“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.
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