It began with opening someone else’s diary.
Mike Tweddle’s dad died when he was young, leaving a jumble of memories, mementoes and questions – and a box filled with diaries. “I’d been a bit scared of them,” he recalls. “But when I read the one he wrote in his final year, I was very moved by it – by how every day, and gentle, and positive, it was in its observations.” Through his father’s words, Tweddle felt he had “got to know him more fully” than he had before, “in my idealised recollection.”
Out of this evolved Our Fathers. Devised and performed by Tweddle, Sofia Paschou and Bert Roman – founding members of international theatre ensemble Babakas – it twists autobiography, physical theatre and dance into something funny and true that resonates off the stage. Drawing on diaries, home videos and photos belonging to the cast, it follows ‘Mike’ as he contends with the effect of losing his father and contemplates having a child with Belgian boyfriend ‘Bert’. Meanwhile, their Greek flatmate ‘Sofia’ searches for the perfect man while struggling to escape the shadow of her larger-than-life dad.
Premiering to huge acclaim at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, Our Fathers is currently touring the UK and internationally. Tweddle says the show came from “a very personal – one might say self-indulgent – place of wanting to understand who this guy was, who I had felt had been quite absence.” But he, Paschou and Roman and the other members of Babakas have created something that speaks to anyone who has glimpsed their father in the mirror or worried about who they are and where their life is heading.
That said, people exploring their relationship with their parents generally head to the nearest therapist. So why did Tweddle decide do it on stage? “I don’t know why…” he laughs. “But I realised quite quickly that I had a better chance of getting to know him if it could be embodied somehow.” And the body was important. His memories of his father were of physical affection, of walking together or lying on the sofa. So, at the start of rehearsals, “we just worked with the physical memories of our fathers, putting them in the space, before we worried about any text or archive stuff.”
Tweddle frankly admits that, while “the emotional and psychological process in the room” at that point was fulfilling for the three of them, “at its zenith, we were creating an awful piece of theatre.” He credits dramaturg Brian Mullin with rescuing Our Fathers by keeping the audience always in sight, and director Juan Ayala for his unerring focus on character and the show’s thematic arc. “This meant no ’me’ or ‘you’ – it would always be ‘Bert’, ‘Mike’ and ‘Sofia’,” says Tweddle, who found the objectifying liberating. The company’s “complex real life stuff” was “stretched, distorted and amplified,” in pursuit of a piece “with a better journey to it.”
What also helped the company during a potentially bruising creative process was working with Dr Laura King, a specialist in fatherhood and gender at Leeds University. “She encouraged us to read quite widely about fatherhood histories,” Tweddle says. “We realised we were trying to tell those stories as well, through our three characters.” And the decision to explore that parental relationship in “a slightly broader way” grew to encompass the cast’s different cultural upbringings, from Greek, to Christian Flemish, to liberal English.
The ensemble’s international diversity in terms of their training is another distinctive feature they have brought to bear on Our Fathers. Tweddle and Ayala, for example, met at Jacques Lecoq’s famed physical acting theatre school in Paris. This range of influences feeds into a litany of surreal, often beautifully comic, moments and ideas that elevate the show from the purely personal. For instance, Sofia’s adored father is represented as a chattering Chaplin-esque silhouette.
“With things like emotional connection, memory and loss, the visual and the bodily are really important for trying to dig into the indescribable sensations,” Tweddle says. “They can deliver insights that would be a little clichéd through words.” This belief has manifested itself as motifs that repeat – often hauntingly – through the show. A poignant solo dance by Bert finds its echo in Mike jumping up and down in front of footage of his father doing the same in Africa.
Differing elements have played into Our Fathers like streams into a river, mingling together to make a greater whole. “They led us to the show that it needed to be,” Tweddle believes. “In our midst was a trained dancer whose conflict with his dad has focused on his father believing that dance school turned him gay,” he says, talking about Roman. “So his identity as a dancer is the very symbol of the gulf between them.”
One of the most explicit – and funniest – ways Our Fathers reaches out from the stage to embrace those watching is via the single-minded Sofia, who kicks off proceedings by engaging male audience members in conversation to see if they’re boyfriend material. Tweddle relishes the unpredictability built into these encounters. “It’s exciting that the audience is part of how the agenda is set,” he says. “How they are with her defines the overall impact of the piece later on.”
Which isn’t without its challenges. The line drawn between generating a “slightly anarchistic, celebratory mood” and undermining the show’s heavier emotional beats is a fine one. And, Tweddle says, it can be nerve-wracking for Paschou when an audience member doesn’t play along or, worse, tries (usually unsuccessfully) to be funny. “But that’s not as bad as the day she got pushed over and called a slut,” he recalls with horrified incredulity. “But it’s definitely the part of the show that people feel is the motor.”
It’s been several years since Tweddle started working on Our Fathers. And as much as any directorial decision, age itself has fixed the distance between reality and fiction, between him and ‘Mike’. “I was 29 at the time. Now I’m 33,” he reflects. “Then, I felt like everything was ending – that I was in a terrifying rush, catapulting towards death, and needed to make some ‘Serious’ decisions about who ‘I’ was,” he says wryly.
And that’s still there, locked into the DNA of the character of Mike, “this guy who is so focused on a goal and sees the fact that he’s not in the most conventional of potential parenthood relationships as an obstacle.” And now? “I don’t feel as though there’s any rush at all,” Tweddle replies, with a chuckle. Something he’s learned from working with Dr Laura King is that “family and fatherhood can happen in myriad ways.” And he’s content to see what happens. “A few years ago, I felt so bloody old. Now, things are more open.”
And, Tweddle asserts, the show has brought the family of Babakas closer together in the process. While Our Fathers is, at its heart, a piece of theatre, “We’ve put a lot out there about ourselves, without always talking about ourselves,” he reflects. “We’ve shared every single thing we have, or remember, about our dads. Every single conflict, problem or doubt.”
Our Fathers is currently touring the UK. It will be at Pulse Festival on the 3rd, the Mill at The Pier, Wigan, on the 4th June and Battersea Arts Centre, London, from 11th -14th June 2014.