Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Robyn Winfield-Smith: Howard Barker Double Bill

By | Published on Thursday 19 November 2015


This show caught my eye the moment I espied it when trawling upcoming theatre events a few weeks back – a double bill of plays from renowned British playwright Howard Barker, starring familiar TV and West End face, Nicholas Le Prevost.
Acclaimed young creative Robyn Winfield-Smith, assistant director at the RSC and associate director at Omnibus, is at the helm of this production. I put some questions to her, to find about more about this show, and her career in general.

CM: Can you tell us about ‘The Twelfth Battle of Isonzo’ – what’s it about?
RW-S: ‘Isonzo’ is a ferociously imaginative look at a taut and perilous battle of wits between the colossal and charismatic Isonzo, who is 100 years old and has been married 11 times before, and the immaculately poised and wise-beyond-her-years Tenna, who is 17 and has never been married before. As the characters chase and tantalise each other through fantasies and lies to get closer to the truth, we see them move inexorably towards their only possible consummation…

It’s a brilliantly witty piece that places blindness both literally and metaphorically centre-stage, and indeed, the blindness of the two characters has prompted our decision to immerse the audience in an experience of blindness during the show by denying them sight of the characters and instead providing them with a three-dimensional soundscapes in which we must focus entirely on the vocal performances of the actors and the chilling sounds of the bare, bleak and somewhat Beckettian setting… We shot the footage on-location in a beautifully derelict chapel at Compton Verney, so there is a real sense of atmosphere and epic decay in the very sounds of the room around the characters – it’s as though they’ve been stranded on a slab of sacred yet abandoned rock and cannot leave until they’ve played out this terrible, yet seductive, battle of wits… Exciting!

It’s worth saying that the battles of the Isonzo took place 100 years ago between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces in WW1, and that the twelfth of these battles has become synonymous with inglorious defeat, with unprecedented losses on both sides. This play, therefore, speaks of the inevitability and yet devastating futility of war…

CM: It’s an English premiere, isn’t it? Why do you think it’s taken so long for it to be performed here?
RW-S: On the page, it’s a challenging piece, as well as being a very short one. I remember, when Howard gave me the play to read, wondering whether the humour would bounce off the page in the way it was going to need to in order to connect with an audience, and was thrilled with the charismatic cruelty and charm that Nick Le Prevost naturally brought to the role: it was the rehearsed reading we did together at the Print Room that gave rise to this production.

It is perhaps also rare that this play has the opportunity to be paired with another short play such as ‘Judith’, so as to give audiences a full, entertaining and intellectually stimulating evening – a sort of ‘alternative Christmas show’ that offers a witty meditation on love, truth and war.

CM: The second play in the double bill is the slightly more well known, ‘Judith: A Parting from the Body’. Can you tell us a bit about it, and what sort of themes it addresses?
RW-S: ‘Judith’ is a magnificent, magnificent play. It pulls back the dusty sheets of received truth in order to look at what really happened inside the mythic tale of Judith, the beautiful widow of Israel who, with her trusted servant, infiltrates the Assyrian camp the night before the battle that will end the war, in order to seduce and overcome the head of the Assyrian army, Holofernes.

This play, in my opinion, speaks more potently, beautifully and insightfully than any other – with the possible exception of Marina Carr’s ‘Hecuba’ – about radical ideology, war and cycles of hate and violence in the world. It attacks radicalism and lays bare the horrific reality that the victors take on the vices of the vanquished, and that the perpetrators of violence are as human as their victims. What I love about this text is that Howard has exposed these horrifically timeless truths through a genuinely gripping double-seduction in which the seduced becomes the seducer and lies become truths and vice versa, and in which we are drawn to the humanity and wit of each character by turns…

CM: Given the dramatist’s broad oeuvre, why are these particular two being staged together? Do you feel they are a good complement to each other?
RW-S: As I’ve, probably very clumsily, begun to explain above, both plays deal with themes of love, sex, truth, death and war. There are wonderful points of connection between the two – key words, themes, images and even sounds – and even more wonderful points of departure: ‘Isonzo’, for example, is so acutely focused on the personal relationship between its two characters, and is so emphatically dislocated from reality, that I felt it complements brilliantly the harsh reality of ‘Judith’, which is of course set in the tent of an army general and is therefore rooted in the grim setting of war…

