Imagine if you could go back to talk to your younger self… Matt Harper-Hardcastle does in his new play Operation Hummingbird

James Lewis Knight, left, as Jimmy and Matt Stradling as James in Operation Hummingbird. Picture: James Drury

YORK community arts collective Next Door But One are teaming up with Explore York for a library tour of Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s Operation Hummingbird from Thursday.

James Lewis Knight will play Jimmy and Matt Stradling, James, in a one-act two-hander that takes the form of a conversation across the decades about a sudden family death, realising an opportunity that we all wish we could do at some point in our life: to go back to talk to our younger self.

Death, dying and bereavement have been prevalent factors in Next Door But One’s artistic programme for many years now, led by artistic director Matt’s own loss in 2016.

“When my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my whole family turned to what they did best: some looking after all the paperwork, others the planning of appointments and medication, while I turned to what I knew, telling stories,” he says.

“From keeping a blog up to date so that friends and family were in the loop of what was going on, to telling stories of my mum to keep her memory alive”. 

This quickly transferred to the stage in 2016 when Next Door But One produced Matt’s autobiographical play about his relationship with his mum, Any Mother Would. “The reaction to this relatively low-key performance was quite remarkable, with audiences saying they wished they had the space and tools to share memories and process their own grief in this way,” he recalls.

This set in motion a core strand of activity for Next Door But One, who ran a series of creative Death Cafés; hosted Playback Theatre performances for people to share stories of loved ones who had died; ran art and bereavement workshops for carers and produced Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here as part of York’s Dead Good Festival 2019.

Alongside this, Matt’s original blog was published as a book by The Writing Tree under the title of The Day The Alien Came. In response to this memoir of his mother’s death and his experience of living with loss, “people were then asking, ‘do you think your book will ever become a play?’,” he says.

“We’re not good at talking about death, even though deep down we know we need to,” says Operation Hummingbird writer-director Matt Harper-Hardcastle

“I didn’t feel I could make it into a play but wanted to create something from the book’s themes and the parallels between the different experiences that have been shared with Next Door But One over the years”.

The result is Operation Hummingbird, to be performed on August 5 at New Earswick Folk Hall at 3.30pm and Dringhouses Library at 7pm and on August 12 at York Explore, 2pm, and Hungate Reading Café, 7pm. Seating will be limited to ensure Covid safety.

The mini-tour will finish in September with a closed performance, hosted by The Gillygate pub, in Gillygate, specifically for members of York Carers Centre, who have recent experiences of loss. Tickets are on sale at: nextdoorbutone.co.uk/Operation-Hummingbird.php

Commenting on the partnership with Explore York, creative producer El Stannage says: “We felt it made sense to partner with Explore on this production, as not only is the play connected to a story and a book, but after 18 months we have all experienced different losses through the pandemic.

“This way we are able to connect with audiences to the north, south and centre of York, providing them with a heartfelt portrayal of an experience we hope they can relate to.”

Next Door But One are not only excited to be taking their work out into the community once more, but also buoyed by taking up resident status at The Gillygate after re-launching live performances in Step 2 lockdown-eased York with Yorkshire Trios in the new outdoor theatre space in Brian Furey’s pub garden on April 23 and 24.

“We now have a home, a place to create and rehearse in the heart of the city, and with the support of The Gillygate, and their shared ethos of community engagement, our potential is rapidly expanding,” says Matt.

James Lewis Knight ‘s James playing on a games console in Operation Hummingbird. Picture: James Drury

Ahead of Thursday’s opening performance, Matt answers CharlesHutchPress’s questions on play titles, dealing with death, talking to our younger selves, Hamlet versus King Lear, working with Explore York and taking up a residency at The Gillygate.

What is the significance of the title Operation Hummingbird, Matt?

“The title alludes to the central character’s childhood coping mechanism for dealing with his mother’s terminal diagnosis; rather than trying to grapple with medical terminology he draws parallels to battles he is more familiar with, like those on his games console.

