started my career at the Bristol Old Vic and I shall probably end it here in York,” says Paul. “I love the history of these theatres.”
He was born in Brixton, South London in May 1961, where his Methodist minister father was the chaplain at Brixton Prison in the Sixties. “He got to know the Richardsons, Charlie Kray, Ronnie and Reggie too, and the youth club he ran was raided daily by the police,” recalls Paul.
He went on to study English and History at Roehampton Institute, part of London University, where he served as social secretary of the students’ union in his second year. “I loved creating events, whether a ball, a party or a theatre show, working with a very small budget,” he says.
He did “get his head down” in his 3rd year, albeit while being social secretary for the rugby club – sport is his other great love – and was then elected to the sabbatical post of students’ union treasurer, “looking after everything” and mothballing his plan to study teacher training in English and PE at Westminster College, Oxford.
Ken Baker’s vision for education in Margaret Thatcher’s Government prompted him to write a dissertation on why he would not be going into teaching. “At that point, I didn’t feel ready to teach,” he says.
He was, however, developing the skills that would take him into producing for theatres, having already stage managed a school production of Max Frisch’s Andora that played the Edinburgh Fringe, even picking up a review in the Scotsman. “That’s quite an experience for a 17-year-old,” he says.
“At university, I directed a play, Ball Boys, a two-hander by David Edgar, and had such a great time doing it. I never saw theatre as a career, but as a hobby, so when I entered that world in 1985, I wasn’t planning for the long term.
“But then came the sudden realisation that if I’m going to do something, it must be something I enjoy, and that I should train in it from the very bottom, beginning at the end of the pier at Great Yarmouth, working on four shows seven days a week.”
His career was up and running, with the focus on producing and gradually overseeing the creativity that comes into the building. “Whether it’s programming or production managing, for the last 24 years, I’ve been involved in the producing side, working with great creative teams. For me, it’s always been about working with the team, and that will continue at Theatre Royal, brokering and guiding and at times being guided too, but ultimately with control in my hands.”
He thrives on such responsibility. “People are brought up being afraid to make mistakes, and that’s part of the problem with the arts, where they’re scared of failing, where you have to create prototypes, but if you’re not frightened of failing, then something more exciting will come out of it.”
Kneehigh’s success would be a case in point, and now York Theatre Royal should benefit from his artistic and commercial vision.
SHOULD Frantic Assembly transfer Franz Kafka’s absurdist novella Metamorphosis from page to stage?
Artistic director Scott Graham’s initial reaction was No, but its themes of the crushing burden of debt, subsequent dysfunctional family relations, monotonous work for low pay, fear of isolation and an unhealthy obsession with identity made it as much a story for our time as of 1912.
That surely made it ripe for a company noted for the heft of its emotional truths? Then add wave upon wave of Kakfa surrealism to bring out Frantic Assembly’s other trademark: movement. The physicality to complement all that mental turbulence.
Now Graham needed a writer, one to work in tandem with him in creating a 21st century reinvention of Metamorphosis, its world of social immobility, dashed expectations, repetitive restraints, impoverishment and exploitation, but still with the look of the early 20th century (courtesy of Jon Bauser’s design and Becky Gunstone’s period costumes).
Lemn Sissay OBE, esteemed poet, broadcaster and speaker, was his pick but again the first inclination was No. However, he too felt the tug of Kafka’s torrid tale, seeing within its desperation, a chance to depict Gregor’s transformation as the embodiment of the woes of modern capitalism.
Two forces are at play in Graham’s production, movement and language, not always in union, however.
Movement first, the more satisfying, more successful component. Bauser’s set, with its sloping ceiling, cut-off-at-the-knees floor, silken walls and sparse furnishings, conspires with Ian William Galloway’s video designs, Helen Skiera’s soundscapes, Stefan Janik’s unnerving compositions and Simisola Majekodunmi’s all-important lighting to be disorientating for audience and Brazilian-English actor and movement practitioner Felipe Pacheco’s Gregor Samsa alike.
The Samsa house, or more precisely, Gregor’s room within it, is constantly, subtly, deceptively, on the move, as if a magician with dexterous sleight of hand is at work. The physicality of the stage in motion is as imvital here as human movement. Or insect movement, in the case of poor Gregor.
As a sidenote, the sense of a house on the move, of tectonic shifts, is more effectively portrayed than in Les Enfants Terribles’ Theatre Royal visit last month with The House With Chicken Legs.
Your reviewer recalls lighting last being used so strikingly, as a character in itself, in the Lyric Hammersmith’s Ghost Stories at the Grand Opera House in pre-Covid March 2020.
Here, in one extraordinary scene, as Pacheco’s Gregor swings on the wiring from the detached ceiling light, the light in his hand keeps switching on and off. Off, back on, and he has moved again. Again and again.
This is movement and meaning in perfect symmetry, with Pacheco as spry as a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, but not comical, more like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.
By comparison with the visual, the verbal is uneven, sometimes playful, other times earnest or abstract; sometimes snappy, other times, weighty and wordy in monologues for Troy Glasgow’s wastrel, hypocritical, hyper-critical Mr Samsa and his compliant wife (Louise Mai Newberry).
Shards of humour pierce the surrealist surface, but the overall tone is disquieting, discomfiting. For all the poetic verve and political vigour, momentum is lost, rather than gained, post-interval, when more interaction would have been beneficial (like in the scenes with Joe Layton’s Chief Clerk), rather than the fragmented, episodic structure of lone voices.
In the best decision, Gregor’s transformation to an insect is depicted not as an overnight sensation, but as a gradual consequence of his debilitating, repetitive daily routine as a clothing salesman, with all the pressures of being the sole breadwinner, That works wonderfully well across the first half, captured in Pacheco’s Groundhog Day grind, climaxing with Gregor encased in four chairs, looking not unlike a beetle for the only time.
