Caro Meets Theatre Interview

David Furlong: The Flies

By | Published on Friday 7 June 2019

Headed to The Bunker Theatre this week is a production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘The Flies’, produced by Exchange Theatre – a company I am a big fan of, because of its international and diverse approach – who will as usual be staging their version of the show ‘bilingually’, with half of performances delivered in English, the other half in French.

To find out more about the show, and what to expect from Exchange Theatre in the future, I spoke to company founder, director and actor David Furlong.

CM: Some may be aware of what ‘The Flies’ is all about, but some may not: can you give us an idea of where the narrative takes us?
DF: Years after the Trojan war, Orestes comes back to Argos, his birthplace, to find his sister Electra reduced to being a servant, and his mother Clytemnestra ruling the land along with her lover Aegisthus, a dictator. Sartre tells their tale as much as the story of the guilt imposed on a whole people through misinformation and ignorance. The flies, hovering around the stench of the city, symbolise the fear maintained through manipulation. What will it take for the siblings to overcome this tyranny? It’s French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s look at the Greek myth of the Oresteia.

CM: Your version of this is described as an adaptation: in what ways does it resemble the source material and in what ways does it differ?
DF: Jean-Paul Sartre wrote ‘The Flies’ in 1944 when he was a prisoner of war and the play was an outcry against Nazi Occupation in France. Eighty years later, far right populists are rising again promoting fear of the other, of any differences. We kept exactly the words of Sartre so in this regard, it’s a faithful translation. I’ve adapted the world of the play more to a slightly recognisable world for a 21st century audience. Our set is made of piles of TVs, on which propaganda is broadcast, representing the fake news deployed to keep the citizens of Argos in ignorance and fear. This Orwellian world is never very far from ours. In 1939, The Nazis and the French collaborationists spread their ideology like this. The mediums have changed but the propaganda and the struggle against it are both the same.

CM: What made you want to stage it now?
DF: Firstly, ‘The Flies’ is the show which put Exchange Theatre on the British theatre map ten years ago. Before this show, we were barely surviving through guerrilla theatre-making on the Fringe. We did the first production like a challenge to the theatre-form. This is the show that bought us a three-year creative residency at the French Institute, and subsequently our own studio space at London Bridge, where we are still based. It started to make a real shape for the company with this show.

We passed our ten-year anniversary two years ago, but did not celebrate our first decade, and then we got our first of three Offie nominations and thought we ought to celebrate the work we’ve been doing. ‘The’ Flies was the most obvious revival to do because it encapsulates all Exchange Theatre is about. It’s a Greek tragedy revisited by a French philosopher, performed by a bilingual international cast, with a Mauritian composer and a non-western drawn physicality!

CM: You’re directing as well as appearing in the show – is it difficult to do the two at once? Does being part of the cast have an influence on your approach as a director?
DF: I think it used to be more complicated, but I’ve grown used to the exercise and have learned how to balance these complexities and use them for the benefit of the show. I was a trained actor first, before turning to directing in 2006, so I direct actors the way I’d like to be directed, following their impulses and preserving their agency. It means that my approach as a director can never be an over-arching knowing figure: I like actors and I love drawing very strong characters by bouncing off their imaginations, in juxtaposition with my imagery.

Being part of the cast also means that I’ve learned along the way, what I can’t do, so I surround myself with movement directors and musical directors or any collaborator who know both what I’m looking for and what they’re doing in order to facilitate it. What’s great as a director is to discover things you had not planned, too, that’s the beauty of collaboration, and then it just creates an even better work than what you had in mind.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your fellow cast members?
DF: First, they’re all bilingual French-speaking actors from a variety of origins, which makes this cast completely unique in London. We have Meena Rayann (Vala in ‘Game of Thrones’) leading as Electra, and she’s from French and diverse North African origins, alongside Samy Elkhatib, who is Egyptian, American and French, and making his professional debut as Orestes. They are joined by Raul Fernandes, Juliet Dante, Soraya Spiers, Jonathan Brandt, Fanny Dulin and myself, and we have French, Mauritian, Belgian and Indian origins as well as bilingual upbringings. Some of the most interesting questions have recently been raised in casting this show, in keeping with the current public debates: we have full gender parity, a diverse cast, a disabled performer. In addition to the cast, we have a very diverse team from the movement director drawing on non-western movement, the composer, to the three musicians from the grunge rock-band A Riot in Heaven and even our whole admin office is diverse. It’s all about the exchange of cultures and ideas at the core of the company.

CM: You’re the artistic director of Exchange Theatre, and you’ve been producing since 2006. What have been the highlights thus far?
DF: The milestones are all connected. Since the first production of The Flies and getting our own rehearsal space, we have produced ten years of work so that’s about fifteen productions. Some moments were very interesting because over a whole decade we experimented with many forms of theatre and I turned from being a very vision-driven director, to be more interested in the process and crafting a narrative. I think one of the highlights is certainly after we decided to produce everything in two languages and produced two Moliere plays, and when these plays were Offie-nominated for Best Director, Best Production and Best Video Design. This recognition allowed me to work at the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre as an assistant and it has informed the running of my company so much. This all happened at the same time as Brexit. It’s very polarised. It’s like being told both “you’re welcome” and “you’re not” at the same time.

CM: What’s your own career background? How did you end up working in theatre and did you always want to be a performer?
DF: I’ve always wanted to be a performer, for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Mauritius, it wasn’t really a tangible option through my upbringing because there was not really a professional viability in the area. But as a teenager I was in High School in France, and I started doing drama and just got hooked. So after my baccalaureate, I went straight to audition for national French drama schools and after two years I entered the National Theatre of Chaillot in Paris.

After graduating, having been brought up in a bilingual environment, I immediately wanted to come to London. It was back in 2004 and I haven’t left since. So aside from my roles in Exchange Theatre’s shows, I have worked a lot in the Fringe with renowned companies such as The Faction, Border Crossings, Theatre Lab, Voliere, playing great parts too, like Macbeth. In parallel, I have been keeping a strong connection with France, performing regularly in street theatre, or on stage in Bordeaux and Paris whenever I can.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the company in the future?
DF: We’re working hard at getting our work to France now, as it is so informed by the cultural bridge we built across the channel. It would be really interesting to see if they perceive us as a British company just like we’re seen as a French company here. We’re also slowly building connections with the academic and research world both in languages and in drama. We took part in a language conference last year, I had an article published in a literary review this year, and one of our translations, Break of Noon by Paul Claudel which I directed last year, is about to be published. We want to keep pursuing these. When we started, we were very inspired by Cheek by Jowl both for the international ambition, and also for what Declan Donnellan brought to the craft of acting in theory. We have something to bring too.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this?
DF: We have been awarded free business support with Arts Forward and Deutsche Bank and this has helped us to reshape the company with a more sustainable structure, a board, and allowed us to be more ambitious. We have drawn a real five-year plan with international projects as well as local activism around our idea of cultural exchange and inclusivity. We can’t announce what the projects are yet, but we have built a strong relationship with Voila Europe festival and are talking about their next edition in November (we took part in November 2018 with ‘Becoming Berenice’, and in April at Tristan Bates with ‘Noor’). We are also working hard at bringing our unique work to Paris as soon as possible.

‘The Flies’ is on at The Bunker Theatre from 11 Jun-6 Jul. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

LINKS: | |