“The hummingbird is a reference to who the character’s mum hopes she can become ‘afterwards’. So together, ‘Operation Hummingbird’ is the character’s fight to save his mum, which turns into his journey of living with loss.”

Death is a difficult subject to discuss; for some it is still taboo. Yet facing up to your mother’s death instead has awoken the need for you to contemplate grief in myriad ways. What has been the impact of all that creativity, both on others and on yourself?

“Well, it’s been a real snowball effect. We’re not good at talking about death, even though deep down we know we need to. Many people just need an opportunity presented to them that feels safe and more recognisable.

“People came to watch Any Mother Would and wanted to write their own stories, which led to us running the Death Cafés and Playback Theatre on loss, which gained momentum and put us at the heart of York’s Dead Good Fest 2019.

“The experience of grief can be a very lonely and isolating one and the main impact we’ve seen from participants and audiences is reassurance that their feelings are valid and shared by others.

Shining a light as Matt Stradling’s James talks to his younger self in Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s Operation Hummingbird. Picture: James Drury

“For me personally, I thought I would be completely consumed by the grief of my mam’s death, but through creativity, I’ve been able to own it and take control over how it manifests itself in my life. So, strength is the impact it’s had on me.” 

Given how widely you have addressed this theme already, what new elements are you looking to bring out in Operation Hummingbird?

“In writing the play, even though I’ve leaned into themes and emotions I’ve experienced myself, it’s been really important to weave in all the stories of death, dying and bereavement that have been shared with us over the years so that they are represented as the collective they’ve become.

“In terms of how Operation Hummingbird complements our existing repertoire on this topic…we’ve had the celebration of a life lived (Any Mother Would), the reaction to a terminal diagnosis (Colder Than Here) and now we are looking at the long-term impact of bereavement and the role it plays in shaping our identity as we age (Operation Hummingbird).

“So, quite serendipitously, we’ve ended up with almost a trilogy of death, dying and bereavement spanning from 2016 to the current day.”

Knowing that we can’t go back to talk to our younger selves, but wish we could, why do we wish it? Some would see it as a futile exercise, but here you are devoting a play to that theme. For what reason? Are you addressing other selves who are still young?

“It’s actually the futility you mention that is central to the narrative; often we wish we could fast forward grief, that someone could give us an end date, or that someone has all the answers on how we ‘get over it’. When, in reality, the only way to deal with grief is to live through it, to feel every emotion, to articulate what’s going on and find a way to live alongside it.

“I guess that’s the take-away message of the play. Even when presented with this unachievable opportunity, our older character struggles with how much to tell his younger self for fear of changing the person he becomes.” 

James Lewis Knight, left, and Matt Stradling in a scene from Operation Hummingbird, whose Explore York library tour opens on Thursday. Picture: James Drury

How did you settle on the play’s structure of a conversation across the decades (about a sudden family death)?

“As you said before, we can’t actually have this conversation between younger and older self, so there’s something really freeing as a writer to set a play in this liminal, non-attainable space where the usual rules of time and conversation can be blurred.

“I’ve always found inspiration in Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’; the cold hard truth given to us directly can make us disengage, but set reality on a fictional foundation and look at it through a creative lens and it becomes easier to digest. Meaning that something classed as ‘taboo’ can be moved closer toward, rather than running away from.”

In Operation Hummingbird, you ask: “Does our grief age as we do?”. As I grow older, King Lear is becoming more significant to me than Hamlet, and yet Ian McKellen is playing Hamlet at 82, having already played Lear. Interesting! Discuss!

“Very interesting! Maybe it’s just because I’m in the throes of Operation Hummingbird, but maybe casting McKellen as Hamlet is to show the power that grief and loss can hold over us at any age?

“I wonder what the interpretation of a 28-year-old Lear would be? Discuss!” 

How long will the show be?

