‘I stole a load of costumes from the Bristol Old Vic,’ Julia Head tells me. ‘When you say stole…?’ I venture, suspecting hyperbole. ‘Well, I didn’t tell anyone I was taking them and I haven’t given them back.’
It’s hardly surprising – if Head’s lacking anything, chutzpah ain’t it. There’s an enviable conviction about everything the 22-year-old director says and does; she’s a caps-lock kind of person (‘I’m not very good at treating things with care’). Sat next to her is playwright Marek Horn – only a few years older but slightly scruffy, measured of tone, with the endearing manner of a cardiganned academic. They make for an odd couple; there’s a double act routine they’ve got going on where Head teases Horn and his born-in-the-wrong-decade, Guardian lifestyle section-browsing tendencies, while Horn self-deprecatingly takes the flak. Yep, Jules is right.
Their debut show as FullRogue Theatre, Wild Swimming – a playful two-hander which tracks a friendship through an impossible 400-year timespan – arrives this week for a homecoming stint at the Bristol Old Vic following a very well-received run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The more they tell me about the genesis of the show, the more their chalk and cheese personalities begin to feel integral to the company’s artistic identity.
Head tells me Wild Swimming began with a conversation she had with a male friend who told her, ‘sometimes I wish I was a Victorian man, because I think I would have been more successful then’. ‘What I think he meant by that,’ Head explains, ‘was sometimes you get a lot of shit sometimes for being a white man – it’s also very easy a lot of the time, but there’s a lot of anger directed at them, and a lot of very angry feminist theatre, so I wanted to make a play about feminism and about the crisis of masculinity, in which both sides of conversation felt valid.’
She approached Horn, who at first was uninterested (‘Marek didn’t write popular plays, you see’), but he’d soon seize upon a hook – a structure which time travels in an inexorable forward trajectory (what he identifies as ‘the tragic arc’ of masculinity), following the same two characters, Oscar and Nell, as they hop from the Renaissance through to present day. Both characters have ambitions to write, which sparks friction in their friendship as Nell’s career takes off and Oscar’s stagnates the further forward in time they go. ‘It struck me,’ says Horn, ‘that if you were going to do a play about 400 years of gendered history and self-expression, you could do a lot worse than look at poetry.’
There’s been a recent spate of work which explicitly refutes the lens of a white, male literary canon, from RashDash’s Three Sisters to Ella Hickson’s The Writer. Does Horn feel peculiar about his position as a male writer writing about male writing? ‘I’m definitely grafted to a certain canonical mindset in a similar way to Oscar. The play is, in terms of form and content, an exorcism of a certain way of thinking. I had to extract myself from writing something which was necessarily in conversation with what’s gone before, because that feels like a very broken, male model. It’s not a case of burying that work, but letting it go.’
Head then took Horn’s text and ran, devising around it in rehearsals, which she describes as ‘a series of abusive stress-testings’ during which ‘Marek came and cowered in the corner and ate a lot of dried mango’. Horn nods, gravely. Head’s approach and temperament is diametrically opposed to Horn’s: ‘I engage in a physical way, almost purely through instinct – for better or worse,’ she says. ‘Marek tends to engage in a more cerebral way that’s very well thought-out and processed. I think it’s useful that our brains that work in very different ways.’ Horn agrees: ‘I think we have a very good symbiotic relationship. When we’re at our worst, it’s a disaster. But when we’re at our best, I think we make one good artist, and person.’
It’s true that the show’s charm comes from its sense of playful antagonism which feels like a relation once-removed of its creators’ friendship – the performers, Annabel Baldwin and Alice Lamb, one foot in their characters and one in their present selves, have a sparring rapport, all quick-witted back and forth and teasing jabs rooted in deep affection and bucketloads of charisma. The show is full of oppositional juxtapositions – male and female, old writing and new writing, scripted text and improvisation in which the play begins to break and eat itself. The company’s mission statement reads as follows:
‘We are interested in two things:
THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEW THEATRE TEXTS
JEPORDISING [sic] AND POTENTIALLY DESTROYING SAID TEXTS IN LIVE PERFORMANCE’
Head attributes this interest in using resistant relationships as fuel for theatrical liveness to an observation made by Tim Etchells: that ‘there are constantly two plays at work – the play as written, and the actors attempting to perform the play and ultimately failing.’ She also notes that ‘a lot of new plays are treated as though they’re really fragile, and they’re put on exactly the way the playwright intends. What happens if you put on a new play with the confidence of a Shakespeare production that knows the text is probably indestructible because it’s stood the test of time?’
It’s rare that a new, emerging company is able to articulate an ethos and process with such clarity, let alone boast an auspicious critical reception and a two week run at a major regional theatre. Such confidence doesn’t appear out of nowhere: key to FullRogue’s journey has been extensive support from Bristol Old Vic. Head took part in their training program Made in Bristol (the same programme was responsible for birthing The Wardrobe Ensemble), and afterwards continued to receive support in the form of free rehearsal space, advice, work in their engagement department, and later, a full commission for Wild Swimming through their artist development arm, Ferment. ‘We’ve been abnormally fortunate,’ says Head, who’s quick to emphasise the value of putting trust and resources into local, emerging artists: ‘I’d question if there was a theatre in London who, for four years, lets you use it as your home and expects nothing from you.’
Proper support for emerging artists begets confidence and ambition, but too often, in an industry in which the leap from the small- to mid-scale is often insurmountably difficult to make, artists’ imaginative scope are delimited by the resources they are afforded. Do Horn and Head feel ambitious? ‘Incredibly,’ says Head. ‘I also think we’re incredibly ignorant and naïve.’ Horn turns to Head: ‘I think that comes from you, not me. I came out of uni and did everything badly and wrong, every misstep you could think of, I made. It took you to convince me that this sort of thing was possible. You had a level of belief and a can-do approach that I simply don’t have.’ Head has her reservations too: ‘I have a fear that our success might be capped. We have a one-hit wonder approach to new theatre companies in this country. We expect them to suddenly grow by themselves.’
So, what would Horn and Head like to see more of from development schemes for emerging artists? ‘Transparency,’ says Head. ‘Not enough people know where to look for opportunities. I’m very good at asking for things, and I don’t think it’s fair that just because I am that we should get favoured.’ Horn agrees: ‘The cult of confidence has to go. You get rid of that, and you get rid of the stranglehold that private education has over the industry. Cos that’s the thing you buy when you go to those schools, and to university.’ Horn adds that too many access routes into the industry are centred around higher education, which is why schemes like Made in Bristol are important – ‘it scoops people up just after school, and gives them another version of what they could do with their lives than go spend three years of their lives spunking £30,000 up the wall.’
Most importantly for Horn, emerging artists must be afforded the freedom to develop in their own way and their own time, without the pressure to show results straight away. ‘It’s such a delicate situation – you’re trying to make a show, and also an ethos and practice simultaneously’. The importance of material resources and time comes up again and again in our conversation. Venues, of course, don’t have unlimited resources to give out, but scarcity leads to what Head describes as a feeling that ‘you have to prove what you did with your time,’ leaving too little space for meandering, failing, dreaming, laughing and snacking – essential things for getting to know who you are, what you make and how you make it. ‘We wasted so much time,’ says Head, proudly. ‘That’s really important.’
Wild Swimming is on at Bristol Old Vic until 21st September. More info and tickets here.