London’s newest pub theatre, The Hope, has already impressed in its staging of new writing – Tessa Berry-Hart’s Sochi 2014 premiered here – – and throughout August its HopeFull Repertory season will bring four new plays to the stage under the stewardship of executive producer Sarah Berger, founder of the artistic collective the So and So Club.
“I picked four very different plays which deal with characters aged fifteen to seventy,” Berger says. “We talk about Alzheimer’s and racism in 1960s America. We have Madame Bovary, which is a literary classic, and there’s an extraordinary play written by a young Londoner about the culture of sexual abuse in young people. So there’s really something for everybody.”
Madame Bovary is a good starting point in this eclectic collection. Flaubert’s classic is given a modern twist by Rosanna Lowe’s interpretation. Holly Maples’s dynamic production pulls episodic clips of Emma Bovary’s life towards a devastatingly powerful conclusion. Throughout, Sarah Lawrie’s Emma startles us with swings from lusty intensity to frustrated resignation as her fate unfolds. It’s bright and engaging – avant garde, in its way. Flaubert would surely have approved of its earthy take on sex and lust.
Bovary’s emotional power is nothing unusual for this season. Each HopeFull Rep play deals with huge issues, and the expertness of the teams staging them means the emotional punch is delivered by sparkling performances. Berger says, “people tend to think ‘it’s fringe, it’ll be a bit rough-and-ready’. It’s absolutely not the case, because of the standard of people involved in it.” Lawrie’s excellent performance, and those of her cast-mates – particularly Kevin James as Emma’s cuckolded husband Charles – vindicate Berger’s confidence. (One happy consequence of the production’s small cast is that James plays both Charles and the creepy bailiff Lheureux – both the distal and proximate causes of Emma’s downfall. This kind of neatness jars well with the play’s chaos.)
The Hope receives no direct funding, but has an agreement with Equity to pay all performers and stage managers an Equity-approved wage during rehearsals and performances. This agreement places some pressure on everyone involved to make sure they’re up to the mark in bringing audiences in, but the principle is important. “I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I don’t think we’re a free commodity,” says Berger, whose own acting career stretches across more than 30 years. The ethos is clear: treat people properly and you’ll get the best out of them.
Writer Lilly Driscoll’s Dirty Promises is typical in demonstrating the benefits of this attitude: a tense, often comic but fundamentally dark play about domestic violence and gang culture, its three-strong cast invest huge energy in heavily physical performances. Kirsty J Curtis in particular shines as the battered young woman Lucy, angry with herself and the world for her plight. This kind of emotional powerlessness runs through all of the plays, providing something of a linking theme despite Berger’s insistence that the plays’ common factor is simply their excellence.
Powerlessness weighs especially heavily in The Long Road South. Paul Minx’s play explores the weirdly hypocritical ‘care’ meted to black domestic workers by their white employers in 1960s Indiana. Grace (Kay Bridgeman) is a politically-aware black worker, desperate to escape servitude but bound to it by Andre’s (Victor Power) servile commitment to his adoptive family. That family, headed by the explosively angry Jake (Dempsey and Makepeace actor Michael Brandon), is full of its own powerlessness – trapped by lust and social constraints, finding releases in drunkenness, casual racism and louche sexuality.
To find such a lusty tale alongside Madame Bovary is apt enough but the difference in epoch is huge, and perhaps there’s no reason to assume someone drawn to French classics might also be tempted to see a civil rights tale. Berger disagrees. “I would love people to come and see a play that they wouldn’t normally have gone to see,” she says. “The idea is that you might pop along to see Madame Bovary, you might enjoy it and think, ‘my god, there’s a play about Alzheimer’s disease and the Burmese Railway too’.”
That Alzheimer’s play might count as the season’s stand-out. DHW Mildon’s The Flood takes us into the living room of a doting elderly couple. Grace (Lucinda Curtis) is terrified by her slow descent into senility, her Alzheimer’s reducing life to diminishing circles of repeated conversation and distressing, forgotten old facts. While Grace is imprisoned by memories she can’t retain, her husband Arthur (Ian Chaplain) is trapped by memories he can’t forget, of his time as a prisoner of war working on the Burmese Railway. Curtis and Chaplain give outstanding performances, capturing love and loss with painful intensity. Again, we see powerless writ large: themes of imprisonment dominate, but the play’s deep emotional power comes from the drabness of that slip into mental darkness promised by Alzheimer’s.
Naturally enough, Berger herself can’t be tempted to identify a favourite play in the season. “I can honestly say I don’t have a favourite, because you can’t really compare them,” she says. “But I am incredibly proud of the amount of work and the amount of talent that everybody has contributed to this whole project. That’s quite something, I think.”
Given the challenges presented by a small space with a fifteen-minute turnaround between two very different plays each night, traverse staging is part of a one-set solution to help keep things moving quickly. But for these plays the staging is more than a compromise. As the action plays out between, almost within, the audience, we become part of the set as well as mere witnesses.
For both Bovary and The Flood this provides both sides of the audience with a mirror in which to see themselves, bewildered by Bovary’s chaos, or catching a glimpse of the dark future that Grace represents. And in Long Road South and Dirty Promises we see our aghast reactions to domestic violence and the possessiveness of late-1960s US racism – recognizing, in Grace’s words, that we are all ‘minor characters in our own lives’, occasionally missing what goes on outside our immediate areas of experience.
The Hope’s 50-seat space also provides opportunities for direct interaction. In Bovary the cast are fearless about making and holding direct eye contact with audience members, bringing us in to Emma’s confidence or forcing us to empathise with Charles. And in Dirty Promises best mates Drew (Jed O’Hagan) and Crabby (Michael Lyle) banter and cajole us – while Lucy implores us to understand her feelings as a battered woman, and berates us for presuming to know how she should deal with her emotions. The level of intimacy this achieves would be impossible in a larger space.
Whatever the Hope’s merits, in common with other small spaces it can be a little stuffy – though the sultry heat seems apt enough for Bovary’s smouldering lust and The Long Road South’s wilting Indiana summer. Still, by the end of the later performances some audience members might feel it’s all a bit too much. With busy road traffic outside and no way to introduce air conditioning without disrupting performances, there’s little the Hope can do about this. Perhaps it shouldn’t, anyway; it’s simply one of those quirks with which any production (and any audience) has to accept. Part of the venue’s character.
Character, indeed, is fundamental to the Hope’s appeal. The street noise outside mingles with the performances, a reminder of a world beyond ourselves and the play; downstairs the pub provides a dose of old London realism in the midst of imagined alternatives. This is a great venue for new writing, and the HopeFull Season demonstrates the importance of giving new voices a chance.
The HopeFull Rep season runs from 1st – 30th August 2014.1 – 30 August