“The play is 45 minutes in length. I think lockdown has solidified my preference for a one-act play.”

Next Door But One’s playbill for Operation Hummingbird

What is the significance of linking up with Explore York for this library tour?

“There are three key reasons. Firstly, we wanted to bring live theatre closer to people, especially in light of Covid. So, having performances to the north and south of the city, as well as centrally, should hopefully give a space for everyone.

“Secondly, libraries are buildings that exist to house stories, so why not make a live one happen there too.

“Thirdly, some slight inspiration from my late mam. She was a librarian in west Cumbria and saw the building as central to the community. It’s where people connect with others, learn skills, tap into new interests, seek help, understand the area they live in, and that’s true to the ethos of Next Door But One’s work, so it seemed like the perfect partnership.” 

The Gillygate’s Brian Furey is a good friend to the arts, whether putting on Alexander Wright’s shows, both indoors and in a tent, or your York Trios shows. How did you cement the relationship to become the company in residence? What benefits will it bring to Next Door But One?

“There’s a genuine generosity that The Gillygate has to its staff and community that we admire. Little did we know that the Fureys were also admiring the same qualities in us when supporting Yorkshire Trios.

“The residency was cemented by us both discussing the fundamentals of what we were trying to achieve and realising that it was the same; we want to bring members of the community together to enjoy and benefit from a shared experience.

“So, in its simplest form, ‘two heads (or companies) are better than one’ when there’s a shared goal. As a company it now means that we have a home; we have office, rehearsal and performance space, giving us more autonomy over our programming.

“But above all, partnering with The Gillygate means we have a real community champion in our corner and that’s invaluable.”  

Artistic director Matt Harper-Hardcastle at the door to Next Door But One’s new home at The Gillygate pub in Gillygate, York

Explore York libraries, archives and reading cafes reopen this week after Lockdown 2

EXPLORE York libraries, archives and reading cafés will re-open for browsing and drop-ins from this week post-Lockdown 2.

The reading cafés at Hungate and Rowntree Park will resume eating-in and takeaway service from today (2/12/2020). On Friday (4/12/2020), all libraries will re-open for drop-ins, browsing and computer and printer use.

The Archives at York Explore will be open for pre-booked appointments from Friday; reading cafés at York Explore, Acomb and Tang Hall will open from that day too. 

Full information can be found at https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/were-back/

Explore York continues to provide a range of online Library At Home services:

* Online events and activities programme for people of all ages at: https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/digital/events-and-activities-this-autumn-and-winter/

* Free E-books and E-Audiobooks to borrow at: https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/digital/e-books

* Free newspapers and magazines via Press Reader at:  https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/digital/e-magazines/

Open and shut case of what will happen to York’s Explore libraries in Lockdown 2

Read on….

YORK libraries will stay open for essential services in Lockdown 2, when the Explore York Libraries and Archives services will include free PC and internet access and click-and-collect books.

In a statement released today, Explore York said: “Explore’s libraries are an essential service for the people of York. They are essential for keeping people connected through free access to PCs and the internet.

“And they provide essential and significant support for everyone’s health and wellbeing too with free books, newspapers and online events to keep people of all ages entertained and informed during these challenging times.

“Therefore, Explore’s chief executive, Fiona Williams, is happy to confirm that she will be keeping some libraries open during the second national lockdown starting on November 5.”

Explore centres at York, Tang Hall and Acomb will be open from Tuesday to Saturday, starting from November 10, for pre-booked appointments with access to PCs and printers and pre-ordered books for collection. Explore’s cafes at Rowntree Park and Hungate will be open for takeaway service only.

All books due back during lockdown will be renewed automatically; likewise that will apply to all items on loan, so you do not have to worry about overdue charges.

To join the library online, visit https://www.exploreyork.org.uk/getting-a-library-card-or-yorkcard/ or send an email to contact@exploreyork.org.uk

All libraries will be closed from November 5 to 10 to prepare for the changes.

