“there’s plenty of wiggle room for it to be a lot slicker and a lot funnier”
In his programme notes, writer Oliver Myers cites a 2017 online argument between an alt-right youtuber who claimed that Roman Britain was not a diverse society, and Mary Beard who elegantly stepped in to point out that in fact Roman Britain was incredibly diverse, as inspiration for Aaron and Julia. And so it was that he came to write a play about the beginnings of Christianity, made thoroughly modern, full of fun anachronism and witty repartee, and indeed plenty of cultural diversity, directed by Amelia Hursey.
The Name ‘Aaron and Julia’ is a bit of a red herring as there aren’t any parts particularly smaller or larger than any other. Rather, it’s about eight characters of equal importance, varying in cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds, each working to their own agenda and yet somehow finding themselves at the same finish line: the building of a church.
From the get we’re thrown into the deep end, with quick back-and-forths between Afra (Bethany Sharp) the famous Goth courtesan, and Adelfius (Calum Robshaw) a bishop of questionable morals. Whilst they no doubt explain where and who they are, it’s all quite hard to gage without any real set, barring some hanging ivy and a couple of homemade posters behind the audience. This might be fine if they slowed down a little or worked out where to lay the stress so that the audience could understand what information was important and what was merely crosstalk.
On the other hand, the script seems to be largely exposition, only emphasised by the fact the characters do little else but stand around. Without any furniture, there’s very little opportunity for different levels even; for casually sitting down or inspecting something else on stage whilst talking or listening. Instead, everyone’s stood rather unnaturally, facing one another.
The performances themselves are full of nervous enthusiasm. Whilst the script is mostly delivered with gusto, lines are often followed by a look of fear, as though everyone was getting over terrible stage fright. There are also some long pauses where forgotten lines are tensely sought after, and some very hammy turns to the audience to deliver an already over-egged punchline. That being said, the energy and obvious eagerness of the cast suggests that by the weekend they will have smoothed some of this out, perhaps relaxing a little into the story.
This is a really interesting time in history when so much of what we now consider to be set in societal stone was still very much up in the air, for better or worse. The generous heaping of anachronism keeps the story fresh and engaging- Julia, for example, is always on her ‘tablet’, reading old messages from ex-boyfriends. And the sophisticated tyranny of the Roman empire is framed as Monty Python-esque, all with a wink and a whimper.
There’s a strong whiff of the am-dram about this production, but there’s plenty of wiggle room for it to be a lot slicker and a lot funnier. Maybe another week in the rehearsal room and we’ll be on to something.
Hi, please tell us a bit about yourself. What attracted you to the theatre, and what keeps you coming back?
It’s such a cliché, but I was a really shy kid brought out my shell by supportive teachers, drama at school and then amateur dramatic groups. I was dead set on being just a professional actor, then ended up writing short bits and bobs for drama classes. I wrote my first full length play at 19, fell into directing my own shorts, then got a job in theatre management/production, and gradually learned to balance a mixture of all four. I call myself a jack of all trades, but theatre-maker sounds more official.
Theatre has always been the most accessible storytelling medium to me. With film and video there’s so much equipment, training, pre and post production etc. needed to tell your story properly—you don’t have that with theatre, it’s a great leveller creatively. I love the immediacy and intimacy of a live audience, the adrenaline of a buzzing house and the irreplaceable nature of nightly performances. It’s sharing a moment with a room that may never be repeated or replicated. Now more than ever, it’s the communality of the theatrical experience that I miss.
You trained at the East 15 Acting School. What was special or unique about your training there? Any teachers who were particularly inspirational?
I applied for the Acting BA but was auditioned by the head of the World Performance BA and offered a place, which I jumped at. Best decision I could have made! It was a fusion course, so we had traditional western training, as well as masterclasses in International theatre styles (Beijing Opera, Balinese Temple Dance, Shadow Puppetry for example) and modules in other disciplines like Political Theatre, Script-Writing and Stand-up. Having so many different influences helped broaden my skill set and set me up as a theatre-maker. It also taught me some fun party tricks.