CM: What attracted you to these plays? What makes you want to direct them?
RW-S: I first discovered ‘Judith’ whilst researching into plays that were ripe for first revival, and was particularly drawn to it because of the way in which it so radically re-imagines the story as we know it in order to highlight the themes I’ve mentioned above. I’m fascinated by the ways in which art and in particular theatre can reinterpret and revivify old or classic stories or plays and make them resonant for a contemporary audience, and ‘Judith’ does just that with the apocryphal myth. As for ‘Isonzo’, it came to me through Howard. He saw my workshop production of ‘Judith’, and gave me ‘Isonzo’ to read; then Lucy Bailey gave me the Print Room stage on which to do a rehearsed reading with Nick Le Prevost, and everything has just gone from there…

As for why I want to direct these plays, Howard’s language really is incredible, and working with actors who can make that language – which really is like Shakespearean verse, in so many ways – accessible to an audience is the most thrilling thing for a director. And, of course, these four centennial years of remembrance for the First World War, and the ongoing violence in Gaza and of course across the world at this moment make these plays horribly resonant and relevant; I cannot help but want to direct them at this time…

CM: Howard’s plays fall into a style he has labelled the ‘Theatre Of Catastrophe’. What is meant by this?
RW-S: Slightly outrageously, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Howard – I merely have a strong working relationship with him and enjoy working on the plays he gives me to read – so this answer may be woefully insufficient, but, as I understand it, Howard’s Theatre Of Catastrophe dispenses with the conventions and limitations of the ‘Establishment Theatre’ and instead posits the view that art is not and should not be digestible, but should instead stimulate consciousness and debate…

CM: I gather you are especially interested in more neglected theatrical pieces – what motivates that interest?
RW-S: Yes indeed. I am passionate about theatre that stimulates, challenges and moves audiences by activating the beating human heart of neglected, difficult or habitually-interpreted plays, and about creating thrilling theatrical experiences that will connect audiences with truthful, powerful stories that ask incisive and potent questions about what it means to be human.

Plays that are perceived as being problematic in some way fascinate me, because it makes me want to ask what it is about their stories, their characters, that is not connecting with an audience – it makes me want to ask, with the actors and with my collaborators, what it is that hasn’t worked about this play in the past, and what the point of connection can be for us now, in our contemporary time.

I’m also fascinated by the ways in which a production can choose to cut through habitual interpretations and get to the true, beating heart of the play, and release new truths that may have been lying latent within the text. Finally, I LOVE the process of responding to a familiar story with a spirit of fearless re-imagination in order to question received truth, and to surprise, stimulate and captivate an audience. If that doesn’t sound too grand and pretentious!

CM: What’s been your most exciting or memorable project in your career thus far?
RW-S: Gosh. Every project feels exciting at the time – I remember ‘Kingdom Of Earth’ and ‘LOT And His God’ at the old Print Room venue giving me incredible opportunities to collaborate with leading creatives, so those were both hugely memorable productions for me, but, as a director, the most thrilling production for me so far has to be my centennial production of ‘Woyzeck’ in 2013, because it gave me the chance to adapt the text under the remote mentorship of a brilliant translator based in Australia, creatively produce the show and its attached outreach project as a site-specific venture within the newly refurbished Omnibus building, work alongside a composer to create an original score that enabled us to represent Woyzeck’s schizophrenia through music, and work with a larger cast of actors than ever before, including puppeteers and 3 child actors… It really took my experience to the next level.

As an Assistant, it’s got to be ‘Hecuba’ at the RSC. Erica Whyman is a truly inspirational director, and to work alongside her with such a brilliant cast – and indeed to recognise, within her process, my own – was such a confidence-boosting and joyous experience. If you didn’t get a chance to see the production, then do buy the script – the play innovates the form of dramatic writing in the most inventive and brilliant way I’ve ever seen, and Marina Carr’s reclaiming of the Trojan story lays bare the question of where the truth lies when considering age-old classic stories, exposing the difficult fact that history is so often written by the victors… Or go and watch the archive video in Stratford, because the production truly was magnificent!

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
RW-S: I am Associate Director at Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham, and have not directed a show for them since my site-specific WOYZECK in 2013, so will be returning to their theatre space next Autumn to direct another new adaptation of a European play – can’t wait. I also have a couple of other show pitches under consideration by other venues at the moment, about which I can’t say more at the moment, so… Watch this space!

The Howard Barker Double Bill is on at Arcola Theatre from 25 Nov-19 Dec. See this page here for info and to book.

LINKS: | |

Photo: Topher McGrillis