The full story brought to book:

Libraries open: Explore centres at Acomb, Tang Hall and York will be open for appointments only from Tuesday, November 10. All other libraries are closed. Be aware, there will be no drop-in or browsing at any library.

Opening hours at Acomb, Tang Hall and York will be Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm. Books can be pre-ordered for collection from Acomb, Tang Hall and York libraries. 

You can reserve books from the Explore catalogue as usual and the library will contact you when they are ready to collect. 

Or you can choose a Lucky Dip: complete the form for children or the form for adults and Explore will pick some books based on your preferences.

Computers and printing will be available at Acomb, Tang Hall and York libraries. Bookings will be for one hour only and must be made in advance, either online or by phone to the library you want to use.

Events:

Explore has a full programme of online live events and activities planned for November to keep adults and children entertained and informed 

E-library:

Books, audiobooks, newspapers and magazines are all free to borrow and available 24/7.

Library at Home:

Explore has gathered together a treasury of online links and information for children and families about reading, culture and creativity and archives and local history and to support health and wellbeing.

The Enquiries service will be operating as normal during office hours.

Home Library:

A doorstep delivery service will continue for vulnerable and housebound Home Library Service customers.

The Toy Library will be suspended during the lockdown period.

Archives:

The Archives Reading Room will be closed from November 5 in line with archives services nationally. 

Reading Cafes:

The reading cafes at Rowntree Park and Hungate will be open during the lockdown, operating a takeaway service. Reading cafes at York, Acomb and Tang Hall will be closed. 

All these changes will be operational from November 5. 

Wanted! Your poems and doodles for Explore York’s record of this strange year

Stephen Lee Hodgkins: Self-styled “chronic doodler” and community printmaker

OCTOBER 1 is National Poetry Day and the word is: Explore York Libraries and Archives will mark it “in a very special way”.

Explore is launching a project to help everyone to make sense of this very strange year by asking you to send in poems and drawings that will create “a lasting record of what has happened in our lives”.

The project, World Turned Upside Down 2020 #haiflu edition, takes inspiration from spoken-word artist Liv Torc’s pandemic poetry initiative, Project Haiflu, and community artist Stephen Lee Hodgkins’ interest in York’s printing heritage.

Explore is asking you to send two haiku or #haiflu poems on the topic of No News and Strange News but with a flavour of lockdown. If you prefer to portray your thoughts and feelings visually, you can send in a doodle or cartoon instead.

Throughout October and November, Explore will be hosting free online haiku workshops with poets Janet Dean and Penny Boxall and doodle workshops with Stephen Lee Hodgkins.

The first two workshops will be on National Poetry Day itself. At the beginning of November, Project Haiflu originator Liv Torc will present an exclusive online talk and poetry show, Haiflu Ever After.

After the November 30 deadline for submissions, 20 pairs of #haiflu and 20 doodles that reflect York’s Coronavirus experience will be chosen for inclusion in a book. Hodgkins will create a 20-page limited-edition chapbook printed in the traditional way on handmade paper.

Each contributor to the final piece will receive a copy; every library in York will be given one too, and a copy will be lodged in the Explore York archive, alongside the original World Turned Upside Down Chapbook from 1820.

You can find full details and more information on how to take part in the project on Explore’s website, www.exploreyork.org.uk, and book the workshops on their Eventbrite page.

In addition, Explore has made a short film about the project, to be posted on their YouTube channel at 11am on National Poetry Day.

Spoken-word artist and slam champ Liv Torc

What is Project Haiflu?

AT the beginning of lockdown in March, spoken-word artist Liv Torc posted on Facebook to ask how her friends were feeling when life-as-they-knew-it stopped.

She wanted them to tell her what they had noticed, either in haiku form – a three-line poem with five, seven and five syllables and no rhyming – or by posting a photograph.

She brought words, pictures and music together in a weekly film and Project Haiflu came into being. Liv made 12 weekly films, one overall 45-minute project film and an extra film based on contributions for public libraries.