Likewise, the metamorphosis of Gregor’s young sister, Hannah Sinclair Robinson’s Grete, takes on more prominence in Sissay’s account, wherein she hates the discipline of having to play the violin yet craves the spotlight. How very 21st century! Her face-pulling solo scene by the mirror is a stand-out, one that finds Sissay, Graham and Sinclair Robinson conveying character as one.
That scene is typical of a production with moments and ideas of theatrical brilliance rather than creative cohesion. Last autumn’s bar-room Othello was superior, but Frantic Assembly are always worth seeing, for those exciting highs, the visual fire storms, the brutal, yet beautiful physicality.
Performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
AN historic crucifix, a Wolds art trail, 40th anniversaries at the quadruple and a York-made horror double bill promise a heap of interesting encounters for Charles Hutchinson and you alike.
Exhibition launch of the week:Hide & Seek: The Aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, Blossom Street, York, today until November 16
THE only surviving item from thousands seized in raids on Catholic houses after the 1605 Gunpowder Plot goes on show in York. The late 16th/early 17th century crucifix belonged to Father Edward Oldcorne (1561-1606), who was hanged, drawn and quartered despite being innocent of involvement. His crime: he attended school in York with infamous plotter Guy Fawkes and committed the treasonous act of becoming a Catholic priest.
On display will be new research into the crucifix, more information on Oldcorne and the men he was caught alongside, and an exploration of how priest hiding holes were constructed within the fabric of buildings. Tickets: barconvent.co.uk.
Children’s gig of the week: Andy And The Odd Socks, York Theatre Royal, today, 1pm
STRAIGHT off the telly and onto the live stage, Andy And The Odd Socks bring their madcap mix of songs, slapstick and silliness to life with a 70-minute show to entertain families of all ages.
Fronted by Andy Day, CBeebies regular and 2021 York Theatre Royal panto star as Dandini in Cinderella, their sock’n’roll makes for the ideal first concert for children. Andy And The Odd Socks are patrons for the Anti-Bullying Alliance, by the way. Tickets update: filling up fast; 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Studio show of the week: Essential Theatre in The Mistake, York Theatre Royal Studio, tonight, 7.45pm
DIRECTED by Rosamunde Hutt, Michael Mears’s Spirit of the Fringe award-winning play explores the events surrounding the catastrophic ‘mistake’ that launched the nuclear age, followed by a post-show discussion.
1942. On a squash court in Chicago, a dazzling scientific experiment takes place, one that three years later will destroy a city and change the world forever. Two actors, one British (Mears), one Japanese (Riko Nakazono), enact the stories of a brilliant Hungarian scientist, a daring American pilot and a devoted Japanese daughter, in a fast-moving drama about the dangers that arise when humans dare to unlock the awesome power of nature. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Season start of the week: York Late Music, Franko Bozak, 1pm; Delta Saxophone Quartet, 7.30pm, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York, today
FRANKO Bozac showcases the reasons why the accordion should not be underestimated in his afternoon programme, featuring a collaboration between composer James Williamson and visual artist Romey T Brough.
Celebrating their own ruby anniversary, the Delta Saxophone Quartet mark York Late Music’s 40th year by performing Steve Martland, The Soft Machine and new works. Box office: latemusic.org or on the door.
Musical of the week: Be Amazing Arts in West Side Story, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, today and tomorrow, 2.30pm and 7.30pm
MALTON company Be Amazing Arts present Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s musical transition of Shakesespeare’s Romeo And Juliet to modern-day New York City, where two young idealistic lovers find themselves caught between warring street gangs, the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Arthur Laurents’s book remains as powerful, poignant and timely as ever, charting the lovers’ struggle to survive in a world of hate, violence and prejudice in this innovative, heart-wrenching landmark Broadway musical. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Art event of the weekend: Pocklington Area Open Studios 2023, today and tomorrow, 10am to 5pm
TAKING in Pocklington, villages with ten miles of the East Yorkshire market town, the Yorkshire Wolds and North Derwent Valley, Pocklington Area Open Studios 2023 features 28 artists in 14 venues.
This compact art trail features paintings, ceramics, textiles, jewellery and photography, with the chance to meet diverse painters and makers, many in their own studios, who will preview their latest works for sale, discuss their creative processes, potential commissions and upcoming workshops and courses.
Venue 1: Park Lane End Studio, Park Lane, Bishop Wilton: Colin Pollock, oils, acrylics and watercolour; Judith Pollock, printmaking and mixed media.
Venue 2: The Studio, The Old School, Skirpenbeck: Lesley Peatfield, fine art and abstract photography; Richard Gibson, sculptures.
Venue 3: Rocking Horse Studio, Rocking Horse Yard, Fangfoss: Shirley Davis Dew, painting; Sue Giles, textile art exploring Japanese Shibori techniques of dyeing; Richard Moore, handmade ceramic tiles.
Venue 4: Fangfoss Pottery, The Old School, Fangfoss,: Gerry Grant, ceramics; Sarah Relf, drawing and illustration.
Venue 5: I Woldview Road, Wilberfoss: Mo Burrows, jewellery; Bernadette Oliver, acrylic, ink and collage; Tori Foster, jewellery.
Venue 6: 4 Archibald Close, Pocklington: Peter Schoenecker, 2D and 3D art works.
Venue 7: 35 St Helens Road, Pocklington: Mary Burton, acrylics and pastels; Lee Steele, ceramics; Ingrid Barton, mixed media.
