Henry Filloux-Bennett appointed executive director in ‘pivotal moment for Opera North’

Henry Filloux-Bennett: New executive director at Opera North. Picture: Samantha Toolsie

HENRY Filloux-Bennett is leaving HOME to be the new executive director at Opera North in Leeds from May 2023.

“I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Opera North,” he says. “Having had a long connection with the company, from first seeing them at the Theatre Royal and Concert Hall in Nottingham to then working with them at The Lowry in Salford, and more recently at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, the prospect of joining as executive director at this really exciting – but also challenging – time is one I absolutely relish.”

Filloux-Bennett, who turned 40 last month, is at present executive director and deputy chief executive officer of HOME, the arts centre, cinema, theatre and gallery complex in Manchester. Previously, he was chief executive and artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre; before that, head of marketing at The Lowry; earlier, head of marketing and communications at Nottingham Playhouse.

Filloux-Bennett also has worked as a producer and general manager for organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Theatre Royal Haymarket and Bill Kenwright Ltd.

As an author and playwright, he wrote the award-winning Nigel Slater’s Toast, commissioned by The Lowry and subsequently transferred to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, The Other Place in London, plus a UK tour.

In 2020, his stage version of What A Carve Up!, based on Jonathan Coe’s novel, was chosen as one of the Guardian’s Top 10 theatre shows and the Telegraph’s Top 50 Cultural Events of the year.

In Covid-shrouded 2021, he adapted Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, starring Fionn Whitehead and Joanna Lumley in a digital production for Barn Theatre/Lawrence Batley Theatre that was seen in more than 70 countries.

Opera North general manager Richard Mantle, left, with new executive director Henry Filloux-Bennett. Picture: Samantha Toolsie

He then co-wrote the original screenplay Going The Distance, starring Sarah Hadland, Shobna Gulati and Matthew Kelly in a digital comedy co-produced by the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes, Lancaster, and Watermill Theatre, Newbury.

Opera North’s general manager, Richard Mantle, says: “I am delighted to announce that Henry Filloux-Bennett has been appointed as our new executive director, joining the company in May 2023. He brings with him a wealth of experience through his theatre career and as a writer.

“This is a pivotal moment in the history of Opera North as we develop our strategic priorities and re-build our way out of the impact of the pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis.

“Henry will be a key part of the leadership of Opera North into the future, bringing with him significant experience of business planning, budgetary and financial forecasting, programming, stakeholder management, commercial strategies and food and beverage hospitality. I am thrilled to be able to welcome Henry to the Opera North team and look forward to our collaboration as colleagues.”

Opera North, a national opera company based in Leeds since 1977, tours opera and musical theatre to theatres and concert halls across the north of England, including regular appearances in Leeds, Greater Manchester, Newcastle/Gateshead, Nottingham and Hull.

The company’s wide-ranging education and community partnerships work brings music and performance into the lives of communities across the region.

Opera North also operates and programmes the Howard Assembly Room, a 300-seat performance venue within the Leeds Grand Theatre building that offers an eclectic programme of world music, jazz and folk, classical, talks, film screenings and family events.

Opera North’s new restaurant and bar, Kino, opened last year on New Briggate, adjacent to the Howard Assembly Room and Grand Theatre.

EastEnders star Tracy-Ann Oberman to play Shylock in Fascist-era The Merchant Of Venice 1936 at York Theatre Royal

Tracy-Ann Oberman: From EastEnders to Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice set in London’s East End in 1936

WATFORD Palace Theatre’s ground-breaking new production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice will visit York Theatre Royal on tour from November 14 to 18.

Tracy-Ann Oberman, from EastEnders, Doctor Who and Friday Night Dinner, will play Shylock on an autumn itinerary that will open at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from September 21 to October 7.

Developed in association with HOME Manchester and with support from the RSC, The Merchant Of Venice 1936 is adapted and directed by Brigid Larmour from an idea by co-creator Oberman. Their thought-provoking and timely reimagining relocates the action to an electrifying new setting: London in 1936. 

The capital city is on the brink of political unrest, fascism is sweeping across Europe and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is threatening a paramilitary march through the Jewish East End. Strong-willed single mother Shylock runs a pawnbroking business from her house in Cable Street, where Mosley will march.

When charismatic, anti-Semitic aristocrat Antonio comes to her for a loan, a high-stakes deal is struck. Will Shylock take her revenge? Who will pay the ultimate price?

“I look forward to sparking debate and enlightening people about a pivotal but largely forgotten part of British history,” says actress Tracy-Ann Oberman

“It has a been a lifelong dream of mine to bring this play to the stage in a new way, reimagining Shylock as one of the tough, no-nonsense Jewish matriarchs I grew up around in Brent,” says London-born actress, playwright and narrator Oberman, 56.

“I’m delighted this project is finally happening and look forward to sparking debate and enlightening people about a pivotal but largely forgotten part of British history – just how close the establishment were to Oswald Mosley and his British Union Of Fascists. I cannot wait to take this important, sharp, sexy and heartfelt production to theatres around the country.”

Oberman played Chrissie Watts in the BBC One soap opera EastEnders from 2004 to 2005; Yvonne Hartman in a two-part Doctor Who story, Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday, and Valerie Lewis or “Auntie Val” in the Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night Dinner from 2011 to 2020.

Larmour’s production will open at Watford Palace Theatre on February 27 before transferring to HOME Manchester from March 15. Joining her in the production team will be costume and set designer Liz Cooke, lighting designer Rory Beaton, sound design Sarah Weltman and composer Erran Baron Cohen (yes, actor/comedian Sacha’s older brother). 

