Artistic director Andrew Hilton shares his thoughts on two unmissable new takes on classic productions, co-produced by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Tobacco Factory Theatres
Looking for a good opportunity to get reacquainted with two of literature’s greatest masters? We advise heading over to Southville, stat, where, this season, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (stf) is breathing brand new life into a couple of complete classics – one by Shakespeare and one by Molière.
TBM: So, Andrew, what can we expect from these two productions?
AH: Richard Twyman – only our third guest director in 18 years – will bring his fresh perspective to Othello, as well as a number of exciting actors, new to stf and the Tobacco Factory. Richard is particularly interested in Othello’s identity as a ‘Moor’ – therefore a man born into an Islamic culture – and has been researching Jacobean England’s perception and experience of Moorish influence in Western Europe. At the same time, his production will have a modern setting. Richard is an exciting director, with a fine track record that includes the RSC, and he has recently been appointed artistic director of English Touring Theatre.
Tartuffe is a completely new version, by my long-term collaborator Dominic Power and myself. We follow the structure of Molière’s play fairly precisely, and its family relationships, and we have written in rhyming verse, but have otherwise reinvented the play. In the 1660s, Molière wrote of a wealthy Parisian household usurped by a fraudulent religious zealot, whose design is to get his hands on the family loot. In our version, the villain becomes a bogus business guru with the same intent, who has battened on the family of a junior minister of state in the current British government. The result is British political satire married to French farcical comedy – a brew we hope will provoke and delight.
Andrew’s version of Tartuffe will be ‘completely new’
Can you pick a favourite moment in each of the shows?
The idea of a favourite moment in that most painful of tragedies, Othello, is an odd one; but one of its most intriguing is the scene between Desdemona and Emilia, when they talk about men’s behaviour towards women. It can be played as a kind of therapy session, with Emilia as a kindly but worldly-wise adviser, but to me more interestingly – and tragically – as a revelation of an unbridgeable experiential and philosophic divide between the two women. Of course, Richard and his team may find yet another option – with Shakespeare you never reach the end of possibility. Tartuffe is particularly famous for the scene in which Elmire makes her husband, Orgon, hide underneath a table to witness Tartuffe trying to seduce her (Orgon has refused to credit reports of such behaviour). It’s gloriously funny, and we’re confident our substitution of a grand piano for a table won’t spoil the fun one iota.
“I don’t believe anyone writes more convincingly of humanity than Shakespeare…”
What’s been the most challenging aspect of each production?
Casting is certainly the most stressful part of the process. Those choices are so definitive and yet irrevocable. Have I got the balances right? How will these actors work together? Which possibilities in characterisation am I opening up, which – if any – am I closing down, before we even reach the first read-through?
Why do you think Shakespeare’s work still attracts audiences?
I don’t believe anyone writes more convincingly of humanity than Shakespeare. If sometimes that humanity seems buried beneath the preoccupations, the manners and the dress of people of a very different time, then it’s the job of directors and actors to bring it back to the surface. And it can so easily be done. I don’t recall a single moment in my decades of acting and directing Shakespeare of saying “This just isn’t convincing any more, we know better than that now about what makes people tick.” Shakespeare was not a salesman for ideas, projects or philosophies, but fascinated in the possibilities of exploring hearts and minds in stories – almost always stories he found in other writers’ work. Those transformations, whether from the work of great writers like Chaucer and Ovid, or minor figures only remembered now for their Shakespeare connection, will remain among the greatest things we have, as long as people read and go to the theatre.
What inspires you?
Live performance, and simplicity of presentation, which is why I leapt at the chance, 18 years ago, to produce in the Tobacco Factory. And converted spaces, like the Factory, also have a character that more than compensates for their practical shortcomings. My two main interests have always been classic theatre and brand new writing – if you like, complex literary drama from the past and writing on the point of making it onto the stage for the first time, where the director acts as a sort of midwife. I did that for several new plays in the 1970s in London, and then for Show of Strength at the Hen & Chicken in the 1990s, before inaugurating the Shakespeare seasons in 2000. Reinventing a great Molière comedy brings those two strands together!