Steve Green, Artistic Director of leading ensemble theatre company, Fourth Monkey, talks to Daisy Graham about his award-winning play, Elephant Man.
Q1. Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the life of Joseph Merrick, thanks in part to the David Lynch film in 1980. Why did you feel the need to retell this story?
This is a great question and a valid one. You’re right – we are all, of a certain generation anyway, very familiar with David Lynch’s iconic film regarding Joseph Merrick, however there is something in the telling of it which doesn’t ring quite true with the historical accuracies; we too have taken dramatic license with our production, however the portrayal of Tom Norman in Lynch’s film is both bias and rather inaccurate in the way in which his treatment of Joseph was portrayed. On further reading, there is a rather dark and sinister parallel between Frederick Treves, the ‘hero’ in Lynch’s film and Tom Norman the ‘villain’ in their treatment of him. This raises the question- who is really the ‘devil’ and leads you to a rather interesting exploration of Victorian England and the ever-present mask of social decency and acceptable behaviour, something that was very much not in evidence behind closed doors! This, coupled with the fact that Joseph’s story is an obvious, yet beautiful allegory for social acceptance and discrimination in any age makes it a story with a rich tapestry of resonances and one that deserves to be told again through different eyes.
Q2. How much influence did the film have on your production?
Both little and a significant amount! Significantly, the film is one of the first films I remember watching as a child, it scarred me and also led to a somewhat perverse fascination with the subject matter. This is something that has stayed with me ever since and undoubtedly led me to write the play in the first instance, whether that be on a conscious or subconscious level it is undoubtedly there. However I haven’t, oddly perhaps, seen the film since that first screening in my front room in North Devon all those years ago. So in that sense the film is a backdrop to the writing of the piece, yes it has been referred to online in the process, but watching it again would have been perhaps leading and I’m glad the production has been inspired and created from research and historical studies, both factual and no doubt folklore in some cases, but nonetheless it is an original telling in every sense and that, I think, allows it to stand on its own feet when compared to the film, as it inevitably will be.
Q3. Elephant Man launched at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and toured nationally last Autumn. Have you been surprised by the response it has garnered from both the public and the critics?
Humbly yes. It has received an overwhelming response, standing ovations and full houses along the way too which has been both unexpected and wonderful of course. We’re really looking forward to delivering it at the Jack Studio in Brockley in what will be its London premiere, not least because of the space. It is an intimate theatre and one that we as a company are very attached to from a previous production we produced there. The intimacy of the space is what serves this production best – claustrophobic, tight with an inability for the audience to escape. This allows the visceral nature of the play to really hit an audience in the face-this can make for exciting theatre and we hope the Brockley audience find the piece as exciting and exhilarating as the audiences who have witnessed it in similar spaces at Derby, Cheltenham and others previously. It should be intense that’s for sure!
Q4. What are the benefits and drawbacks about working with an ensemble cast?
No drawbacks-only benefits. Ensemble is the emphasis and core philosophy of our actor training programmes too and we believe in it as a principle wholeheartedly. The sense of collective ownership and shared responsibility is rare in theatre as a whole, but with true ensemble playing, this is ever-evident and I genuinely believe you can clearly witness it from the audience too when watching a cohesive ensemble. To me, it is theatre as it should be- I am not interested in a ‘lead’, every man, woman and child is as important as the next. It’s as simple as that to me!
Q5. What was the most challenging part of directing Elephant Man?
Separating my writer head from my director head at times, leaving the text alone and trusting it and indeed trusting the actors and our work is the hardest thing. There are a number of difficult scenes, that I could have easily revisited and amended due to them being difficult to work with in the rehearsal room, but to do so would have devalued our ability as director/actors to unpick them and make their complexities work…there was no need to mistrust the writing but when you are banging your head against the wall with a certain scene, one you’ve written, you of course have the power to change it, to make it easier, an ever-present temptation! This is the constant state of flux of the writer/director, but the trick I believe is to trust both phases and treat both the text and the work in the room with respect and believe in both of them with equal measure and resist the temptation to interfere once you and your actors are working! The result is that the difficult scenes are often the ones that ultimately resonate the best!
Q6. Are you happy with current theatre in this country, particularly London? What, if anything, would you like to change?
Oh my god! Where do I start? Of course the answer is a resounding NO! Firstly, the government, much maligned and slapped of course with everything from the economy to the NHS but surely, surely the arts are more valuable than this current parliament deems it? Did Churchill not question what we were fighting for if not the arts in the Second World War? David Cameron could learn a lot from his historical Tory leaders, could he not? The arts are the one most valuable thing this country has to offer, the one, and unlike our European counterparts in France and Germany amongst others, who frankly embarrass us with their commitment to the arts as a sector, we do not value them enough. There is not an individual in this country who does not take benefit or utilise the arts in some way or another; we all watch television, a majority of us go to the theatre, cinema and music events, a number of us visit art galleries and some of us even go to the opera! Therefore, how, how can this government allow such pitiful underinvestment and support of the arts industry at a time of financial difficulty, when the public ironically need the arts more than any other. That coupled with our model of support for British Film and Theatre infrastructure is nothing short of a disgrace. Visit a French cinema? How many pieces of American blockbuster trash will you see in a Parisian multiplex? One or two have a screening policy that 80% of all films shown have to be French in their origin. Imagine applying that to British cinema…how would our industry flourish then? Or the Germans, who subsidise all theatre buildings to ensure their operation and maintenance as well as their programming…again, imagine that in London – perhaps then we’d have a situation, as in Berlin, whereby the main theatres are full of theatre and not the commercial, star-led jukebox musical theatre trash we have to endure in the West End – our supposed ‘Theatreland’. That moniker is a joke…surely?
Q7. What advice would you give to university students who want a career in theatre after they graduate?
Fundamentally, know the industry and how you intend to operate within it and what in particular you can offer it, if that be as an actor or theatre maker, ensure you get more practical training post degree as it is getting ever more difficult for actors in particular to be borne of university backgrounds as the industry evolves. I’d suggest coming and training with us of course and having been shortlisted for The Stage School of the Year award this year with a graduate employment rate of 78% we’re definitely facilitating that transition with the creation of both actors and theatre makers! Other than that shameless plug, just ensure you do acquire additional training and also ensure you know how hard it is and how it works. The latter part of that statement will take perhaps a lifetime to understand, as we are all still learning that one, but ensure you want it and that you are entering the industry as a creative. “I am an actor” in exclusivity is now a rarity and it is important to understand above all else that you will need to be adaptable, creative and hard working. You can flourish in this industry without question, but it takes dedication, graft and passion. To anyone considering it I say come join the party and let’s change the landscape for the better together! Thank you for your interest in our production and work and we look forward to welcoming you to Elephant Man in February at the Jack Studio in Brockley.
Elephant Man runs from Tues 3rd February to Sat 21st February 2015 at 7.45pm at the Jack Studio in Brockley.
Keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming review!
Images: Fourth Monkey