Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Kristine Landon-Smith: The Orchestra

By | Published on Sunday 27 January 2019

I’ve always been a fan of the oeuvre of late French playwright Jean Anouilh, so when I heard a new production of one of his less well known works was to be staged at the Omnibus Theatre this month I pricked up my ears.

I then discovered that the director helming the production is accomplished veteran Kristine Landon-Smith, formerly AD of Tamasha Theatre, so hastened to arrange a chat to find out more.

CM: Most theatre-goers will probably have heard of Jean Anouilh, as his plays are regularly produced, but this isn’t as well known as some of his other work. Can you tell us what story it tells? 
KL-S: The story is set in post war France and features a group of musicians who are playing in a cafe orchestra. The musicians between arrangements try to work out who had “collaborated”. The narrative explores the corruption of human relationships and the jealousies aroused between a single male piano player amongst an all-female orchestra. 

CM: What themes does the play explore? 
KL-S: Human relationships. We can all be vulnerable and particularly now I think we all feel rather exposed and fragile due to recent political  developments at home and further afield. There is this beautiful mix of understated throw away comic delivery and then these heightened moments where the actors mime the musical numbers. It requires great skill and precision to play well. 

CM: What made you want to direct this particular piece? 
KL-S: Jean Anouilh wrote such wonderful witty comedies. Many, many years ago I saw a production of ‘The Orchestra’ at the King’s Head in London. I found the play about a group of musicians so bewitching. There were the subtle moments and then heightened moments of comedy, where the actors were miming playing musical instruments. The more technically precise they were with their miming, the funnier it was to watch. It was wonderful, and I admired how skilled the actors were at getting it so right. I thought it was a real gem of a piece, and I wanted to direct it.

The opportunity then arose ten years ago when Mehmet Ergen was the artistic director at Southwark Playhouse, it was such a great experience. Fast forward over 20 years and my path crossed with Stefania Licari, one of the actors I’d tutored at the East 15 Acting School, and she was keen on us working together. This forgotten gem of a play seemed such a great project for her to sink her producing and acting teeth into and great timing for a London revival. 

I’ve noticed there are plays in my repertoire that I often get drawn back to and direct them more than once to see what else they bring. Revivals are always fresh because of the different people you bring each time and their own responses to the work are so different each time. I’ve just been doing the ‘The Serpent’s Teeth’, about war and conflict, and I have directed that one before. It’s funny how you return to plays that you love.

CM: Why do you think it’s garnered less attention than some of Anouilh’s other work?
KL-S: I have been asked this before – I am not sure – Anouilh is best known for his adaptation of ‘Antigone’ which audiences saw as a contemporary political parable – so maybe when we think of Anouilh we always go to ‘Antigone’ or other well known works like ‘The Lark’ and  ‘Ring round the Moon’. The idea of actors miming the music is unusual and maybe some don’t quite see how that might work.

CM: The play is set just after the second world war. Does the production have a post-war aesthetic/feel to it? 
KL-S: Very much so, the cast will be dressed in period costume, although the set will be quite stripped back and minimal but attention to period detail is paramount. The music composed for the show is very much of the period.

CM: What relevance does it have for a contemporary audience?
KL-S: It’s about the human condition. This work comes from the phase where Anouilh moved away from having young idealistic protagonists at the heart and he began writing more about middle age and disillusion and regret. There is a lot of resonance for a contemporary audience.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast? 
KL-S: This is an international cast where actors have come from France, Brazil, China, Italy and England. They are all settled in London and now come together in this work. Their own backgrounds of course have a bearing on how the work unfolds and it is extremely exciting to bring their experiences together in this play. We play with difference and it is that difference that underpins the interpretation.

CM: Last time we spoke to you, it was in your capacity as AD of Tamasha (and rather longer ago than I had remembered!), but I think you’ve been working overseas in the intervening time. Can you tell us about the work you were doing? 
KL-S: I returned to the UK after a three year posting as Senior Lecturer in Acting at The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) Australia and since my return I ’ve been lucky enough to have directing projects both in the UK and in Australia. The Australian arts scene is smaller than here but in the past ten years or so I sense an explosion of work particularly in the independent sector. There are many people doing extraordinary things in the independent sector, insisting on telling narratives from their own cultural contexts and this is very healthy. The sector is under resourced however but artists are still finding a way and I have been making work there in that context. Here too I am working in a whole range of contexts and finding my varied portfolio immensely stimulating.

CM: Where do you see yourself headed in the future, career wise? 
KL-S: I am very involved in actor training and work a lot in the Conservatoire training space and have also recently begun to publish some of my academic work about actor training. As part of a mainstream training institution in Australia I was able to make an intervention which increased diversity in the student cohort and expanded the traditional canon of work that students studied. Ground up we saw a huge shift in the organisation and I would like to build on that experience here in the UK. 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
KL-S: A headphone verbatim show about decolonising the curriculum in collaboration with SOAS university, ‘Cabaret’ at East 15 Conservatoire training, ‘Curry Kings’ in Australia, about Indian migration to Australia and their success in the food industry, and ‘Summer Rolls’ at The Park Theatre – a bilingual British Vietnamese story. I have a busy year ahead! 

The Orchestra is on at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham from 29 Jan – 17 Feb, see this page here for more information and to book tickets.

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