The films contain more than 600 contributions from 250 people. Around 30,000 people have watched them so far; you can do likewise and discover more about the project on Liv’s website: https://www.livtorc.co.uk/.

What is The World Turned Upside Down, or No News, and Strange News?

DURING lockdown, community artist Stephen Lee Hodgkins was experimenting with an old Adana 8×5 tabletop letterpress printing machine. When searching for old instruction manuals, he came across the work of York printer James Kendrew, of 23 Colliergate, who had produced a series of chapbooks in the 1800s.

These chapbooks, or “cheapbooks”, were small, roughly printed booklets adorned with intricate woodcut illustrations. Chapbooks kept alive folklore, nursery rhymes, fairy tales and school lessons and were sold by travelling merchants across town and country. 

The World Turned Upside Down, or No News, and Strange News is an example of nonsense rhymes and riddles produced in 1820 that gives an insight, through a quirky lens, to life 200 years ago. Copies can be found in the archives at York Explore.

The Artists:

Liv Torc

SPOKEN-WORD artist, published poet and producer who “plunges the vast caverns and dormant volcanoes of the human and planetary condition”.

This former Bard of Exeter and now co-host of the Hip Yak Poetry Shack runs the spoken-word stage at the WOMAD festival, Project Haiflu and the Hip Yak Poetry School. 

In 2019, her poem about climate change in the face of motherhood, The Human Emergency, went viral, being seen by 80,000 people. She performed at Glastonbury Festival on the Poetry and Words stage and represented Somerset for the BBC’s National Poetry Day celebrations.

In 2020, she was chosen as one of four Siren Poets by Cape Farewell for a commission on climate change in the time of Covid-19 and wrote and filmed a poem for the BBC’s Make A Difference campaign.

Penny Boxall: Poet and Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of York

Penny Boxall

HER debut poetry collection, Ship Of The Line, won the 2016 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award. Second collection Who Goes There? was published in 2018.

Penny has won a Northern Writers’ Award and the Mslexia/PBS Poetry Competition. She is a Hawthornden Fellow and has held residencies at Gladstone’s Library and the Chateau de Lavigny.

She has taught poetry on the MA course at Oxford Brookes University and in 2019 was Visiting Research Fellow in the Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford. She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of York.

Janet Dean

HER poetry has been shortlisted in the Bridport Prize, commended in the Stanza Poetry Competition and featured in the Northern Poetry Library’s 50th anniversary Poem of the North.

Her work appears in anthologies and magazines published by Valley Press, Paper Swans, Templar and Strix. As Janet Dean Knight, her first novel The Peacemaker was published in 2019 and her second novel in progress was shortlisted for the New Writing North Sid Chaplin Award.

Stephen Lee Hodgkins

THIS “chronic doodler” and community printmaker has an interest in people’s voices, texts and their experiences of places and spaces.

He is a self-taught community artist and visual thinker with a positive attitude, people and research skills, creative energy and a commitment to inclusion and human rights. He has experience aplenty of working with community organisations, applying an arts-based approach. 

He left school with no qualifications and later received the labels of dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit. Reflecting on these tags now, his preference is for the term “neurodiverse”, and he has learnt to embrace and harness his diverse language use and organisational approach to the world.

Returning to university as a mature student, in 2008 he completed a PhD in Social Psychology. An abridged version of his thesis was published as a chapter in an international text in 2009, Disabilities: Insights From Across Fields and Around The World. 

Book now! All Explore libraries, reading rooms and cafes will be open next week

Time to Explore: The message is loud and clear…Explore Libraries and cafes are reopening

ALL Explore libraries and cafes in York will be open from next week.

Larger Explore centres reopened in July, now to be joined by smaller libraries, enabling customers to drop-in to browse the books for the first time since March. Opening times will vary, with shorter than normal hours at some places and all libraries closing by 5pm.