Venue 8: Newfold House Granary Studio, Newton upon Derwent: Chris Cullum, textile arts.
Venue 9: Tullyframe, Main Street, Barmby Moor: Penny De Corte, ceramic art; Avril Cheetham, jewellery.
Venue 11: Church Farm, Town Street, Hayton: Noreen Thorp, pastel, watercolour and mixed media, Lynda Heaton, watercolour and mixed media.
Venue 12: Hayton Studio, Manor Farm, Town Street, Hayton: Peter Edwards, mixed media; Harry Hodgson, mixed media.
Venue 13: Plum Tree Studio & House, Pocklington Lane, Huggate: Belinda Hazlerigg, paintings, printmaking, silk scarves and ceramics.
Venue 14: 3 Stable Court, Londesborough: Tony Wells, ceramics.
For the brochure, map and artist details, head to: pocklingtonareaopenstudios.co.uk/info.html.Free entry.
Touring play of the week: Frantic Assembly in Metamorphosis at York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinee
POET, author, broadcaster and speaker Lemn Sissay has adapted Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis for Frantic Assembly, visceral purveyors of theatre full of physicality, movement and emotional truths, who last toured Othello to York.
Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed from breadwinner into burden in this absurd and tragic story, wherein humans struggle within a system that crushes them under its heel in Kafka’s existential depiction of the limitations of the body and mind, imagination and aspiration. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Sing something synth-full: Howard Jones: Celebrating 40 Years 1983-2023, York Barbican, Wednesday, doors, 7pm
SINGER, songwriter and synth player Howard Jones, 68, is marking the 40th anniversary of his revolutionary debut single, New Song, performing in a five-piece with Kajagoogoo’s Nick Beggs on bass and Robert Boult on guitar. Expect a “sonic visual feast” of hits and fan favourites and a support spot from Blancmange.
“I think my ’80s’ work still resonates through the generations because of the positive message in the lyrics,” says Jones. “I’ve always believed that music can give the listener a boost, especially when things in life prove challenging. Things can only get better when we realise the power of our own actions and engagement.” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
More 40th anniversary celebrations: The Waterboys, York Barbican, Thursday, 7.30pm
MIKE Scott has made a habit of playing York Barbican, laying on his Scottish-founded folk, rock, soul and blues band’s “Big Music” in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018 and October 2021.
Since then, The Waterboys have released 15th studio album All Souls Hill in 2022; re-released 2000’s Rock In A Weary Land, 2003’s Universal Hall and 2007’s Book Of Lightning on vinyl; appeared on Sky Arts’ The Great Songwriters and announced a six-CD box set of This Is The Sea for early 2024. Joining Scott will be Memphis keyboard player “Brother” Paul Brown, British drummer Ralph Salmins and Irish bassman Aongus Ralston.
Level 42’s Living It Up tour date on Friday the 13th is unlucky for some – it has sold out – but tickets are still available for fellow Eighties’ combo The Waterboys at yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Spooky screening of the week: Book Of Monsters and Zomblogalypse, Spark: York, Piccadilly, York, Friday, 6pm to 11pm
YORK’S horror filmmaking community gathers this Friday The 13th for a special double screening of Dark Rift Horror’sBook Of Monsters and MilesTone Films’Zomblogalypse.
Both York-made indie films have enjoyed award-scooping film festival tours, with Dark Rift’s follow-up feature, How To Kill Monsters,now screening internationally.
Meet the filmmakers, cast and crew of each movie, including directors Stewart Sparke, Hannah Bungard, Miles Watts and Tony Hipwell and star Lyndsey Craine. Add in signings, photo opportunities with cast and props, and merchandise to buy, including both films on Blu-ray, official posters, art cards and other fun stuff. Box office: ticketpass.org/event/EGUKTC/dark-rift-double-bill. 18-plus only.
In Focus: How York composer James Williamson, artist Romey T Brough and Croatian accordionist Franko Bozac collaborated for Late Music premiere and Blossom Street Gallery exhibition
YORK composer James Williamson’s composition, Romey Collages, will be premiered by accordionist Franko Bozac as part of the 2023 York Late Festival season today.
The work is a collaboration between James and artist Romey T Brough that emerged from him seeing her work at Blossom Street Gallery, Blossom Street, York.
Romey, who lived and worked in York for many years, now resides at her studio in the Hertfordshire countryside. Her latest collages will be on show at Kim Oldfield’s gallery until October 29 under the exhibition title of A Collaboration in Music and Colour
“It’s a really interesting exploration of the relationship between the audible and visual,” says Kim.
Croatian accordion virtuoso Franko Bozac will be making his Late Music debut at St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel this afternoon, when Romey Collages will be showcased.
Composer James Williamson says: “This set of five pieces is a direct response to a set of monoprint collages by Romey. I first came across her work in 2016 in Blossom Street Gallery, where one of Romey’s collages was displayed on the wall and it immediately caught my eye.
“The collage was a vibrant display of repeated strips of colours, each strip with its own character, yet similar to the one before and after; a kind of self-similarity.”
At the time, James was working towards his PhD in composition, which drew on minimalist visual art and a fascination with the Deleuzian idea of difference and repetition and how might this apply to composing.
“To cut a long story short, I contacted Romey through the gallery to learn more about her work. We immediately connected over a coffee and thought it would be a great idea to collaborate on a project,” says James.
“Romey then created a series of five collages that drew inspiration from music, with each work having a musical title: Chaconne, Aubade, Nocturne, Pastorale and Berceuse. I then responded to these works and created a set of five pieces, each one being a musical interpretation of the works and their titles.
“Like most of my recent work, I use one or two ideas in each piece. I flesh these ideas out using repetition of singular fragments or phrases, juxtaposed by other contrasting fragments, similarly to Romey’s collages.”