We made a lot of devised work and there was independent study time for our own practice. There was also a focus on the academic study of theatre, which has really helped to inform my craft and contextual skills. East 15 has a great track record for producing well-rounded, self-starting theatre-makers and companies. I think that’s where the future of the industry is. For teachers, there were many greats, but I have to give a shout out to Dr. MJ ‘Jiggs’ Coldiron, who gives constant encouragement, besides being the smartest person I’ve met. I’m happy to say that she’s still a frequent collaborator.
You founded a company called The Heretical Historians in 2014. It’s an intriguing name for a company. Please tell us how you chose the name, and how it reflects the work you’ve created for it. Who else is involved?
I wrote my first script based on a true story for Edinburgh 2014 with the Hour Lot Theatre. Dear Mister Kaiser is the true story of Captain Robert Campbell, a British P.O.W. in the First World War. He wrote a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II asking for compassionate leave to visit his dying mother. He was granted leave on the sole condition that he promised to return after two weeks. It was such a joy to research the historical context of the show and to make all the pieces and characters fit together realistically. From that point, I knew that I wanted to tell true stories above all else. It seems redundant to try and create a new fiction when there are so many great untold stories out there.
The mission of the Heretical Historians is to tell ridiculous, untold, TRUE stories from history. This mission hasn’t changed and our style has stayed pretty similar too. Because of my devotion to Brecht, we were always going to be an Epic Theatre company. The word ‘Heretical’ came from our friend Niall, the smartest person in the room at the meeting where we got started, and it’s been a great fit. It’s a mature enough word to distinguish us from the silliness of Horrible Histories (which I love, by the way) and lets audiences know that we’re going to be challenging the expectations and conventions of history. We also like a nice bit of alliteration.
We have a pool of recurring actors, techs, designers and producers, but the core of the Historians team are co-director/company ‘do-er’ Lloyd McDonagh, and I. Lloyd and I are best mates from East 15. He joined us for our first show at Edinburgh 2015 (The Greatest Stories Never Told), and since then we’ve developed a symbiotic directing relationship. I’ll focus on text, sound and tech stuff, while Lloyd does our set, visuals and blocking. I tend to restrict myself to cameos on stage these days, but Lloyd is too great a character actor to lose, so we give him a good weighty part together with all his other roles.
What’s your process in creating work for The Heretical Historians? Do you create the script as an ensemble, or is there one person in charge of creating the script?
Before each project begins, Lloyd and I will sit down and chat about all the stories, ideas or fragments that we are considering. We’ll ask ourselves “are they relevant, is there enough material, can we do it?” When we pick one, I’ll dive into research mode for a few months and write a first draft for a reading and a workshop. By the time we’ve cast the show, I’m another few drafts in and we’ll work it in the room as an ensemble. It’s important for us to work with a team that is honest and willing to have conversations about making everything right. We do a lot of text work with the actors before we fully block a piece and we always save our bigger set pieces/sequences to be devised as an ensemble. We’re usually tinkering with the show until the run is over. We encourage ad-libbing (within reason), so we never have a show that is ‘set’—it’s always organic and changing, which helps keep it fresh and exciting.
Describe one or two productions for The Heretical Historians. Do you have any future projects in the works?
We do a lot of work with genre parody, which makes the worlds of the show immediately accessible to audiences. It gives the stories a focus, a style and a set of tropes to play with, plus it saves us having to fork out for accurate period costumes. As an example, in The Trial of Le Singe (2017), we told the true story of The Hartlepool Monkey. In the Napoleonic Wars, a shipwrecked monkey washed ashore in North-East England, was mistaken for a Frenchman, put on trial of espionage, found guilty and hung. Because of the recurring themes of nationalism, class warfare and mob justice, we set it as a ‘Young Ones’ style punk farce, which gave us license for a lot of anarchic humour and chaos. To balance out all the low humour, and to reinforce the national identity theme, the monkey (Le Singe) delivered his own defence in faux Shakespearian iambic pentameter, which naturally fell on deaf ears.
