Cabaret Interview Caro Meets

Simon Evans: Nocturne

By | Published on Thursday 28 May 2015

Black Cat Cabaret’s ‘Nocturne’, coming to London Wonderground on Friday nights throughout the summer, is not your standard cabaret night offering a stream of disparate acts, but a themed series of interconnected performances telling a distinctive story.

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Intrigued by the premise of the production, and the promise of the talented cast, which includes the excellent Lili La Scala (pictured), I sent some questions over to the show’s director, illusionist Simon Evans.

CM: Tell us about Nocturne. Does it feature specific themes?
SE: It certainly does. I’ll start with the initial pitch: A cabaret show, produced by Black Cat, hosted by the phenomenal Lili la Scala and filled with the most incredible circus talent from around the world!

Now that’s out of the way… My theatrical background is more “traditional” (production for the Old Vic, the Donmar Warehouse etc.), so when I became involved I wanted to see if we could find an approach that stays true to the genre’s roots, but perhaps explores things in some different ways.

I’d been to a lot of cabaret shows in the run up to rehearsals and was beginning to see a trend towards list-based productions; a host introducing act after act with little through-line or interconnection. Amazing acts, but not hugely… involving.

So we had a conversation very early on about context; discussing ways in which the acts could be (narratively) strung together, so that each builds on the last and has its own emotional connection to the story we’re telling. The name Nocturne was already introduced, so we used that as our starting point and brainstormed ideas.

We landed on the idea of a 21st Century Man; beaten down and repressed by the cavalcade of bustle and noise around him; numb and exhausted. He can barely keep his eyes open on the train home. He gives into sleep and enters the Nocturne, a place (in the spirit of Carrolls’ Wonderland or Lovecraft’s Dreamlands) where he can explore his own subconscious – A subconscious that happens to be produced by Black Cat, hosted by the phenomenal Lili la Scala and filled with the most incredible circus talent from around the world!

CM: What kind of characters and genre of performances can we expect to see?
SE: Well the lovely thing that an approach like this affords us is the permission to play with reality where it suits us.

We’ve all heard other people, and ourselves, throwing our truisms about our dreams like “It was you… but it wasn’t you…”, “We were at home… but it wasn’t home…”, “I was doing this and suddenly you were there too…” It’s lovely to take those recognisable experiences and introduce them to the world, so characters from the MAN’s real life appear when he least expects it and impose themselves on his darker fantasies.

It means the world becomes an unpredictable place (like a dream), where acts interrupt each other spontaneously and thrillingly, rather than waiting for their place in line. It’s offering a strange mix of thrill and comedy.

When those acts appear, we’ve tried to model them on Freudian and Jungian archetypes. I won’t go too far into it here as there are some great surprises, but all the darker fragments of our MAN’s subconscious are… made flesh. Whatever he can dream, he can get.

That’s not without its risks for him though.

Lording over all of this is Lili la Scala, the queen of the Nocturne. We’ve based her on the ancient Greek muse Calliope. In mythology, she presided over eloquence and epic poetry. She was Homer’s muse when he wrote Odysseus’ journey home in the Odyssey, and now she presides over our MAN as he makes his own journey home: spurring him on and comforting him in equal measure.

Calliope also means “Beautiful voiced”, which couldn’t be a better description for Lili.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the acts involved?
SE: That’s a tricky one. We’ve assembled an outstanding team of acrobats, aerialists, fire-workers and dancers to populate this world. Some of the tricks we’ve got up our sleeve may lose some of their surprise if I tell you what’s coming up…

I guess I’d ask you to trust me. Black Cat cabaret is famous for the programme they put together and this year we’ve pulled out all the stops. If you can think of the myriad other circus shows that have been around in recent years… we’ve taken all their headline acts and built Nocturne around them. I could throw around names like Nathan and Isis, Katrina Lilwall, Cabaret Rouge, Bret Pfister… It’s a devastatingly impressive line-up.

I suppose I can tell you about Lili who, at the risk of blowing smoke up her arse, is the most amazing soprano I’ve ever heard. She’s been a mainstay on the cabaret circuit for a number of years now and has developed a completely intoxicating blend of wry (and very cheeky) comic timing and that amazing voice. It makes her a real host to be reckoned with. She holds the whole thing together beautifully.

With a line-up like this one, we needed someone like her.

