“The text always comes first.” These emphatic words from artistic director Mark Leipacher might well serve as a creative philosophy for the text-focused Faction Theatre Company. As we chat in one of the rehearsal rooms at the labyrinthine Bridewell Theatre, where the company are poring over Mary Stuart downstairs, I am told that every read-through is conducted “as if we hadn’t read the play before”.
The Faction is an ensemble-based theatre company dedicated to interpreting classic plays, producing their own brand of “big, classical, epic theatre”. When we meet, the company are in the middle of intense rehearsals for their upcoming rep season at the New Diorama Theatre, an ambitious rolling programme of three plays, all incorporating the same cast of ten actors.
Leipacher and executive producer Kate Sawyer recognise that this traditional rep system is one that has largely fallen out of use in the UK. Their artistic inspiration instead comes from across the Channel; they aim to eventually run like a European theatre company, with a permanent ensemble, a home venue and a rolling repertoire of plays. Mounting their first full rep season in January and February is a decisive step in that direction.
“Rather than it being confusing, it actually clarifies things,” replies Sawyer when I ask her about the challenges of rep theatre. She compares the process to writing a university dissertation at the same time as studying additional courses, explaining that the plays all inform one another. Sawyer also believes that a rep season, as well as being more financially sustainable, provides more interest for the audience.
The trio of plays that Faction have chosen to perform in rep – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Strindberg’s Miss Julie – are linked by the theme of ‘women and power’ and all three, as Sawyer puts it, “refract each other”. Leipacher explains that while the thematic connection was “not entirely by accident”, the individual plays were selected first before it became clear that there was a gender political thread running through them.
If there is any other key defining element of Faction’s work, other than their attention to classical texts and their revival of the rep system, it is its distinctly physical style. Style, however, is never imposed at the expense of text. “Our style is physical and muscular and very bombastic,” says Leipacher, “but it always comes from the text. This is not a physical theatre piece inspired by a text; this is a production of a text and the aesthetic happens to be physical”.
At a time when there is an increasing focus on new writing, I ask Leipacher and Sawyer what so attracts them to classic texts. The reply is instant and decisive: “there is no better material,” states Leipacher. “If you want a theatrical experience, you need material that has real substance and grit and scope,” he continues. “These texts are still human; they still have universal truths in them.” Sawyer adds that “it might have been written 400 years ago, but it absolutely describes what you went through last week”.