Q and A with Tim Crouch

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Q and A with Tim Crouch, director of the RSC's Young People's Shakespeare production of King Lear.

Q: You are now in the second week of rehearsals. How are things going?

A: We managed to get the whole play on its feet in the first week. I see it like putting the primer on the wall. We've primed the surface. We've also been putting back some bits of the play that I originally cut in the edit.

There's something about getting a play up and moving – that's when the discoveries come naturally from the actors. You see something living and have something to respond to. In the third week we'll throw things away as we go deeper, but it's great to have made a practical start.

The nature of the project means that we won't be having extensive technical rehearsals just prior to the show opening – so we are feeding in the technical aspects as we go along. Yesterday, we had a visit from Jeremy Dunn, the RSC's Head of Sound, who is programming music for the show into the rehearsal laptop.

The plan is that we won't have anything major to do technically when we get into the first school. Al the work will have been done here, in the rehearsal room.

Q: Can you tell us something more about your edit of King Lear, and the experience you've brought to the project from your previous YPS show – The Taming of the Shrew.

A: I've taken away two thirds of the play, which was a daunting thing to do, as the play is so remarkable and the strands of narrative all seem to have absolute sense.

I've made some major decisions, such as reducing the political aspects of the play. For instance, Cordelia doesn't marry France; there isn't an army marshalled and there isn't a civil war. To help with that compression of time, the play is set over the seven days of Christmas.

The play starts on Christmas day and ends on 31 December with the chimes of Big Ben. There is a very precise time-scale. The story moves much more quickly, and there is a more domestic feel, although it still involves a Royal Family; Lear is still a king.

I've done a significant thing with the character of Kent. In Shakespeare's original, Kent disguises himself as Caius so he can be with the King. In my edit, Kent adopts the role of the Fool as his disguise.

There isn't a separate character that is the Fool. I've compressed those two roles into one, partly to save time and party because those two characters have a similar role in relation to Lear. They look after him, they comment on him, they help him see. I've removed a whole character – but I've not lost the quality of that character.

Q: Are you constantly thinking about the young people and families who will be your audience?

A: Knowing clearly who the audience is has helped with the edit, and is helping me now with the direction of the play. It's helped with the impetus of the story and the drive to get the characters as clear as possible. I've removed some of the more wordy sections of the play.

In rehearsal, when we make changes, they are normally around clarity. We want to make sure that the production is super-clear whilst still retaining Shakespeare's words. Some words that I think might be wilfully confusing I will modernise. I don't want them to be a block for young audiences.

Q: Can you elaborate on the concept and design, setting the play at Christmas time?
 
A: The decision to set it at Christmas came early on in the editing process. I think there have been other productions where the first scene is set at Christmas, but I've compressed it so the whole play is set around the season.

Q: Is it because it's a difficult time for families?

A: The themes of the play seem more intense if you filter them through an image or idea of Christmas. It's a time when families come together, when inappropriate gifts are given, when siblings squabble, when dad rules the roost and gets to hold the remote control.

Also, it's not the time of year to kick a member of the family out on the streets. It's a cold time of year, and also a time of year when homelessness is in our minds. Lear is kicked out at Christmas.

It also enables me to play some great music, and it's given Lily Arnold (the designer) a key into the design. The stage is festooned with fairy lights. There's an opulence around that festive season which begins to decay during the course of the production.

Q: Is it set during the modern day?

A: Yes – it's set during the modern day. Lily might say it's more the late 1990s – but we haven't seen the full design realised yet. It's not set in history, but living memory. I hope the modern setting will make it easier for young audiences to connect with. It's important to find the current resonances in the play.

Q: Is this a play you particularly wanted to direct?

A: After directing the YPS The Taming of the Shrew, I was invited to make some suggestions and King Lear was the top of my list of three. It's a challenge. Some people may think it's an inappropriate piece for young audiences, but I don't think so.

This is a story about families, about losing control, losing your mind and your position in the world. It's about siblings, unfairness and the challenges to the natural order of things. We're playing it with vividness, and I think it's alright to have the tragedy of this play. The blinding won't happen on stage. We intimate it but we don't show it.

When you are taking work into schools, you need to be thoughtful around ideas of violence. But Edmund is still killed by his brother and Cornwall is killed by his servant. Those things have to happen. But you have to be a little more responsible when you are working for a young audience. I just thought the blinding was a little too much. I want children to be stirred and moved, but not at an unhealthy level.

Q: Can you tell us something about the cast of your production of King Lear.

A: It was different with Shrew because the actors I had for that production were part of the RSC's ensemble working on other shows. For this production I had final say on the whole cast, and they are only working on this production. They won't be disappearing to do matinees for other productions during the rehearsal process.

Paul Copley is an actor I've known of for years. My old drama teacher's husband was a playwright and Paul was in a production of his play in the seventies and he always talked about the fact that Paul was the only actor who did the role justice. I was overjoyed when Paul said yes. There is both incredible humility and power about him.

Tyrone Huggins is playing Gloucester, and we've just been rehearsing his death in the play and looking at his meeting with Lear on the Heath. The two actors have such a power together - it's a bit like watching Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Tyrone has had an incredible career in alternative theatre as well as the mainstream and it's brilliant to bring people from different walks of the business together.

Then there are the younger actors. I saw Anna Bolton who is playing Goneril, in two pieces of theatre directed by Jack McNamara, my assistant director on Shrew, and it's been great to bring her in.

There's an actress called Carolina Main who I auditioned. She's really special - a perfect Regan.

Then, there's Dharmesh Patel and Debbie Korley who were in the RSC's long ensemble from 2009-11 and performed in the YPS productions of Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors. It's lovely to have those two highly experienced actors who know the field and the audience.

The lovely Ben Deery plays Edmund – we are really enjoying Edmund's villainy.

Colm Gormley is playing Albany. When I thought of Albany – I always saw a face like Colm's, so when he walked into auditions, I couldn't quite believe it.

And Matt Sutton completes my cast – playing the Kent/Fool role. Matt is a great actor and he's also very experienced in work with young people.

Q: You spoke about the music – what kind of music is there in the play?
 
A: It's 1950s Christmas music. Deana Durbin singing 'Silent Night', Judy Garland singing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', Perry Como singing 'Winter Wonderland and 'Jingle Bells' from Frank Sinatra. They lift the play. They keep the energy alive and locate it in the season.

We have a calendar which moves from day to day. The design is so beautiful and flexible as the play has to fit into theatres as well as schools.

Q: How important are the Education Workshops to the piece? Are you creating these during the rehearsal process?

A: Yes – every actor in the course of the rehearsal process will run a workshop. This afternoon, Tyrone Huggins is running his education session. Jamie Luck, who is Chief Lead Practitioner on the show will slowly pull together a full programme of work that will accompany the show on tour.

The actors knew what they were coming to do when they first auditioned. When they first started working on the project, some went with Jamie to a school in Walthamstow to get a sense of the audience. I wanted actors who understood the nature of the project, including the rigours of the tour.

They will be getting up early for 11am shows. It's not very glamorous, but we are performing to the best audiences imaginable – audiences who have never seen Shakespeare before. It's a great privilege and a responsibility – as well as a joy.

Q: Do you have any connections with any of the tour venues?

A: I've played The Hall for Cornwall in Truro in 2001. I was an actor in The Good Woman of Setzuan with the National Theatre. The theatre had only recently opened and it's a fantastic space.

This interview was conducted in the second week of rehearsals in Clapham, August 2012

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