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New Perspectives

15 September 15 words: Hazel Ward
A local theatre company have been up and down the country, to New York and back again, but now they're coming home to celebrate 150 years of Theatre Royal
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illustration: Raphael Achache

Can you tell us a bit about Hood?
Theatre Royal got in touch with us about a year ago about celebrating their 150th anniversary with their own show. They wanted to do Robin Hood, but a fresh, dynamic version. Their idea was to commission six playwrights from the region, mentioning political and contemporary writers like James Graham and Mufaro Makubika. We’re based in Nottingham, but we mostly tour away. I’d been wanting to increase our presence here, so we said yes.

I was pulling my hair out thinking, “How I can engage these writers to create something unique to them, but that makes sense as a whole?” We eventually gave each writer a part of the story, then gave them a period of history within the last 150 years. The effort was to keep their voice without the audience constantly checking the programme to see who the writer was. They’re totally different playwrights and I didn’t want an anonymous voice that blended into something uninteresting.

Have you moved away from the clichéd tights then?
Theatre Royal weren’t keen because they’d done that before. We also didn’t want to do the 21st century ‘hip hop’ hood. We wanted the writers to think politically and socially about what happened in Nottingham. We begin in the late nineteenth century, when trains became big. Rather than seeing Hood attack chariots, a train robbery kicks off this new idea. Then we move to James Graham's, set in the early twentieth century for the birth of the Labour party with Robin as the first ever Labour MP. The third is set in the Second World War with Robin and his men as soldiers.

Laura Lomas’ is set in the sixties during the civil rights era, and she’s latched onto the idea that when Maid Marian Way was built in Notts, they knocked down lots of important medieval structures. In our version, it’s called Sheriff’s Way and Maid Marian is the lead protestor. As punishment, the Sheriff calls it Maid Marian Way to undermine her. It’s about socialists, really. Andy Barrett's is set in the eighties during Thatcher’s era. Nottingham has been redeveloped and it’s all about corporation and money. The poor are getting poorer. Robin and his guys are the victims – they’re the dole queue people of Thatcher’s Britain.

Quite unique to look at him existing in different eras…
I gave the writers the slight provocation of the element of Robin we were looking at: the train robbery was Robin the outlaw; the Labour party was Robin the agitator; the war one was Robin the romantic where Marian is a nurse to Robin; the sixties Robin was the activist; and the eighties Robin was the hero. We wanted one that mocked the idea of heroism in the eighties and nineties, so as well as the Thatcherism thing, we poke fun at action movie heroism and Kevin Costner’s hijacking of Robin Hood’s image. It’s quite satirical. The final one is a surprise, it’s set today. Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon consider the industry of what Robin Hood has become.

What typifies rural theatre? That seems to be a key part of New Perspectives...
It takes up over half of our work. We put a show in the back of the van and tour village halls and the countryside, and it’s of national or international quality. It would be easier to turn up with two lights, hardly any set and one actor playing all the parts. That’s the unfair cliché that has come from that kind of theatre – under-rehearsed and undervalued. We put on big shows with beautiful sets, and we light it exquisitely. We rurally toured a show about Alfred Hitchcock in 2013 and took the exact same show and set to the centre of New York without having to upscale it.

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The company’s been very well-received, too...
One of the first shows I did was a Lars Von Trier adaptation called The Boss of it All which we took to Edinburgh, it got good reviews so we took it to London. Since I joined, I’ve tried to bring lots of international influences, and program stuff nobody has seen before. I would rather give someone that first ever experience, rather than something they’re nodding along to having seen it elsewhere. We are called New Perspectives, so there is some onus on us to offer something new.

Do you think it’s important to foster rural theatre so that it’s not just the cities that get to see it?
Definitely. That’s our reason for existing – to bring work to places that don’t always get it. Wherever you live, you should be experiencing culture that is as dynamic as anywhere else. I like the idea that the UK’s first Lars Von Trier, or first Saul Bellow, might happen in a village you’ve never heard of. There’s a lot going on and you can’t compete with the levels of funding and audiences in cities, but for me, seventy people really loving a strange avant-garde show is much more rewarding.

A Lars Von Trier show in a community hall is definitely pushing boundaries...
Yeah! At the end of the day, they love it because it’s interesting, accessible material. We’re not trying to alienate people. They may not have heard of it but I would never program something unless I thought people would like it. There’s some notion of rural audiences as people with hay in their hair, so it’s important we don’t patronise people and dumb it down.

At Christmas, there’ll be a hundred Christmas Carols and Brontes going out, we don’t need to add to that cultural overload. We did a South African play this year, written by anti-apartheid writer Athol Fugard, before the election when UKIP were becoming more present. It felt important to open the debate about race and prejudice.

What are some of the highlights of New Perspectives, both for yourself and for the company as a whole?
Staying alive is pretty amazing considering how much has happened. It began as a project between students in the seventies and turned into pretty much the best funded touring theatre company in the East Midlands. Highlights have been a good, regular relationship with New York – three shows have been transferred there and they’ve been getting bigger. We had a three-page spread in the New York Times when we arrived.

It began as a company of family work and lots of gentler writing – I pulled it in a different direction, which was nerve wracking. I did more experimental, international and unseen work. That could’ve blown up in our faces, but we’ve been rewarded with reviews and transferred shows. Things are growing – the Arts Council awarded us another three years of funding. It could have gone one of two ways. It’s good to take risks.

It shows people are hungry for that kind of theatre…
I hope so. Part of the reason I want to get more involved in Nottingham is that it has a really interesting, alternative scene. It feels crazy to be based in Nottingham and always go away. We’re like parents who work abroad and never spend time with their kids. The next couple of shows we’re premiering in Arnold, Sneinton and Lakeside Arts Centre. Previously, it was quite hard for Nottingham audiences to see our work because we’d be off on tour, but we’re trying to change that.

Hood, Theatre Royal, Thursday 17 - Saturday 26 September, £10 - £17.50.

New Perspectives website

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