Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jethro Compton: Classic tales relocated and retold in The Bunker

By | Published on Monday 2 September 2013


As part of the team behind Belt Up Theatre, Jethro Compton has a reputation for innovating with his theatrical productions at the Edinburgh Fringe and this year, via his own theatre company, he did it again, by converting a space in the C nova building into a replica First World War dugout – mud and all – and staging three classic stories reworked to take place during The Great War.

All three plays in ‘The Bunker Trilogy’ – ‘Macbeth’, ‘Morgana’ and ‘Agamemnon’ – impressed the ThreeWeeks team, and Compton himself popped into the ThreeWeeks podcast to discuss the project. And now theatre-goers in London can experience two thirds of the trilogy first hand, because the entire bunker has been speedily reconstructed at the Southwark Playhouse to host a double-bill season.

My colleague Chris Cooke grabbed a few minutes with Jethro to discuss the project, its Edinburgh run and the London version.

CC: Tell us about The Bunker project – what’s the basic concept?
JC: The idea of The Bunker was to create a replica First World War dugout as a setting for three theatrical productions – ‘The Bunker Trilogy’. We’ve built an immersive environment to hold the audience and the shows inside the space, and have reimagined three well known stories into this location.

CC: Where did the two ideas – the dugout and the reimagined classics – come from, did one come before the other?
JC: About a year ago I was trying to work out what shows I was going to make next and was torn between the two ideas: reimagining classic legends and the WWI dugout idea. Fitting the two ideas together was just the next logical step, it allowed us to create an exciting environment and to rediscover stories within this historical context.

CC: Was the upcoming centenary of WWI a factor?
JC: It wasn’t initially, although it’s something that has cropped up more and more and will certainly offer us a lot of opportunities to continue the project over the next four years. There is a danger that audiences are going to be inundated with WWI-themed work over the centenary years of course; but I’m hopeful that our unique approach to the period and the experience the audience undergo will keep The Bunker fresh and exciting, offering something that most WWI productions might not.

CC: How did you pick which stories to adapt?
JC: I worked with Jamie Wilkes who ended up writing the scripts for ‘Morgana’ and ‘Agamemnon’. We spent a lot of time trying to find three classic stories or legends that could sit alongside each other. It was important that the plays could fit within the confines of the space and the production as a whole – they had to work with three actors and one actress across all three. Immediately lots of stories simply couldn’t fit and were cast aside. It was then a case of working out the themes that ran through the trilogy – which stories had similarities but were different enough from each other to offer a real variety of experiences.

CC: Obviously the setting of the production, the dugout, is really important. At what stage in the writing process was that introduced?
JC: The setting was really where we started – the space we created was at the centre of the concept right from the beginning. Knowing this environment and its limitations was key to the project as it gave us clear boundaries to work within. Jamie knew the set even before he knew what stories we were going to tell, it means that nothing is shoe-horned in but the scripts are written entirely with The Bunker in mind.

CC: You premiered the project to much acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe, what were the biggest challenges of the production?
JC: Edinburgh was an incredible month and we were very fortunate to have had the success we did. As this was my seventh Fringe in a row, and having a huge amount of lead in time on the production, meant that everything went very smoothly. It was a long slog, especially for the cast and stage management who had to perform all three shows every day for the entire run, but the audiences were so supportive and the reception was so warm it kept spirits very high.

CC: You transformed your own room in C nova for the Edinburgh production. How does the Southwark Playhouse production compare?
JC: We have an even bigger room at Southwark, but the set is exactly the same as it was in Edinburgh; once you’re inside The Bunker you wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s even moved. We had less than 48 hours from our final performance in Edinburgh before we opened in London. It was a ridiculous turn-around with two sleepless nights, but it has enabled us to present the shows exactly as they were in Edinburgh without dropping a moment.

CC: It was a trilogy in Edinburgh, but a double bill in London – how did you decide which of the three plays to include in the London season?
JC: That was a very easy decision which was made right at the beginning of the project. We have two plays that are essentially original – inspired by existing stories. ‘Macbeth’ was a reworking of Shakespeare’s text. There was always a very clear paring of ‘Morgana’ and ‘Agamemnon’. The challenge was to ensure that, as we made the trilogy, we remembered that we had to also make a double bill.

CC: Could the production tour, or are the set-up challenges too significant?
JC: We’re hoping to present the shows in various forms around the world over the next few years. They won’t tour in the traditional sense of the word as it is such a vast build and very difficult to move, but we are planning other festivals and residencies where time will allow us to set up and run properly. It’s important that we don’t compromise on the experience by rushing into venues that aren’t suitable.

CC: Are there any other stories that you think could work within this concept?
JC: Right now The Bunker is a trilogy – I wouldn’t be against the idea of it being a home for more stories if the time was right. It’s a wonderful space to work within – mud aside! – and it has such an intense atmosphere, maybe one day we’ll find another story that sits perfectly and we might just have to do it.

‘The Bunker: Morgana And Agamemnon’ is on from 28 Aug – 21 Sep at 7.30pm the Southwark Playhouse. Info and tickets