The Reading Cafes at York Explore, Acomb and Tang Hall libraries will re-open too and books can be borrowed once more at the cafes in Rowntree Park and the new Hungate site.

The Local and Family History rooms at York Explore will be open, but anyone wanting to use them will need to book ahead, in order that safe social distancing can be maintained. The Archives reading room will re-open from October for pre-booked visits.

Stories this way: A welcome sign of better times ahead

In-person events are not yet possible but Explore has planned a programme of virtual events for Autumn 2020, so look out for further announcements or follow Explore on social media for the latest information. In addition, thousands of newspapers and magazines are available online through the PressReader app.

Fiona Williams, Explore’s chief executive, says: “We are so happy to be able to welcome everyone back. I was heartbroken when we had to close our libraries in March because of the pandemic. Throughout the closure, we supported people through our online library and website and kept in touch with our users.

“We began to plan reopening as soon as it was possible and we were so pleased to reopen partially at the beginning of July. We received so many lovely comments from our users who missed us and we are still running the Missed My Library survey, so please do go to our website to complete it and let us know what you missed the most.”

Explore cafes are back in business

Explore has planned carefully for the reopening, taking into account the safety of both staff and the public. “We have trained staff and risk assessed our buildings, designing in social distancing,” says Fiona.

“The first reopening stage has been very successful and we are now able to extend that from the beginning of September when all libraries will be open for browsing and borrowing, but with shorter than normal hours.  Please see our website, exploreyork.org.uk, for full details of each library.  We look forward to seeing you soon.”

Councillor Darryl Smalley, executive member for Culture, Leisure and Communities at City of York Council, says: “Explore have provided tremendous support to York’s communities throughout the pandemic and I’m delighted to see this next phase of carefully considered and safe reopening.

“Whether you’re a regular visitor or have never popped in, I urge everyone to take this wider reopening as an opportunity to enjoy and explore the brilliant range of services on offer at your local library.”

York Explore Library and Archive

Did you know?

IN 2019, Explore York Libraries and Archives had more than one million visitors, held 1,466 events, told 1,734 stories to children and loaned more than 2,000 books every day.

Holding more than 850 years of civic records, the City Archives are the most complete outside London.

Explore was born in 2014 as a community benefit society with charitable status, owned by its staff and community members, and recognised nationally for its innovative approach. In 2019, Explore won a 15-year contract to deliver libraries and archives for City of York Council.

Bookings for books in new chapter for Explore York when libraries re-open in July

York Explore: Library and archive re-opening from July 7 on a pre-booked basis only

EXPLORE York libraries and reading cafés are preparing to re-open from July 6.

The libraries at York Central, Acomb, Clifton and Tang Hall will open from July 7, but on a pre-booked basis only.

The Mobile Library will be back too, but the rest of the smaller Gateway libraries will remain closed during this first stage. 

Opening hours at the libraries will be from 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday. For mobile stops and café opening times, visit exploreyork.org.uk/ for more information. 

Explore’s new reading café in Hungate will open for the first time on July 7, preceded by the cafés at Rowntree Park and Homestead Park on July 6. All will be serving drinks and snacks to take away and enjoy outside.

“All our venues will have safety measures in place to protect customers and staff,” says Explore York’s statement.

“We can’t wait to welcome people back to our physical buildings. We will be operating a little differently for a while though. Some libraries will be open; books will be available using a click-and-collect system; computer and printer use will be by appointment only and opening hours will be shorter.” 

Borrowing books using click and collect is simple, Explore York advises, saying books can be collected from Acomb, Clifton, York, Tang Hall and the Mobile Library. 

Step one: Reserve your books in the usual way, using the online catalogue or, from July 7, by phoning or emailing your nearest open library. Alternatively, fill in one of the Lucky Dip online forms for adults or children, whereupon Explore will choose up to 15 books based on your taste and preferences.

Step two: When your books are ready, Explore will ring you and arrange a time for you to collect them. 