Trafalgar Theatre Productions and Eilene Davidson Productions are producing the tour in association with the RSC, HOME Manchester and Watford Palace Theatre.

Tickets for the York run can be booked on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Tier 3 status knocks out Red Ladder’s tour of My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored

Red Ladder Theatre Company’s artwork for My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored

GONNA tier your playhouse down. Again.

West and South Yorkshire’s impending impediment of Tier 3 status from next Wednesday has put paid to Red Ladder Theatre Company’s December tour.

The Government’s latest Covid-19 restrictions have enforced the postponement – “with great sadness” – of performances of Nana-Kofi Kufuor’s debut play My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored at CAST in Doncaster, Cluntergate Centre in Horbury and The Holbeck social club in Leeds.

Already, earlier tour dates had been postponed at Leeds Playhouse, The Dukes, Lancaster, Grove Hall, South Kirkby, and Oldham Coliseum, having fallen foul of the second national lockdown stretch in November.

Red Ladder artistic director Rod Dixon says: “While this is the news that none of us wanted, we are incredibly proud of our cast and creative team, company and freelance staff who have worked incredibly hard to create this new play. 

Rehearsing in Covid times: Red Ladder actors Misha Duncan-Barry and Jelani D’Aguilar

“Whether adapting to making this work in a Covid-secure rehearsal room or working remotely, everyone has put an incredible amount of time, passion, dedication and hard work into bringing Nana Kofi-Kufuor’s powerful debut play to life.”

Reflecting on the curse of Covid-19 2020 but looking ahead too, Dixon adds: “More than anything, we wish that circumstances were different and that we were welcoming our audiences on tour of our new production.

“We press on with hope and optimism to bring our show to the stage in 2021 – and Red Ladder stands in solidarity with all our fellow theatre-makers in these difficult times.”

Directed by Leeds actor, director, filmmaker, dramaturg, lecturer and teacher Dermot Daly, My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored would have played CAST, Doncaster, on December 4; Cluntergate Centre, Horbury (Red Ladder Local), December 6, and The Holbeck, Leeds, December 11 with a cast of Jelani D’Aguilar and Misha Duncan-Barry.

The first play by 29-year-old Ghanaian-English writer Nana-Kofi Kufuor is an urgent interrogation of black identity, wherein a question is posed: if you see something you do not agree with, do you intervene?

The cast and creative crew for Red Ladder’s My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored, left to right: artistic director Rod Dixon;, Jelani D’Aguilar (Reece, front row), director Dermot Daly (back row); Misha Duncan-Barry (Gillian) and writer Nana-Kofi Kufuor. Picture: Anthony Robling

What happens if you are a teacher, and the issue is with your student? What happens if you are outside of work and you see them being stopped and searched and manhandled by the police? Do you run over and stop the act, or do you watch, waiting to find out all the facts?

This is the case for Gillian Akwasi, a black twenty-something teacher who witnesses her student, Reece Ofori, 15, being accosted by the police outside M&S but does not question or intervene in the disturbing scene that plays out. The next day, Reece confronts her, locking them both in her classroom at the end of the school day.

For his writing, Kufuor draws influence from his experiences when growing up in Stockport with Ghanaian parents and then working in education with young people from a range of backgrounds.

Revealing the real-life situation that inspired his hard-hitting drama, Kufuor explains: “Working at a Pupil Referral Unit, I once had a student try to take a knife to stab another student. Once I’d calmed him down, we sat in the canteen and he explained to me he wasn’t going to go quietly.

“The police were outside and they took him. I saw him a few weeks later, and he asked why I didn’t help him? That rush of guilt changed to anger and quickly to sympathy as he saw me as his protector.

Red Ladder cast members Misha-Duncan Barry and Jelani D’Aguilar in rehearsal. Picture: Anthony Robling

“But I knew I couldn’t do anything. The crux of this play is how two people react to the same situation: they go on a journey; a journey a lot of people of colour go on – a realisation that where you are now isn’t necessarily where you come from.”   

My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored was developed as part of a year-long writing commission for Box Of Tricks and staged as a rehearsed reading at HOME, Manchester, in January 2020, where it was seen by Red Ladder’s Rod Dixon.

For five decades, Red Ladder has produced new writing by voices whose work often is unheard on our stages, and the Leeds touring theatre company has been thrilled to develop Kufuor’s play for its first tour.

Ahead of the now-postponed tour, Dixon said: “We’re very excited to be working with Nana-Kofi Kufuor. This important play addresses key issues about race and identity at a time when society needs to heal division and strife.

“We’ve brought together a fantastic creative team, including director Dermot Daly, and look forward to taking this new work on tour and welcoming back audiences in theatres and community venues in a safe way.”

Roll on that day.

Playwright Nana-Kofi Kufuor. Picture: Emma Bailey

Who is Nana-Kofi Kufuor?

NANA-KOFI Kufuor – or Kofi Kufuor, as he goes by to friends and family – is a 29-year-old Ghanaian-English writer from Stockport, North West England.

He attended the University of Cumbria, attaining a BA Hons in film and television production in 2014 and a master’s degree in screenwriting in film, television and radio in 2018.

Kofi won a BBC 1xtra monologue prize in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Theatre Uncut political playwriting prize in 2019.

He was attached to Box Of Tricks’ year-long writers’ commission, PlayBox Takeover, in 2019 that culminated in a reading of his play My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored at HOME, Manchester in January 2020.

Kofi is now working on a television project and focusing on writing two other plays before the year is out. Over this summer, he worked with Northern Broadsides on a lockdown project that was filmed and shown on the Halifax company’s as part of a collection of short plays. Kofi is a supported artist at Oldham Coliseum.