Around the same time, James was contacted by Franko Bozac to commission a new piece. “I thought it would be great to tie the two projects together. I have always loved the accordion for its sound and versatility, and rather fittingly, when the bellows open up, it reminds me of collages themselves.”
In turn, Romey recalls: “I had a phone call from Kim, when I was exhibiting my monoprint collages in Blossom Street Gallery, saying that a young composer was interested in meeting me as he composed music the way I created my collages.
“I was very intrigued, and we met up for coffee outside York Theatre Royal. I hadn’t heard any of James’s compositions but was amazed by how we both could understand each other’s creative processes, and when he suggested a collaboration I was delighted to agree.”
On the bus back to her York studio, she thought of moods of the day from dawn to night. “Early the next day I travelled to Monks Cross on a very misty morning and Aubade/Dawn came to me,” she says. “The rest followed on, culminating in Nocturne/Night, inspired by the view from my studio through an established beech hedge of car headlights flashing past.
“I have since then indulged in listening to James’s compositions and created more collages inspired by his work. It’s been an exciting collaboration for me, and I hope to continue creating music-inspired images.”
Describing her modus operandi, Romey says: “My monoprints are created by painting with acrylic paint onto glass; the image is then transferred to paper. The glass is wiped clean each time a print is taken, therefore each one is unique.
“The collages are a development following on from the photographic ones I occasionally create. I am fascinated by how reorganising strips of my monoprints can bring more intensity to the colours and evoke memories and emotions.”
DrJames Williamson: the back story
STUDIED at University of Huddersfield and Royal Academy of Music, completing PhD in Composition at University of York.
His works have been performed by: Psappha; Aurora Orchestra; Hebrides Ensemble; London Sinfonietta; CoMA London; Croatian Philharmonic Orchestra; Lunar Saxophone Quartet; Delta Saxophone Quartet; Quatuor Diotima; Ligeti String Quartet; University of York Symphony Orchestra; RAM Symphony Orchestra; Kate Ledger (piano); Anna Snow (voice); Ian Pace (piano), Franko Bozac (accordion) and Stephen Altoft (19-division trumpet).
Broadcasts include BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction and Hear And Now, Beethoven FM (Chile) and Radio 3 Beograd.
Romey T. Brough: the back story
STUDIED initially at Harrow Art School in Middlesex, north of London. Awarded various certificates including national Diploma in Design.
Studied overseas in Italy in Positano, winning a scholarship. Studied with Professor Spadini at Rome Academy.
Work exhibited regularly at Royal Academy, London, and is in archives of Tate Gallery, London, and galleries and collections throughout UK, Japan, Australia and United States of America.
WHEN actor, writer and director Fraser Ayres advised Frantic Assembly artistic director Scott Graham to consider staging a version of Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis, his initial response was No.
“Why would I want to go anywhere near it? It comes with so much baggage and so much expectation,” he said. “Most people only know the opening to the story when you mention the title.”
That was in 2019, but roll on to 2023 to find Frantic Assembly touring London Olympic Games poet Lemn Sissay’s adaptation from September 11 to March 2 2024. Next stop York Theatre Royal, from October 10 to 14, following up on last October’s visit with an electrifying take on Shakespeare’s Othello.
Kafka’s 1915 novella tells the horror story of Gregor Samsa, a weary travelling salesman and sole breadwinner in his debt-ridden family, who wakes up one morning to find he has been turned into a giant beetle. Confined to his room, Gregor becomes reliant on the family that once relied on him.
Its influence has spread through popular culture from video games to the Rolling Stones’ cover for their 1975, Metamorphosis, where the band members’ facial features were replaced by bug heads.
The existential, absurdist story has inspired films, operas and theatre productions too, not least Steven Berkoff’s famed 1969 physical theatre show. “If you make theatre and attempt this story, there is a worry that you are always going to be in the shadow of Berkoff,” says Graham.
Nevertheless, the possibility of Frantic Assembly staging Metamorphosis became an itch for Graham that had to be scratched, mulling over Ayres’s reading of Kafka’s tale as a powerful story not so much about transformation as the power of perception.
Cue his change of mind. “It’s a story written with such restraint, and it contains so much fear and cruelty. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was written over 100 years ago, but it feels so timely. So now,” says Graham.
“Rather than an absurd event where someone turns into a giant beetle, we look at it as a story of gradual change, to becoming less human, and that brings it up to date as a critique of the burden of debt and how everything is designed to never be able to get out of it,” he says.
Graham had found the key that would allow him to unlock the story and open it up to exposure afresh, duly teaming up with BAFTA-nominated poet, broadcaster and speaker Lemn Sissay for the first time.
“Initially I was looking for a playwright to adapt the novella, but then I had a moment of inspiration, suggesting Lemn should do it. He’s a renowned poet, not known for adaptations, though he did adapt Benjamin Zephaniah’s teenage novel Refugee Boy [in 2013],” he says.
“I thought we could do something more than a flat theatre interpretation that could really reinvent it, and Lemn’s very personal response to the novella, and its story of a family in debt, does that.”
Graham continues: “I don’t think of it necessarily as a blooming of Lemn as a playwright because we never talked about it as a play. The freedom was there to bring ideas to each other and then create this work for the stage. That means he was not encumbered by expectations of being a playwright.
“It’s poetic – he’s brought that out – and what’s brilliant about this production is that it is a play but it’s something more immediate than that. There was always a risk if I said, ‘can you adapt if for the stage?’, it would mean he would just go off and write a play.
