It is bitterly cold down in the belly of the Battersea Arts Centre, the whole building permeated by an icy fingered, wicked chill; the kind of cold that clings. There are no flaming furnaces down here, no throbbing tell-tale hearts; instead, tucked away down a narrow flight of stairs, there is a small kitchen area, a homely sort of space despite the wintry bite in the air (there are workmen in the building and the heating has been switched off), and a number of doors, one of which has a ‘Room of One’s Own’ chalked on the front. Behind these are the BAC’s artist bedrooms, part of a live-work space initially created for the venue’s One-on-One festival, and now a temporary home to Little Bulb as they work on their new show.
Clare Beresford makes up a cafetiere of coffee while Dominic Conway shivers, visibly feeling the chill. “Maybe we’d be better off in one of the bedrooms?” he suggests. And so we move ourselves into the relative warmth, congregating round the bed and communing with the radiators, while discussing the company’s new project, a distinctive retelling of the Orpheus myth.
This will be Little Bulb’s biggest production to date, as artistic director Alex Scott explains. Their previous work was small in scale; even the deliciously cacophonous Operation Greenfield had a delicacy, an intimacy, in its observations of the intricacies of teenage friendships. But a couple of years ago, the BAC’s artistic director David Jubb approached them to discuss some form of large scale project. “There was a lot of freedom within that brief,” Scott says. The shows in their “back-catalogue are all quite small pieces, no sets, touring pieces” and Jubb presented them with “a provocation to do something bigger, to tell a bigger story, to do something that responds to the building.”
Nor had they done an adaptation before and, as a company, they were drawn to the myth of Orpheus. That somehow “fused together” with their love of the music of Django Reinhardt to create the current show. “We decided there was an interesting link between the two,” this idea of classical and musical mythology intermingling, set against a backdrop of Paris of the 1930s, which is in itself a mythical landscape. Through a scratch process they came up with a show-within-a-show structure for the piece, a truly theatrical experience in which “we imagine what would have happened if Django had been cast in a Parisian musical theatre production.” So their Reinhardt – as played by Conway – will play Orpheus, descending into the underworld in search of his lost Eurydice, a chanteuse in the Piaf mould, played by Eugenie Pastor.
The results will be both “naturalistic and completely fantastical” – employing heightened operatic conventions, elaborate scenography and lighting – but also in some ways not dissimilar to Sporadical, their ‘epic folk opera’ which was developed during their Forest Fringe residency in 2009, a production which incorporated wobbly cardboard sets and the potential for chaos and collapse into its fabric, while also embracing the operatic. But with Orpheus they’ve also been able to say to themselves. “What if there was scenography, proper entrances and exits?” The new production, says Beresford, “revels in the grandiose.”
Orpheus will be performed in the BAC’s vast grand hall. It’s “an amazing space,” says Scott but the main stage rarely gets used, with many companies preferring to perform on the flat. There’s a reason for this, “it’s got a real focus that stage but it’s not set up very usefully – it doesn’t suit modern performance at all, but it’s a gift for a period piece.” The space boasts a vast organ, a magnificent thing, which has been partially restored in time to be used for this production.
The company are also relishing the opportunities that come with living on-site during the development process. For one thing, it helps create a family atmosphere. “You get to know the staff really well too,” Beresford says. “They get to know you and it’s really relaxed – a really supportive atmosphere.” This sense of family, the communal meals and all the hours spent together, all inevitably fuel the creative process, everything plays a part. “The ensemble model is interesting,” says Scott, “because on one level it’s a nice way to live, but also because the best work is often done by close-knit ensembles. It’s subliminal but it’s obvious when people know each other really well, the way they bounce off each other and I think you only get that after a certain amount of social interaction.” Beresford nods in agreement, “you can read each other better on stage.”
As part of the Orpheus development process they’ve been immersing themselves in gypsy jazz, “a new style of music for us,” and performing regularly as a jazz band, Le Hot Club. The show itself has grown out of this, the learning and honing of a new style of playing. It’s led “us to certain dramaturgical choices. If we hadn’t started with the music we might have potentially gone down a different route with the story.”
As a company they’re clearly not afraid of challenges, of acquiring new skills, learning new languages, visual and musical, immersing themselves in new worlds. They’re also in the early stages of working on a new show for Edinburgh, Squally Showers, which they will take up there later this year as part of the Escalator East to Edinburgh scheme. This will be Little Bulb’s first foray into dance theatre. Though it’s still very much in development, they intend it to be “an entirely physical piece, an exploration of poetic physicality and the pleasure of seeing choreographed movement.” It will, says Scott, with a degree of understatement, be “quite different from what we’ve done before.” They haven’t had any training as dancers, but they’ve done several weeks of R&D, exploring “what is interesting to the eye, the hidden dynamics of bodies on stage, the symbolism.” It has, he says, “been a real pleasure to get our heads around.”
They’ve travelled a long way in a relatively short period of time since their debut show, Crocosmia, a gently heart-wrenching show about childhood and loss, in which three siblings, played by Beresford, Conway and Shamira Turner, gorge themselves on Battenberg cake and fling themselves about the stage to Cyndia Lauper with glorious abandon. As lovingly observed as it was, it was also incredibly moving, tugging the rug out from under its audience, leaving them floored and teary-eyed.
This began as Scott’s end of year project at the University of Kent, where they were all students. “Everyone put a lot of themselves into that show,” drawing on “feelings about family and where we’ve come from, and that’s the model that we’ve stuck with.” Beresford nods, “we really loved working together,” and so, when the opportunity arose, they took the show to Edinburgh in 2008. Crocosmia was performed in a room in the Radisson Hotel on the Mile, the memory of which causes them all to laugh darkly together. They had to contend with a lot of unexpected factors, poor sightlines, no rake, and a space far smaller than they had hoped, “but in the end this made it more intimate and it worked in our favour.”
“It was a great first Edinburgh experience. I think it’s good to be a bit scared going to Edinburgh, to not be really sure if something will go down well. And this year we’ll be going there with a dance show as well. I’ll definitely have the fear!”
Orpheus is at BAC from 16 April – 11 May 2013. For tickets visit the BAC website.