We recently spoke to Ricky Dukes, the artistic director of the Lazarus Theatre Company.
No stranger to the Camden Fringe, he is returning to it, and revisiting the Tristan Bates Theatre later this month with productions of Troilus & Cressida and Coriolanus.
We found out about his use of colour-blind casting, what their ‘Our World at War’ season will mean to contemporary audiences, and what we might expect from these seldom-performed Shakespearean plays.
Coriolanus and Troilus and Cressida aren’t the most-performed Shakespeare plays. Why have you settled on those two titles?
It began last year when we were playing The Tragedy of Mariam, our debut at The Tristan Bates. I loved the space: epic and immediate, masculine and bold, a place that had an almost subterranean feel to it. Instantly we questioned what could we do there next. At the time I had been reading a lot about Troilus and Cressida, a play I haven’t ever seen on stage. I was rather attracted by the “problem play” remarks, the cogs began to turn. After having spoken to Will and Ben at the Tristan Bates it was clear our production had to be fresh, modern and immediate. This was a chance to have a real go at what many people perceive as a muddy, difficult play: we had to do it. It was a little while later when we settled on Coriolanus, a play I have long wanted to get my hands on: in fact it has twice been very close to being announced in the past. Again, after speaking to the chaps at the Tristan Bates, we all knew that what we were talking about would be huge, with two feet we all jumped in! The fact that neither plays are performed very often really appeals to me. Apart from the Donmar’s production of Coriolanus and the Globe’s production of Troilus and Cressida last year we haven’t seen either play in London for a while: they just don’t get done very often. They are difficult, muddy and at times just downright confusing; but with a bit of editing and a fresh approach I think we have cleared the narrative and created two edits that have real pace, energy with theatricality.
They are falling under the bracket of Our World At War. Tell us about that. What are you saying about the nature of warfare?
Right from the off we said these have to be productions set now, an immediate response to those caught up in the tempest of war. It is not all doom and gloom I can tell you. Both plays have a great sense of humour. Our World at War is a season that really asks questions about the state of warfare, funding, gender roles played on the front line as well as those back home. It also focuses on life and hope in often seemingly impossible situations.
You’ve cast Prince Plockey as Coriolanus, who impressed us a lot as Richard III. What qualities bagged him the role?
Prince and I had chatted a little bit about what might be next after he worked with our associate Director Gavin Harrington-Odedra on Richard III at the Blue Elephant earlier this year. Right at the top of his list, he said, “Obviously Othello”. I was intrigued: why is it obvious that a black actor would want to play Othello and not want any of the other big Shakespearean roles? I want to challenge him, so I invited him to be Coriolanus. He said yes.
Prince brought a lot of charm to Richard III. Coriolanus is quite a cold character by comparison. Will this be a bit of a departure?
I always loved sitting in on rehearsals of Richard III. Prince has an infectious smile, his energy drives a company. I cannot wait to see how that works in Coriolanus. I’m not sure Coriolanus is entirely cold, I feel he has a chink in his armour. I’m looking at that chink… the real man behind what can seem a cold and impenetrable breast plate.
It’s great to see a black actor cast in Shakespeare beyond the obvious roles like Othello. Why don’t we see too much of this, and what are your thoughts on colour blind casting?
Baffles me, is it social convention, prejudice? Nicholas Hytner of course caused a stir by casting Adrian Lester as Henry V, a stirring and incredibly fine performance: but why wouldn’t it be? Lester is one of our leading actors on stage and screen. I suspect some roles can’t be colour blind cast, although I’m yet to find one. Shakespeare is open to interpretation, his work spans time, gender and race: it’s human.
Apart from colour-blind casting, are you challenging conservative conventions in any other way through creative decisions?
As a company we are huge fans of colour and gender blind casting as well as specifically challenging the casting “norm” to offer a new perspective into a play. We not only have a black Coriolanus but a female Priam in Troilus and Cressida, female soldiers in both plays and a Helen of Troy who is no whimsical petal! We are creating pieces that are made by people who are here now for people now. I’m blooming excited about blowing some of the serotypes and myths out of the window.
What sort of audience will get the most out of these productions?
We are really hoping that fans and non-fans of the Bard come to see us. You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy these beautiful and passionate plays, our physical approach to the text, and the use of movement and song that illuminates the narrative. Those who love a theatrical heartfelt work will certainly go on an incredibly journey through Troy and Rome!
You’ve been part of the Camden Fringe festival for a few years now. What keeps bringing you back?
We love the vibe, the excitement of being part of a bigger festival. Really looking forward to seeing other people’s work too. Sharing is a real key to The Camden Fringe.
What are your main ambitions for the future of Lazarus Theatre Company?
For the past year we have been working on how as a company we move forward to sustain the work and support our growth, and this should start to take effect next year. The main obstacle is funding. It’s no excuse or surprise that getting funding is difficult. Our work to date has been supported by the generous donations of our Angels and personal funding, a group of people with real passion and dedication which I am extremely proud to have with us, but we need to be working further and harder to ensure our work and those who work with us are fully financially supported, this is our goal. Our 2015 season of work is in the pipeline. It includes a few hidden gems and we will be staging the second Lazarus musical.
Tickets for both Troilus & Cressida and Coriolanus are available now from the Tristan Bates Theatre website.