“Lemn’s immediate reaction was ‘No’, but it was about creating the right environment for him, so it was never just about a writer writing a play, but what could I bring to it too with movement. It was never just about the writing, so Lemn could feel like he was held in a safe place where he could explore being a playwright without being crushed by expectation.”
Lemn’s script reimagines Kafka’s story as a psychological tale of a family under pressure, crushed by external economic forces to the point of crushing each other.
“Gregor is the breadwinner and the family are like parasites upon him,” says Graham. “But when he transforms, he is less valuable to them and becomes a burden and we see what happens.”
Sissay describes it as “a story about a family with a big secret locked in one of its rooms”. “The change that happens to Gregor exposes the flaws and fissures and insecurities that already exist in the family,” he says. “There are so many different tensions already in play long before Gregor wakes up as a bug.”
Comparing his Frantic Assembly collaboration to a piece of “intricate origami”, Sissay argues that everything in his script can be found in Kafka’s story. “It’s all there, I haven’t invented. I wouldn’t dream of trying to rewrite such a brilliant text,” he says.
Academics have long argued over whether Gregor’s metamorphosis is actual or metaphorical, but Graham suggests it can be both, particularly in the liminal space of the stage where the audience has a different relationship to the material than as a solo reader.
If you look very closely at the story, the clues are all there, and what happens to Gregor might be seen as a mental health crisis, says Graham. Long before Sissay began writing the script, Frantic Assembly, practitioners of physically dynamic and emotionally truthful shows, were exploring elements of the text already, particularly the fear and sense of the other or monstering that lies within it.
“I don’t think what happens to Gregor is a supernatural event. I think it’s a result of stress. The Samsa family are drowning in debt, a debt that has resulted because of the father’s bankruptcy. Like Gregor, the father has had a moment of transformation when he has gone from breadwinner to burden,” says Graham.
“Gregor is desperate to get the family out of debt and the confined life they lead. He is aspiring to something else, particularly for his sister Grete, who plays the violin and who he hopes can take it further.
“One of the elements of the story is about aspiration, and what people from different backgrounds can aspire to, and that feels really timely because of the articulation of the idea that people from backgrounds like Grete’s can’t play the violin or shouldn’t aspire to a career in the arts.”
Kafka’s Metamorphosis comes with an unforgettable opening sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
“It is complete genius,” says Graham, but he wonders whether it might be a red herring that immediately makes everyone think the novella’s title refers to Gregor alone.
Sissay agrees: “I think the metamorphosis that takes place is as much about Grete as it is about Gregor. She is the person in the story who experiences great change of many different kinds. She is in the process of becoming a woman. It’s all there in the text, and once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It is so clear.”
The pubescent Grete is the family member closest to Gregor, and while her parents recoil when he becomes a bug, she takes on the task of entering his room and bringing him food. “Feeding somebody is an extraordinary act of intimacy,” says Graham, who points to the tensions and ambiguities and confusions already present in Gregor and Grete’s relationship, as indeed there are within the whole family.
Ultimately those tensions will detonate in unexpected ways and with far-reaching consequences. “This is a story of a family under stress from without and within,” says Graham. “It looks like a normal family and operates like a normal family, but there are hidden weaknesses. When the cracks begin to appear, the structure cannot hold. It’s a tragedy.”
Frantic Assembly present Metamorphosis at York Theatre Royal, October 10 to 14, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
LEMN Sissay’s new poetry collection, Let The Light Pour In, was published by Canongate on September 21.
HOW reassuring to see packed houses for theatre shows in York this autumn, whether for Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d at the Theatre Royal or SIX The Musical at the Grand Opera House.
Sitting next to Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird on Tuesday night, he revealed that 60 schools – yes, 60 – had booked for Frantic Assembly’s combustible 21st century reimagining of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder.
“That’s the draw of Frantic Assembly, not Othello,” he said. Maybe, but you don’t have one without the other.
The crackle of excitement in the air, the cheers that greeted the company’s arrival on stage, brought to mind the electric surge triggered by the visits of Emma Rice’s Wise Children company, most recently for Wuthering Heights, that again drew young audiences in abundance.
You could draw comparisons between the two companies: the importance of choreography; the almost dangerous physicality of the performances; the unexpected moments of humour; the chemistry and one-for-all and all-for-one commitment between actors; the instant bond with the audience; the drive to bring text to thrilling life; the propulsive power of thunderous music.
Yorkshireman Joe Layton, who plays an incorrigible Iago, puts it this way: “The way Frantic work, you are creating a physical sequence, finding a physical connection between characters,” he says. “Then story and characters are layered in on top of that. You throw yourself in and trust the director. You have to give yourself and trust the process,” he says.
From the off, that working practice is borne out in a fast, furious and, yes, frantic Othello, adapted, directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steve Hoggett, newly updated for the 2022 tour co-produced with Curve, Leicester.
That opening feels like plugging into the powerlines of The Prodigy’s Firestarter in a wordless, breathless scene-setter that introduces characters (Shakespeare), setting (Laura Hopkins) and soundscape (Hybrid) all at once.
Think Shameless or This England; a bar with a pool table and a slot machine; bottled beers; everyone off their heads or on a short fuse in high-street zip tops, trainers, hoodies, stretchy sportswear and joggers.
One long Friday night, full of broken glass, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents; a darker brew of John Godber’s Bouncers, where the booze meets the bruise.
Let Frantic Assembly light the fuse, then stand well back, but feel the fierce heat from all that brutal physicality as Layton’s mendacious manipulator Iago winds up Michael Akinsulire’s Othello, the Moor, who is as muscular with Shakespeare’s words as he is physically, his eyes bursting, his mind mangled, his baseball bat never far away.