Books also may be returned by pre-booked appointment. Explore is happy to accept returns and all loans have been renewed until September 30.

Computers and printing will be available for pre-booked slots. You can book online or contact your nearest open library by phone or email after July 7.

“Explore customers now have even more choices than before because, while we were closed, we took the chance to enrich and expand what we offer online,” the statement concludes. “As lockdown is lifted, we encourage everyone to carry on using these online services as well as coming into libraries.” 

For more information, go to exploreyork.org.uk/were-back/.

Misbehaviour encouraged in Hungate Clearances show at York library tonight

Not sorry to be a nuisance at York Explore tonight

WHISPER it loudly, the word is out that history will misbehave tonight at York Explore Library, Library Square, York, from 7.30pm to 9pm.

Why? Because the air will be thick with Paul Birch’s live audio drama The Nuisance Inspector, wherein a sinister slice of York’s past, the Hungate Clearances, will be re-told.

Birch travels back to the 1930s when York’s newest Health Inspector encounters more than he bargains for in the mysterious and extraordinary alleys and yards of Hungate.

A strange body in the Foss, ghostly goings-on in Carmelite Street and an unlikely romance all feature in this moving tale of love, loss and community spirit.

Based on real events and inspired by letters, maps, books and photographs from the civic archives, The Nuisance Inspector uses drama, comedy and live music to transport the audience into a powerful and poignant past.

Tonight’s immersive performance comes in the wake of two sold-out shows in December. Doors open at 7pm for the 7.30pm start and tickets are FREE. Be sure to arrive in good time for start.

Helen Wilson completes her Chekhov big four with The Seagull, but what next?

York Settlement Community Players director Helen Wilson bonding with Cliff, the seagull from Dotty’s Vintage Tearoom in Staithes, ahead of her production pf The Seagull

CHEKHOV devotee Helen Wilson set herself the challenge of directing the 19th century Russian’s four greatest plays for York Settlement Community Players in ten years.

Next month, the project will be completed with his 1895 tragicomedy The Seagull, his most famous work, as Settlement celebrate their centenary by returning to the York Theatre Royal Studio.

First, however, Helen will give a library talk tomorrow (January 29) from 6pm to 8pm at York Explore to mark Anton Chekhov’s 160th birthday, under the title of Adventures In The Cherry Orchard: Chekhov And Me. 

“Why is Anton Chekhov so beloved and called ‘the father of the modern theatre’,” Helen will ask herself. “I’ll seek to explain why through anecdotes and a little biography; casting a light on why he called his plays ‘comedies’.

“So, come and toast Chekhov’s 160th birthday with a glass of vodka or wine and be entertained by extracts of his work from The Seagull cast. As I direct the fourth of his major plays, I’ll share my enthusiasm for a great Russian dramatist.”

Chekhov And Me: Helen Wilson’s talk at York Explore

This will be York tutor, theatre director and actor Helen’s final Chekhov production as Settlement tackle the late 19th century work that heralded the birth of modern theatre with its story of unrequited love, the generation gap and how life can turn on a kopek: a raw tragicomedy of poignancy yet sometimes absurd playfulness.

She had not envisaged doing all the Chekhov quartet when she set out in March 2010. “I did Three Sisters in the Theatre Royal Studio, and I thought that would be that, as it was my ambition to do that play,” recalls Helen.

“But then I did The Cherry Orchard at Riding Lights’ Friargate Theatre in September 2015, and I was on a roll, so we did Uncle Vanya in the Theatre Royal Studio in March 2018 and now The Seagull in the Studio again. Two actors have been in all of them: Maurice Crichton and Ben Sawyer. They just keep auditioning!”

Helen can see patterns in Chekhov’s work when putting the four side by side. “Chekhov has both ensemble text and ‘duo-logue’, where there’s so much going on and so much subtext too,” she says.

“So for The Seagull, I’m having to hold both ensemble rehearsals and separate rehearsals for the main characters.