In We Own Everything (2018), we really hit our Epic Theatre stride. It was a financial thriller based on the rise of the Rothschild banking dynasty and the discrimination they faced as Jews in Regency England. It was also partly a 1920s ‘coming to America’ story with the second half channelling 80s Wall Street. We had a cast of 9, including Napoleon and a scaled down battle of Waterloo; a stock market crash; Mad King George III and the Prince Regent; pigeons ziplining over the audience; and we gave out fizz to the audience on entry. Holy sh*t we went to town on that one! It went up two weeks before The Lehman Trilogy began at The National, so our legacy was a bit swamped by the competition.
We’re currently working on the true story of history’s worst actor, Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, and the catastrophic production of Romeo and Juliet that he put on in the West End. An aristocratic amateur, he starred as Romeo (in his 40s!), directed, produced and re-wrote the script creating a perfect disaster. But it sold out nightly and went on to tour the country. We’re giving it the Tommy Wiseau/Disaster Artist treatment. It’s an underdog story and a lot of fun. But it also says a lot about privilege and the abuse of status within the arts, as well as theatre’s capacity to unite the nation (albeit for the wrong reasons). We are due to perform it in June 2020, although that seems increasingly unlikely. Watch this space.
You’ve brought work by The Heretical Historians to The Space, in London’s Isle of Dogs. What makes The Space such a great venue for companies like yours?
The hardest thing for a new company is getting your foot in the door without having stacks of cash to spend on hiring a venue. For a venue to offer you a split on box office and help share your risk was unimaginable when we started. The fact The Space still programmes like this is testament to the work they support. We swiftly became part of the furniture at the Space with all the marketing and production support we received, as well as being welcomed into the fold by everyone. As the Historians, we loved the performance space because it has so much character. It’s such an epic, unique building, with plenty of entrances, exits and levels that we can play with, to make immersive 360° productions. It’s a world away from the black boxes that struggle to get two actors on stage at once.
The Space is the real deal in terms of having an ethos of giving, supporting and nurturing their artists and the local community. Everyone they attract has a generous, passionate and ambitious vision. I was very grateful for the support that they gave me, so I started volunteering for them. When you’ve worked at The Space once, you never really leave, you just fall into orbit.
You’re currently Deputy Director at The Space. Tell us about your role there. What did a typical working day look like before all the theatres had to shut down?
The Space is a team of three, with a huge amount of support from volunteers and interns. With such a small staff, my job has quite a broad remit and there’s a lot of different strands required to run the venue, so there’s a lot of variety! The main constant is drinking lots of coffee.
I live fairly nearby so I’m usually the first one in. I’ll start off by opening up the building, by checking emails/voicemails and sorting our social media for the day. Depending what’s happening that day, I may have to reset from the previous night’s show, set up for rehearsals/auditions or assist a get-in. There’s usually programming work or fundraising applications to crack on with, and I have meetings with all incoming companies to help with their marketing. If we’re working on an in-house production, I may have to source props/costume or make/decorate the set. If we have new volunteers or interns, I’ll show them the ropes and induct them, and if we’re quiet, I’ll try and do some DIY around the venue or do some rearranging and Marie Kondo-ing of our offices. Because I arrive early, I don’t usually work box office in the evening, but I’ll always do a shift to make sure I see each show we have at least once. I also get invited to see shows and companies at other theatres, which is a nice cap to a day at the office.
Now that we’re all working from home, describe your working day at the moment. Do you stay in regular touch with your colleagues at The Space? What’s your favourite way of doing that?