This is an Othello of myriad street accents, making it universal, from Tom Gill’s Scouse Cassio to Akinsulire’s North London Othello; Chanel Waddock’s Essex Desdemona to Kirsty Stuart’s Scottish Emilia.
The pace is relentless, the dialogue hot on the tongue, the choreography dazzling, sometimes beautiful and sensuous, as in Akinsulire and Waddock’s pas de deux spread across the pool table, later to be repeated in such contrasting circumstances at the finale.
Frantic’s trademark physicality extends even to Hopkins’ design, suddenly coming to life in wave-like motions, first when a drunken Cassio staggers along the wall, and later when Othello is overcome with shock at what he has done, wishing it might swallow him.
Nothing sums up this Othello better than Iago’s prophetic T-shirt, Just Do It. Let’s hope Frantic Assembly will be back to “just do it” again, whatever the play, because Shakespeare all shook up this way demands a follow-up with more of this full-on brand of theatre.
Frantic Assembly’s Othello, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight until Saturday; 2pm, Thursday; 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
JOE Layton returns to his native Yorkshire from tonight to play Iago in Frantic Assembly’s electrifying reimagining of Shakespeare’s Othello at York Theatre Royal.
Once more he will confirming his English teacher’s hunch at a parents’ evening that Ilkley lad Joe “had some talent for acting”.
“He said, ‘I don’t say this very often, but I would encourage Joe to apply for drama school’,” he recalls.
He duly did so, supported by teacher Tony Johnson, who provided not only encouragement but help in preparing audition speeches. “I owe him a huge amount,” says Joe. “He came to see the last show I did in Leicester and hope he’s in the audience for Othello.”
This is Frantic Assembly’s third staging of their award-winning account of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder, set in a volatile 21st century wherein Othello’s passionate affair with Desdemona becomes the catalyst for jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents.
Shakespeare’s muscular yet beautiful text combines with the touring company’s own bruising physicality in a world of broken glass and broken promises, malicious manipulation and explosive violence, previously staged in 2008 and 2014 and now updated for 2022.
Frantic Assembly have had a marked effect on his career and aspirations already, as he was part of their Ignition programme – a free nationwide talent development programme for young people aged 16 to 24 – in 2009 and later appeared in Frantic’s The Unreturning.
“It’s for all genders now but Ignition started out as an all-male programme and was a space where sensitivity and masculinity were explored in a non-toxic way, which I hadn’t experienced before,” says Joe, one of no fewer than five Ignition graduates involved in Othello this season.
He saw Frantic Assembly’s original production in 2008 but it was another of the company’s shows that was particularly influential: Bryony Lavery’s two-hander Stockholm. “I must have been 15 years old,” says Joe. “It was one of those mind-blowing moments that gave you goosebumps. That was the moment I said to myself, ‘I want to work with Frantic one day’.”
His professional debut came two years later in Nikolai Foster’s production of George Orwell’s Animal Farm at West Yorkshire Playhouse. As a 17-year-old schoolboy, he was given special dispensation to leave early several days a week to do the Leeds show.
Looking back at his first encounter with Frantic Assembly’s Othello, Joe recalls how “it really leapt off the page for me and made it accessible, especially for teenagers. It was real, visceral and immediate”.
Now he is playing Iago, the poison-dripping baddie of the piece, or is he possibly misjudged? Psychopath or “a bit of a villain”, Joe must ask himself. “As an actor, you have to get inside them, understand them, what makes them tick, and do the things they do which, in Iago’s case, is hideous, unforgivable things,” he says.
Movement becomes as important as words in Frantic Assembly’s style book. “The way Frantic work, you are creating a physical sequence, finding a physical connection between characters. Then story and characters are layered in on top of that. You throw yourself in and trust the director [Scott Graham]. You have to give yourself and trust the process,” he says.
“We begin rehearsals with a one-hour workout and high intensity training. The rest of the morning is given over to movement sequences. Everything is really highly choreographed. There’s nothing that happens on stage that’s not choreographed.”
Joe grew up in Ilkley, moved to London for drama school, met his wife in New York and now lives in the United States, while working on both sides of the Atlantic.
He headed to America after being scouted by a top actors’ agency. “I don’t regret moving to Los Angeles because it was a really interesting period of my life, although challenging in a lot of ways. I moved away from family and friends and all that sort of stuff.
“I couldn’t work for six months because I was waiting for my work visa to come through. I was a 21-year-old with not much money just sitting around.”
One role to emerge from his USA move was Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. He was not picked for the role for which he auditioned but was offered a different one. He took part in the series for only a few weeks but found working in the Marvel superhero world to be “a whole different ballgame”.
“I have an agent in the US and the UK,” he says. “One of the things that really changed through the pandemic is that everything, including casting, went online, which means there’s even less need to be in London. It seems the industry is getting less London-centric. You can audition on film anywhere, read a scene and be cast off the tape. That’s been great for me in terms of quality of life and being able to live in America.”
During lockdown, Joe spent an enforced period back in Leeds while visiting family for Christmas celebrations. Unable to go home, he spent six months living in his grandmother’s cottage near Pateley Bridge.
He will return to the USA during a break in the Othello tour. “My wife is at home in America. She’s a writer and working on a new book, so she’s pleased to have me out of the house and have time for herself and her writing.”
Frantic Assembly’s Othello runs at York Theatre Royal from tonight until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Did you know?
Joe Layton (Iago), associate director David Gilbert, co-choreographer Perry Johnson, Oliver Baines (Montano) and Felipe Pacheco (Roderigo) have all taken part in Frantic Assembly’s Ignition programme.
REJOICE as doors to York’s grand designs ancient and modern are unlocked this weekend. Charles Hutchinson also checks out what’s on inside elsewhere.
Play of the week: Frantic Assembly in Othello, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday
FRANTIC Assembly’s award-winning, electrifying reimagining of Othello locates Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder in a volatile 21st century as Othello’s passionate affair with Desdemona becomes the catalyst for jealousy, betrayal, revenge and the darkest intents.
Shakespeare’s muscular yet beautiful text combines with the touring company’s own bruising physicality in a world of broken glass and broken promises, malicious manipulation and explosive violence, previously staged in 2008 and 2014 and now updated for 2022. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Comedy gig of the week: Olga Koch, Just Friends, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, tonight, 8pm
OLGA Koch, Russian-born, English-dwelling, story-telling stand-up and BBC Radio 4 show host, makes a return visit to Monkgate this weekend, following up last October’s Homecoming show.
Directed by Charlie Dinkin, this time she promises a “rollercoaster romcom you aren’t tall enough to ride”. “Strap in,” she advises. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Tours of the week: York Unlocked, 60 locations, today and tomorrow
YORK joins the European Open Door cities and 60 Open House cities this weekend to showcase its urban landscape and buildings old and new. Among them will be Cumberland House (Kings Staith), Garforth House, York Guildhall, Bar Convent, Hiscox, Castlegate House, Duncombe Place Masonic Lodge, Hudson Quarter, Brew York (Walmgate), City Screen Picturehouse, Walmgate Bar, the Phoenix Inn and a plethora of churches.
“We aim to foster public appreciation of the architecture of York by organising the opening of 60 buildings and open spaces of merit for the public to explore for free,” say the organisers. “Our goal is to educate, engage and inspire.” For full details, head to: york-unlocked.org.uk/buildings-2022.
Classical concert of the week: York Guildhall Orchestra, York Barbican, tonight, 7.30pm
THE first concert of York Guildhall Orchestra’s 42nd season also marks Simon Wright’s 30th anniversary as conductor. In a programme of popular music, local lad Will Clark is the violin soloist for Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, having earlier played with the orchestra as a youngster.
Old friends Leeds Festival Chorus join for Fauré’s Pavane and Lambert’s Rio Grande (piano soloist: Rebecca Taylor). Shostakovich’s Festive Overture will be the rousing opener; Márquez’s Danzón No. 2, the finale. In between come works by Porter, Wagner, Berlioz, Offenbach’s Can-Can; Handel, Tavener and Coleridge Taylor. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Gig of the week outside York: Beth Orton, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, tomorrow, doors, 7.30pm
BRIT Award winner Beth Orton concludes her autumn tour in Leeds, promoting her seventh studio album, released last month on her new label, Partisan Records.
Written on a battered old piano that singer-songwriter Orton saved from Camden Market, Weather Alive collates memories and experiences spanning a lifetime, her story-telling, sonically experimental songs addressing struggles and healing. Box office: for returns only, brudenellsocialclub.co.uk.
Nostalgia of the week: The Steptoe And Son Radio Show, Grand Opera House, York, Tuesday, 7.30pm
ADAPTED for the stage by John Hewer, The Steptoe And Son Radio Show doffs its cap to the 60th anniversary of the first broadcast of the classic BBC television comedy.
In a show based on the original TV scripts of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Jeremy Smith and Hewer play out the woes of warring Shepherd’s Bush rag-and-bone men Albert Steptoe and his son Harold in three episodes: Is That Your Horse Outside?, A Death In The Family and Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.
Tuneful twins of the week: The Proclaimers, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.30pm
SCATHING Scottish siblings Craig and Charlie Reid return to York on their 35-date autumn tour in support of their end-of-empire 12th studio album, Dentures Out, ahead of their 40th anniversary in 2023 (stage time, 830pm).
Fellow Scot David Tennant names The Proclaimers as “probably my favourite band of all time”. “They write the most spectacular songs, big-hearted, uncynical passionate songs,” says the ubiquitous actor. John Bramwell opens the gig; good news for I Am Kloot devotees after a family bereavement led to the cancellation of his September 24 concert at Ellerton Priory. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Leeds legend of the week in York: Marc Almond In Concert, York Barbican, Friday, 7.30pm
SOFT Cell frontman Marc Almond plays York Barbican for the third time in five years after his Hits And Pieces tour date in April 2017 and guest spot at Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra’s November 2018 concert.
On his first solo tour in more than three years, Almond plays two sets, performing favourites from his extensive catalogue, his biggest hits and songs from his last album, January 2020’s Chaos And A Dancing Star, since when Soft Cell have released Happiness Not Included last year. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
“THE theatre has always been a place where rebellion thrives,” says chief executive Tom Bird as York Theatre Royal sets its Rumours And Rebels season in commotion.
Two legendary York figures, Guy Fawkes and the Coppergate Woman, will come to life as the spotlight is turned on those who resist, rebel and stand up to injustice, corruption and persecution this summer and autumn.
“We wanted to talk about opposition and intrigue and how ‘sticking it to the man’ manifests itself, which is often in the form of rumours first,” says Tom. “We knew we were going to be doing this strand of work with rebellion shot through it, but we also wanted a nod to the fact that rebellion can start in a more subtle phase with rumour.
“We already had rebellion in the diary with Guy Fawkes, Julius Caesar and Red Ellen, which all start with ‘talk’, and I was thinking about how you’re naturally quite wary of making heroes of people who are seen as terrorists, so I didn’t want the season to be too on the nose in celebrating rebellion without also saying it’s a complicated business.
“Look at Guy Fawkes; we think of him as a York hero but actually he wanted to blow up hundreds of people.”
Long in the planning for its York Theatre Royal world premiere, York-born writer David Reed’s “explosive new comedy about York’s most infamous rebel”, The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes, will run from October 28 to November 12, directed by Gemma Fairlie as Monty Python meets Blackadder.
“We’ve had the script since before I came here in December 2017,” says Tom. “David [one third of the The Penny Dreadfuls comedy trio] is a local writer; the script is brilliant and funny, and the pre-sale of tickets is fantastic.”
Further explaining the Rumours And Rebels season title, Tom says: “The other reason for ‘Rumours’ is the impact of social media, where it feels like we’re surrounded by an unsolicited swirl of rumour that could lead to action, even to direct rebellion, like you saw with Trump’s supporters marching on Capitol Hill.
“Uncurated rumours bother us a lot, and that’s why we’re curating the summer and autumn programme under this title to highlight the importance of curation when news has stopped being that and so many people no longer trust experts. Theatre is a place for resistance and for celebrating it since Athenian times.”
Standing alongside Reed’s Guy Fawkes tragi-comedy in the season ahead will be Maureen Lennon’s community play The Coppergate Woman, wherein a Valkyrie woman with the answers rises again to move among the people of York, a goddess resisting the havoc wrought by pandemic, from July 30 to August 6.
These in-house productions will be preceded by Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre’s touring production of Red Ellen, Carol Bird’s epic story of inspiration Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life, from May 24 to 28.
“We’re super-excited about Red Ellen, which had been planned by Lorne Campbell before he left Northern Stage to move to the National Theatre of Wales. After The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff, this is another unsung political hero to be celebrated by Northern Stage.”
Flicking through the brochure, in Shakespeare’s Globe’s Julius Caesar, on June 10 and 11, the protagonists fear power running unchallenged as Diane Page directs this brutal tale of ambition, incursion and revolution; in Conor McPherson’s Girl From The North Country, from September 5 to 10, the chimes of freedom flash through a story rooted in Bob Dylan’s songs; in Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses, from September 16 to 24, the love between Selby and Callum runs counter to the politics of their segregated world.
In Frantic Assembly’s reimagined 21st century Othello, from October 18 to 22, Othello faces a barrage of racial persecution in Shakespeare’s tragedy of paranoia, sex and murder; the year ends with the Theatre Royal’s third pantomime collaboration with Evolution Productions, where Peter Pan joyously stands up to the tyranny of time, from December 2 to January 2.
Delighted to welcome Shakespeare’s Globe, Tom says: “I left the Globe to move here, and as the Roman Quarter project gets underway in Rougier Street, we were interested in doing a Roman-themed work.
“We’d known for a while this would be a rebellion season, and the Globe knew we were keen to link up with them, so they gave us a couple of options. National companies are getting really good at that, and it’s great to have the Globe back for the first time since they did Henry VI.”
Tom says the season fell into place partly through the stars aligning. “If Frantic Assembly’s Othello is on tour, you take it,” he says. “It fitted perfectly with our own choices of Guy Fawkes and [York company] Pilot Theatre reviving Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses.
“The first tour did really well, there’s since been the TV series, and it’s a story really loved by young audiences as a Romeo & Juliet for the 21st century. It’s a no-brainer to bring it back.”
Bringing a “big show” to York Theatre Royal is not easy, says Tom, given the seating capacity of 750, but that does not deter him from seeking to do so. Take the double Olivier Award-winning West End and Broadway hit Girl From The North Country, written and directed by The Weir playwright Conor McPherson.
He reimagines the songs of Bob Dylan in a universal story of family and love set in the heartland of America in 1934, when a group of wayward souls cross paths in a time-weathered guesthouse in ‘nowheresville’ [Duluth, Minnesota]. As they search for the future and hide from the past, they find themselves facing unspoken truths about the present.
“God we had to fight to get it but I’m seriously glad we did,” says Tom. “It premiered at The Old Vic and it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Bob Dylan had been badgered for years about doing a jukebox musical, and he said, ‘only if it’s a bit weird’. Luckily, he was involved in Conor getting to do it.
“It’s a marriage made in heaven! He does a Conor McPherson on a Bob Dylan jukebox musical: it’s an incredible, haunting story with a cast of odd characters you’d find travelling on a Greyhound bus, when you gather all this eccentricity in America and you can’t escape them, set to Dylan’s songs.
“Everyone knows Bob Dylan songs are sung better when Dylan doesn’t sing them, and for this show, they take a genuine cross section of songs from across his career, not only the Sixties.”
Among further highlights, York Stage will make their Theatre Royal debut in a 40th anniversary production of Howard Ashman and and Alan Menken’s musical Little Shop Of Horrors, from July 14 to 13, and Original Theatre will present Susie Blake as Miss Marple in Rachel Wagstaff’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, from October 4 to 8.
“I’d been a bit worried whether a murder mystery is still what people want as we’ve seen that move from drawing-room plays to musicals in audience tastes, but The Mirror Crack’d has gone like a train at the box office,” says Tom.
Summing up the philosophy behind Rumours And Rebels, he concludes : “It’s not easy to have a themed season when we put on such diverse work here, but when we see ways to do seasons with connected themes we will do it, like the Theatre Royal did with seasons focusing on Yorkshire and women before I came here.
“By having a theme, hopefully it will encourage people to see more plays in the season having enjoyed one.
“Overall, for me, what we’re eliminating from York Theatre Royal is the middle-of-the-road. When we bring in touring shows, we might as well go ‘big’, bringing in new audiences; when we produce plays, we’re going to do new work like The Tragedy Of Guy Fawkes and The Coppergate Woman, not Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which might be my favourite play but wouldn’t get an audience.”
For the full programme and tickets details for Rumours And Rebels at York Theatre Royal, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Box office: 01904 623568.