Opening at Bristol Old Vic on 13 January, the stage adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s novel, St Joan of the Stockyards. We spoke with director Nik Partridge about the creative process behind the scenes.
Set in 1920’s Chicago, during an economic disaster, St Joan of the Stockyards offers a dark if comical, cautionary tale of romance between a meat-packing tycoon and a Christian missionary. It invites us to consider the lines of corporate manipulation through which people are controlled, the power institutional religion has to combat economic and social injustice and the resultant effects of this on the poorest in society.
The stage adaptation has been brought to life under the guidance of director Nik Partridge, with the Bristol Old Vic Young Company’s talented cast of aspiring young performers. Nik cast Kate to play the role of Joan in the production, and explains how the complexity of Joan’s character was contextualised against the backdrop of economic depression in 1920’s Chicago:
“Joan is a fascinating character. She starts off as a religious fundamentalist and when she becomes frustrated at what she sees as the inability of religion to combat inequality, she abandons her faith in and takes it upon herself to try and solve the crises of the poor and unemployed in Chicago. As a character you both love and hate her. As a figure she represents the positives and negatives of holding a fervent belief system. When you hold that up as a reflection to our modern world it can prove fascinatingly insightful. Kate, our Joan Dark, has done a wonderful job of accessing and bringing to life this most intriguing of characters.”
“The beauty of the piece, however, is that despite being written over 80 years ago it still feels startlingly relevant.”
Working alongside such an enthusiastic cast of young actors, has injected the much-needed energy and animation to bring the original novel up to date, and resonate with audiences, as Nik explained:
“Throughout this process the Bristol Old Vic Young Company have guided my thought-process, and brought creativity and ideas in abundance. They are a fantastically talented company and the final play you see on stage will have been massively influenced by them.”
Nik left the Tobacco Factory Theatres last summer to pursue freelance directing – still maintaining strong links with Bristol Old Vic and working on productions including the recent Trip the Light Fantastic, written by Miriam Battye and produced by Theatre West, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which showed at Bath Theatre Royal Theatre School. During Nik’s time working on St Joan of the Stockyards, he has appreciated the way in which the theatre space lends itself to the dynamics of the cast and the production:
“I love working at Bristol Old Vic and particularly in the studio, which is a hugely exciting space and presents its own very unique challenges. We’ve decided to stage the play in traverse and use lots of levels, so figuring out how we are going to do that has been fascinating, especially when you are trying to negotiate a cast of nineteen around the space.”
Nik recognises the positive contribution to performing arts that Bristol has nurtured historically, and is fully supportive of the exciting plans ahead in 2016 – both for new theatre, with the recent establishment of the Wardrobe Theatre’s new venue, and the old: with Bristol Old Vic due to celebrate its 250th anniversary this year.
“I think Bristol has a wonderful theatrical ecosystem – venues such as Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory Theatres and the Wardrobe Theatre present hugely exciting work from both local artists and further afield. When you marry that with festivals like Mayest and In Between Time you realise how rich the theatre scene in Bristol is and can continue to be in the future.”
In choosing to direct St Joan of the Stockyards, Nik realises that it was a challenge to adapt such a complex and laborious novel into an accessible and concise stage play, but as he explains, it is an important and essential piece of social commentary that both highlights historical struggles and similarities that are still faced some 100 years on from its original setting.
“Most people are unfamiliar with St. Joan of the Stockyards. It is one of Brecht’s lesser known plays and has been termed by some as his ‘most perplexing’ play. That, I think, is to do it a bit of a disservice – condensed down, it is a fascinating story with wonderfully intriguing characters and a fantastic driving energy. It also has a startling social relevance to today’s modern world and is a story which I think is very important to tell. For me, it is a play that has flown under the radar for too long and I look forward to bringing it to life with the wonderful, explosive energy of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company.” Nik says.
“It is a fascinating story with wonderfully intriguing characters and a fantastic driving energy.”
For Nik, apart from ensuring that the original narrative and atmosphere was retained and articulated, he had to work hard to secure a cast who were fully immersed in the story and its characters:
“When casting, it is always important to try and fit the right people into the right roles. With a big ensemble show like this it is also important that you have a mix of personalities who blend very well together creatively, and have something unique and individual to offer the company. This has been vital to our show: all of the company are excellent all-rounders, but all have their own skills, be it movement, music or writing for example, that have really helped shape, push forward and mould the production.”
With a busy schedule planned for the forthcoming year, with Bristol’s theatre spaces being brought to life by the dedicated and talented cast of actors, musicians, writers, directors and everything in between – Nik has high hopes for the future, and looks forward to continuing his work with Bristol Old Vic Young Company:
“Working with the Young Company is like nothing else. The energy, dedication, creativity and vibrancy they bring to rehearsals will, I believe, shine through in the production. They are still learning their craft, but then again so am I. For me, this production has always been about harnessing the energy and creativity of the Young Company. I hope this is something we have been successful in and it is something that I hope will make the production hugely exciting for those who come to watch it.”
St Joan of the Stockyards opens at Bristol Old Vic on 13 Jan – 16 Jan.
Tickets are priced at £12 and are available online: www.bristololdvic.org.uk