Sadly, as I’ve been furloughed, I’m doing a lot less for The Space than I’d like to. I’m still contributing artistically, sitting on committees, and helping with script reading/development, but as part of the conditions of furlough, I’m not allowed to carry out my usual day to day duties. I’ve been told to use this time for ‘personal development’, so I’m taking online courses, reading a lot, and writing passion projects out of my system. I’m trying to act as an ambassador for anyone who wants to know more about The Space and what we do. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be in this position, so I’m offering my skills as a script reader/editor and producer gratis for anyone who is looking for feedback or advice until the lockdown is lifted. Gimme a shout if you need it!
We still speak a lot as friends at The Space. We’ll have a weekly Zoom catch up and there’s been some cracking memes on the group Whatsapp. We all show up to support any digital events The Space runs as well. I’m really glad to be part of such a supportive team.
Are you working on new projects for The Space? Care to share?
Now that we have dealt with the immediate issues of closing, such as re-programming shows, contacting bookers etc. we’ve been focusing on making sure that we are still staying active and engaged throughout the lockdown. I’m really proud of the solutions we’ve found, such as taking our script development readings and community theatre group onto Zoom, for example. We’re also hosting a weekly theatre club, where we watch a streamed production then discuss it together. We are also hosting frequent playwright and director meet-ups.
Of course we’re also looking to the future. We’re excited to bring back Two Fest, our duologue festival, after a successful first year. There may also be a blockbuster Christmas production in the works that I can’t say too much about yet.
Other than theatre, what’s your favourite way to deal with boredom while staying at home? Any advice you can give the rest of us?
There’s been a LOT of comfort TV to shake off the existential dread. Wallace and Gromit; classic Simpsons; This Country; Tiger King (of course). I’m also trying to spruce up the gaff with some DIY/gardening; pick up the guitar again, and be a better father to my cats.
My top tips are:
— Try and find a way to create a routine/variety to your week, such as Tuesdays for deep cleaning; a special meal on Fridays; take Sundays off. — If you’re at a loss for something to do, Twitter has got some amazing digital opportunities. I’d highly recommend looking into Drunk Plays and Coronavirus Theatre Club for a start. — Have things to look forward to, such as make a list of 10 people, places or things you’re going to see when lockdown lifts. Alternatively, get drunk and order something online. It’ll take a while to arrive and give you a pleasant surprise! — Don’t feel bad if you’re not as productive as you want to be. You haven’t been handed a holiday or a sabbatical—you’re living through Doomsday, so give yourself a break. —There’s also no shame in only consuming during this period. There are so many great free courses, resources, apps, podcasts, programmes and theatre streams out there to learn from. — If you really aren’t feeling good, please reach out! Friends, family, neighbours, professionals, whoever it may be. You don’t need to suffer alone. This crisis has shown just how much compassion and care we as a species have for each other.
And finally, Theatre post COVID-19. Will we go back to creating theatre the way we did before? If not, what do you think might change?
I don’t think we can go back from this, as an industry or as a society. The pandemic has highlighted how broken many of our systems and practices are. I especially fear for fringe theatre. So many venues and emerging/mid-career companies were hanging on by a thread already, and they are going to be decimated by the economic impact of the pandemic. It’s gutting. So if you are able, consider donating to your favourite local theatres, or booking for future performances or joining membership schemes. These are the easiest and most effective ways to help venues at the moment.
However, we are in for a new wave of punk across the arts. Not safety pins and mohawks, but of people creating and engaging with the arts outside traditional structures, and with raw, unfiltered voices (especially underrepresented voices!). I want to see people doing theatre in unconventional venues, with low/no budget or homemade production values; with fierce satire, and passion, passion, passion. I’m hoping that this energy could also be the creative and constructive outlet for the build-up of anger that has been stewing in many people for a while now, as well as being a catalyst for change.
Whatever happens, the desire to create and share stories is immutable. Theatre folk are incredibly resilient and they are used to tough times. They’re just going to be even tougher for a while. But we’ll find a way to carry on developing work, making magic and holding up a mirror where we need to. Theatre always finds a way.
Thank you for speaking to us and keep safe.
Interviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography courtesy of Matthew Jameson
Find out more about Matthew, The Space and The Heretical Historians from the links here: