Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Bertrand Lesca: Ablutions

By | Published on Wednesday 11 February 2015

ablutions (1)

We first came across the work of FellSwoop Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe, where they’ve achieved great success (and fab reviews from us) with shows like ‘Belleville Rendezvous’ and ‘Ablutions’. When I heard that the latter show would be heading to Soho Theatre this month, I immediately wanted to make sure our readers heard about it.

The company, despite being young, have already become renowned for their imaginative productions. This piece is based on the novel by Patrick deWitt, and has been devised through a collaborative process involving the performers and the play’s director. I spoke to said director, Bertrand Lesca, to find out more about it.

CM: Can you tell what ‘Ablutions’ is about?
BL: ‘Ablutions’ is the tale of an addict; someone who thinks he is losing and therefore drinks. One night, he meets a ghost in the bar where he works. This strange and unusual presence makes him realise something about what he needs to change in his life. He sets off to the Grand Canyon, wanting to find some kind of escape on the road like a character in a Jack Kerouac novel. For me that’s when the play really begins – when this man sets off to find himself and indeed does but not in the way he first expected.

CM: The play has been adapted from the novel by Booker nominated writer Patrick deWitt. Who did the adapting, and how easy was it to bring the story to the stage?
BL: We all did the adapting – all of us. We chose the actors we thought could shape these characters, and gave everyone the task of improvising around scenes of the book. Their improvisations eventually turned into scenes that then turned into a script.

The script came about very late in the process. I never like to fix things too early. I like to leave it to spontaneity. Some people like this about our work. Others, I believe, find it quite difficult. Because there’s such a habit for text and script, the work that FellSwoop does could be quite unsettling for some performers. It’s a tricky balance we have to match in every show we make.

Actors need to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable in what they do – and a script early on would make them rest too much. In the devising process I think if the script is settled too early, there’s no magic or you are preventing it.

CM: What attracted you to this story? Why do you think it works well as a play?
BL: When we first read the novel, we absolutely loved the characters and the amazing descriptions which deWitt gives. The barman is the narrator, talking to himself in the second person (‘you’) throughout the novel. In our adaptation we place him right by the audience and he tells you his version of the story, or his take on situations which you then see enacted.

It’s very similar to what O’Neill does in ‘Strange Interlude’. The narration borrows directly from deWitt’s novel and is therefore highly stylized and poetic. But it’s more than just a piece of drama; I would say that ‘Ablutions’ is also very musical. The band on stage plays music throughout. The input of musical composer Ben Osborn is very central to any work we do. When we started working on this play, we wanted to take the audience on this epic journey across America through music.

CM: Would you describe it as drama, comedy, or both?
BL: It’s pure tragicomedy. Re-reading it recently, we again noticed how funny and sad this story is. It’s quite rare and I believe this is one of deWitt’s talents as a writer, being able to navigate between both emotions. These characters are pretty un-likeable. But there’s always a touch of humanity, a compassion which makes you feel very close to the people he is talking about. That proximity was what we liked about the novel, and what we wanted to convey in the show; to make those characters really present on stage.

CM: The show had a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. Has the show changed or developed since then?
BL: Yes, we had a lot of success at Edinburgh – five-star reviews and runs of sell-out performances are always very gratifying, especially in the intense and sometimes quite competitive environment of the Edinburgh Fringe.

But I am never quite satisfied with anything we do. I always like to change things. The actors used to make jokes about it to begin with, but now they really got into the habit of refining things and understanding the benefits of it. Even just for themselves as actors – they enjoy finding new things to play. But again this is hard. Sometimes you feel that what you are doing as a director isn’t actually that useful. You fiddle with things too much and then the magic is lost. I always oscillate between doing things or leaving things totally as they are. It’s hard to find the emotion you had when you saw the actors improvise the scene the first time round. What was there is lost and trying to find it again is totally impossible. That’s the frustrating aspect of theatre.

CM: You’re one of two artistic directors of FellSwoop. Can you tell us a bit about the company, its aims and ambitions?
BL: FellSwoop doesn’t really have any aims apart from doing projects we feel excited about, and working with people that excite us.

We started out as students, working together on Marina Carr’s ‘By the Bog of Cats’, which won awards for its integration of music and sound. After university, we adapted ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ for the stage; that won us another award and then toured the UK. We’ve also been working with texts from Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada, ‘Five Days in March’ and ‘Current Location’, and we’ve devised our own adaptations of them.

But as well as these relatively straight, adapted works we’ve created more experimental and political pieces as well… so we’ve always embraced a real variety of work. I am quite against the idea of ‘branding’ ourselves as a company. I think we should keep surprising ourselves and our audience so that nobody ever gets bored, nobody ever stops learning and exploring.

CM: What’s next for ‘Ablutions’? Will it continue to tour?
BL: We are keeping an open mind. A few venues are still interested, though we also need time and space to focus on our new shows. Our work on ‘Ablutions’ started more than two years ago; yet if we got asked to do it somewhere new, to tour it internationally, I think we’d be keen to. With new audiences from different countries come more possibilities for the work you are showing them.

CM: Do you have any other productions on the way?
BL: We are preparing a summer tour for ‘Current Location’, which went to Madrid last year. This is a very short piece about climate change with five talented female performers – very pared down – which I feel very connected to.

And then we have our ‘opera’ which will open at the Lowry in the Autumn, and which is quite the opposite: a very complicated show with loads of set and costume changes. That piece will look at the idea of haunting. At this stage, the project’s quite scary: our aim is to depart from the spare, sparse style of ‘Ablutions’ and ‘Current Location’: we’re working with a string quartet, a designer, two composers, a voice specialist… So we’ve chosen to do a project that’s out of our depth in some ways, and that’s exactly why we want to do it. It really feels like an experiment, trying to make actors sing and reach their operatic voices, trying to deal with big ideas like death and fear, trying to laugh at them as well as facing them head-on.

We are quite busy, and excited about what’s going to come out of this very intensive year. But there might be time for change after that. Perhaps to do new things abroad…

‘Ablutions’ is on at Soho Theatre until 22 Feb, see this page here for info and tickets.

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