Helen Wilson and seagull Cliff in Staithes

“And having done the three other plays, I can point to the pattern where Act One is always a souffle, with plenty of laughing at these slightly inept characters thinking they are something they’re not, and the audience having that delicious moment of thinking, ‘well, actually that’s not going to happen’. Then Chekhov likes to lob a bomb into the room in Act Three.”

Helen has “always felt that The Seagull has never fully made sense on stage” when she has seen past productions. “Like Irina Arkadina has always been seen as a monster, when she’s not,” she says.

“It’s important to show what’s beneath that, and Chekhov always gives you the opportunity to see the other side of the character. That’s what I want to explore and exploit.

“They’re all vulnerable, every one of them…but when I went to see Vanessa Redgrave in the play when I was nine, I wasn’t very impressed! Her speech at the end wasn’t very good!

“In this production, I want there to be vulnerability, but also warmth, in every character, for the audience to be able to laugh and cry with them.”

Settlement regular Maurice Crichton (Vanya) and Amanda Dales (Yelena) in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ Uncle Vanya in 2018

Helen sees a difference between The Seagull and the other three plays. “It isn’t like the others in that the ending is very abrupt,” she says. “Chekhov was very influenced by Ibsen, and this is more of an Ibsen ending than elegiac, but the play is also a great deal funnier than people realise, especially in Act One.

“As with Ibsen and Shakespeare, you can be too reverent in how you present it, but I want people to find the characters recognisable types that they know.

“All life is there; you don’t have to hit people over the head with it. All the resonance is there. It’s all going at someone’s home and that’s how it should feel.”

What has Helen learned from her earlier productions? “Not to have so much on stage, like having a chaise longue previously! The costumes will be period, there’ll be a soundscape and lighting, but what matters is to make it absorbing to watch, so it’s going to be very intimate.”

Settlement’s production, by the way, will be carrying the best wishes of writer/translator Michael Frayn, who has sent the York company a message of gratitude. “It’s a wonderful achievement for YSCP to have performed all of Chekhov’s four last great plays – and I can’t help being pleased, of course, that they have chosen to use my translations,” he wrote.

Helen Wilson standing by cherry blossom when directing The Cherry Orchard in 2015

“Most productions of the plays these days seem to be ‘versions,’ with the period, location, genders, and politics changed to make them more relevant to audiences who might otherwise not be up to understanding them.  

“People in York, though, are evidently made of tougher stuff, because the simple intention of my translations is to get as close to the original Russian as I can.  Just occasionally, perhaps, it’s worth trying to catch the sense and feel of what Chekhov actually intended. So, thank you, YSCP!”

Helen has stated this will be her last Chekhov, but out of the blue she says: “Having done the other three, in some ways I’d like to do Three Sisters again. Having learned things since I did it, I’d do it differently but more or less with the same cast.

“You get into a rhythm of what these plays are like, and they still move me every time. It’s like a labour of love doing them.

“But when I finish this one, I’d love to do an Arthur Miller one next. The thing about Chekhov and Miller is that they’re universal. You don’t have to modernise them for resonance. They will always resonate in their own period.”

A word in your shell like by the sea at Staithes: Cliff and The Seagull director Helen Wilson

York Settlement Community Players in Chekhov’s The Seagull, York Theatre Royal Studio, February 26 to March 7, 7.45pm plus 2pm matinee on February 29; no Sunday or Monday performances. Box office: 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

Tickets for Helen Wilson’s Chekhov talk at 6pm tomorrow (January 29) at York Explore, Library Square, Museum Street, York, cost £5 at yorkexplore.org.

Quick question:

What’s the story behind seagull Cliff, Helen?

“He’s called Cliff and he lives in the window of the much frequented Dotty’s Vintage Tearoom in Staithes, collecting coins for the RNLI. He was allowed to commune with me for an hour or two and seemed to enjoy it!”