Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Cecilia Istria-Dorland: Twelfth Night

By | Published on Monday 14 March 2016


I suspect quite a few companies are honouring The Bard with productions of Shakespeare plays during 2016, in light of the celebrations taking place to mark the four centuries that have passed since his demise. But here is one that truly stood out for me, Scena Mundi’s new staging of ‘Twelfth Night’.
When I read that the group plan to give the play “a fashion make-over”,  and that it would be performed in a lovely church, I immediately wanted to see it. And also decided to speak to company founder and director Cecilia Istria-Dorland.

CM: So, you are giving ‘Twelfth Night’ what’s described as a “fashion make-over” – what does that mean, exactly?
CI-D: It means that we are exploring the themes of mistaken identity, love, depth and surface of feeling in ‘Twelfth Night’ and transposing them to a modern visual style. The world of Illyria created by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night is one of mirror-images, ubiquity, double vision and love at first sight, and we play on these ideas with a contemporary equivalent: the world of haute-couture where beauty, androgyny and style reign supreme. We remain faithful to the style of the play but give it a parallel antithetical setting.

CM: What are the costumes like, and who created them?
CI-D: Imagine an Elizabethan feast supervised by a hate-couture designer… We are working with a young designer called Georgia Green who is designing and hand making all the costumes. Seeing her at work is quite fascinating.

CM: How did you go about finding the perfect venue? Or did the venue inspire the production?
CI-D: We like staging our productions in beautiful, inspiring, historical buildings – churches in particular. When we looked for a place in Soho, the French Protestant Church came to mind as I knew concerts were played there. We contacted the pastor and the welcome we got was amazing. This church deserves to be known better: it is a beautiful building.

Of course, we get inspiration from the architectural details and the location – Soho is the throbbing heart of fashion and we are lucky to be in a grand space, so let’s play style!

CM: Is the story and text the same as usual, or have you made changes to that too?
CI-D: We have kept perfectly faithful to both story and text. Scena Mundi specialises in classical theatre and one of our trademarks is excellent delivery of verse so we trust Shakespeare on that one!

CM: What made you want to stage ‘Twelfth Night’, in particular? Is the play a favourite of yours?
CI-D: Twelfth Night’ is a play I’ve always loved -the first Shakespeare I studied at university – though that in itself wouldn’t be good enough a reason to stage it! We chose it because in this year of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, we as a classical company wanted to participate and do our bit in honour of the bard. Mainly, ‘Twelfth Night’ is a beautiful piece, a comedy with hidden depths, great fun but tainted with nostalgia and beauty and we were keen to work on that text. It explores love in most of its aspects and touches audiences, who like the play a lot.

CM: Tell us about Scena Mundi – what are its aims and ambitions?
CI-D: I founded Scena Mundi 3 years ago with a view to creating a rep company which would give contemporary, faithful and aesthetically beautiful productions of classical European plays and at the same time nurture and develop talent in young artists. I want the company to keep on developing, reaching a wider audience and bringing them exciting and fresh stagings of the classics.

Artistically, I want to keep on working on our style and vision, finding new talents and giving them a chance to develop – as we’re currently doing with our designer and our actors. We want to make beautiful drama accessible while never compromising on the quality and demands of the work we are staging.

CM: What made you want to create your own theatre company? Is it hard work?
CI-D: I came to theatre through the study of literature and classical acting and I wanted to share my vision of and passion for these works. I was also keen to surround myself with talented people with whom I could share my enthusiasm and make things happen – you never work alone in theatre, and the end result is a combination of so many skills. I was extremely lucky to meet amazing actors, technicians and creatives with whom I still collaborate on a regular basis.

Creating and running a theatre company is very hard work, made all the harder by the current reduction of funding in the arts. You have to believe in what you do, trust the people around you and not despair or give up when you struggle to make ends meet. It takes perseverance and passion, it has to be something you have to do, deeply, for yourself, otherwise it can be daunting. There are very hard times because it asks of you “no less than everything”, to quote TS Eliot, but the rewards of a great show, an amazing performance, a heartfelt applause are worth all the efforts.

CM: You previously worked as a researcher for Shakespeare’s Globe. What did that involve? Why did you move on? Is it directing all the way now?
CI-D: I worked in the Research department at the Globe for a couple of years. I was involved in doing the academic research for the season – answering the questions the directors, actors and designers had from the texts they were working on. It included working on period and language, writing about topics raised by the play. It was great for me because it was a perfect combination of academic and practical work on theatre but soon it was obvious that I much preferred answering my own questions and staging my own versions of the plays. It is indeed directing all the way now.

CM: What’s next for you, and the company?
CI-D: Another Shakespeare play in Soho in the early summer… Then a busy, dark and tragic autumn/winter season with many new talents involved. And from next year, we will hopefully take some of our shows to the continent as well as performing in London. Busy but exciting times ahead!

Scena Mundi’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is on at The French Protestant Church from 22 Mar-9 Apr. See this page here to book your tickets.