The red brick bulk of Islington’s Union Chapel thrusts upwards into an almost colourless October sky. Inside the building it’s just possible to hear the faint throb of pop music, laughter and dancing, drifting through the church corridors. The noise fades out as the cast of The Changeling break for lunch. The rehearsal room in dramatic even when empty. High-ceilinged and galleried, with copious scribbled notes fixed to the walls, an abused mattress lies on one side of the room and a couple of wheelchairs sit empty by what will be Alsemero’s closet; Joe Hill-Gibbins apologises for the smell: “We think something may have died.”
His thrillingly operatic take on “Middleton and Rowley’s great, misshapen tragedy” was first staged in the Young Vic’s Maria studio back in February. Its success was such that it’s now being readied for the main space, repurposed and recast with Sinead Matthews taking on the role of Beatrice-Joanna and Zubin Varla playing the unsightly manservant, DeFlores; only Howard Ward’s Vermandero and Alex Beckett’s Lollio remains from the original.
It was a production that revelled in mess, in bodily disarray, but also had its own codes, making the play come alive in a way that few recent productions have managed.
Initially Hill-Gibbins was wary of taking on The Changeling when Dominic Cooke first suggested the idea, deeming it “too fucking hard.” Having come around to the idea, his approach was to try and unite the modern world and the world of 1622 using the theatre itself as both backdrop and inspiration. This element of the theatrical is crucial to the production’s success. From the beginning, he was determined to avoid diluting the Jacobean play’s power with twentieth century realism, to make the audience feel present within the piece and connected to the world of the play. “We don’t disguise the fact that we’re in the theatre; we use the mechanism of theatre explicitly to tell the story, that’s something I like to do – but it also comes from Middleton.”
To this end the design by his frequent collaborator, Ultz, was inspired both by the breeze blocks from which the Young Vic itself is built and “by the Globe and the theatres of the age in which the play was written” with the audience wrapped around the room, some in pews, others sat in those vacant wheelchairs, many viewing the play from behind a screen of netting. This particular section of the audience has been labelled the ‘madhouse block’, turning them into the ‘gallants’, the people who “pay money to look at mad people because they find them funny or because they find something profound or intriguing about watching mad people.” This, he explains, is a pretty good metaphor for why people go to the theatre. “We pay to see people enact mad things because we find it entertaining – and hopefully to learn something about ourselves.”
By seating the audience behind netting, he wanted to heighten their experience, to frame their view of the play. “In cinema if you want to make an audience aware of the act of looking you put an object in the foreground of a shot, it turns the audience into voyeurs.” As Caroline McGinn said in her Time Out review of the production, it “makes pervs of us all.”
For the re-staging of the production in the Young Vic’s main house, where the seating capacity is considerably larger, a number of things needed to be taken into account in order to maintain the sense of intensity while also accommodating an audience of over 400. “We spent ages working out how to compress the space” while also maintaining the “irregularity and schizophrenia of the design” with all its different elements.
Having decamped to a nearby cafÃ©, we switch to talking about the play’s potentially problematic structure, the perceived disconnect between its main-plot and the scenes set in the madhouse. “I did briefly consider doing it without the madhouse plot but I can’t imagine [the production] without it now.” In workshops which took place before the first production, he came to see how “similar the two plots are, on a deep structural level. They both have an older man, one a father, one a husband, who’s trying to control the sexuality and sexual destiny of an attractive woman.” In both cases it is “the women’s resistance to that constriction which causes the drama and the chaos.” Both plots hinge on misunderstandings, and “once you begin to look at it like that it does suggest that Rowley and Middleton did have a conversation at some point – they’re both versions of the same story – the madhouse is a crude, wild cartoon version of what’s happening in the main plot.”
The “invaluable” workshop time at the Young Vic also helped him figure out how to find a workable form for the play’s fragmented Act 4. “There is no centre to the act because the central ritual is happening elsewhere – everyone’s sneaking off and doing things they shouldn’t be doing, a series of secret meetings. There’s no unifying action or event – so you have to tell the story of what’s happening off-stage.” His solution was to create a chaotic central wedding scene set to the throb of BeyoncÃ©, with the characters spilling in and out of doors, the main party happening off-stage, but still faintly audible.