CM: How did you go about bringing the acts together for this show? How did you decide who would be appearing?
SE: David Harris, the founder and producer of Black Cat, was the key decision maker in that regard. He knows this world inside out and back-to-front and knew, from our first meeting, who he wanted to get involved.

That said, I don’t think either of us assumed we’d be able to get all of his top-choices together. There’s a lot of this kind of work around at the moment, a lot of shows vying for performers of this quality; for David to have got them all together under one tent, is a remarkable achievement!

Once the team had been put together, it fell to me to discuss the show with each of the performers and discuss what they’d build for us. Would it be an established act tailored slightly to the themes of the show, or would they be building something new? I was thrilled when everyone got behind the idea for the show, and set about building something new. It’s all original material.

The only person I had a hand in bringing directly, was Ben Cutler who plays our MAN. We discussed different options for this (acrobat, dancer, musician), but I wanted an actor. Someone (slightly more) from my background. His reactions to the world he falls into reflect ours… he’s a normal guy in an abnormal world.

So the show is simultaneously an Odyssey through a MAN’s subconscious, and a metaphor for my own first real exploration of the cabaret and circus scene: sexy, thrilling and fraught with surprises.

CM: You are the director of Black Cat Cabaret, aren’t you? How did that come about? Were you instrumental in its creation…?
SE: I was, regrettably, not instrumental in its creation at all! I’m an interloper, hanging onto the Black Cat coat tails…

I was invited in to meet David off the back of directing four shows for Secret Cinema: ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, Laura Marling – Live, ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Miller’s Crossing’. I’d thrown myself into the immersive theatre scene and even formed by own company, Myriad & Co. which has delivered shows for Johnnie Walker Whiskey, McLaren F1 and Working Title Films.

David wanted to discuss an idea for an immersive version of Black Cat so we began throwing ideas around and found a lot of shared ground. That show is still in the early stages of development, so he casually through out the idea that I directed the 2015 Wonderground show in the meantime. Before I knew it… I was in a rehearsal room.

So here I am… no real memory of how I got here. The metaphor grows.

CM: You are also an illusionist. Can you tell us what drew you to this career? Did you have any significant influences?
SE: That’s right. I got into magic in my early teens. I’d started at a new school, and it offered a helpful identity quite quickly. Then, when I was 18, I spent four months making my way from Los Angeles to New York, paying my way by performing in bars and on streets.

It’s stuck with me ever since. I’ve performed my own one man show in Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge and even on London’s West End. Two years ago I built a new kind of show called ‘The Lecture on Misdirection’, which explores magic in a more cultural way: what is the difference between magic and illusion, belief and unbelief… etc.

That show is now taking on a more “theatrical” approach in a new version called ‘The Vanishing Man’ which I’m going to be touring later in the year.

It’s a fascinating hobby to have adopted and I’ve learned a huge amount about the relationship between performance an audience from it. I’d say my influences range from Robert Houdin (in the classical era) to Dai Vernon (in the mid-20th Century) to Michael Ammar (who I had to the good fortune to meet during my USA trip) and I think the world of Derren Brown.

For me it’s about selfless performance. A cleverer man than me said that “magic is the art that conceal its art”. I think magicians have forgotten that of late, they are so committed to demonstrating their craft (extravagant shuffling, ostentatious props, superfluous elements). Magic should be something pure.

I admire any performers who respect Houdin’s sentiment that “a magician is an actor playing the part of a wizard…”

CM: You are a magic consultant for both the National Theatre and Michael Grandage at The Donmar. What do these roles involve?
SE: Well it ties into that final point. My job is to come into rehearsals and help the cast and creative team convey something magical. My first question is always “is this character a trickster or a wizard?”; by which I mean, are they performing a trick (in which case I’ll teach them the trick) or are they performing a miracle (in which case I’ll need to work with the creative team to create something which responds magically to the actor’s performance).

The former is for shows like ‘Privates on Parade’ (for Michael Grandage) or ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (for Howard Davis at the National), the latter is for more supernatural elements like Medea (for Carrie Cracknell at the National).

The thing that never fails to raise a smile is when I’m asked to accomplish something which would genuinely require a halting of the rules of physics. The directors and creative team look at me with hope in their eyes, trusting that it’s a question of my mumbling some strange Latin words.

On one occasion I was asked to advise on a chair moving in response to a character’s outburst (in a Carrie sort-of-way). I suggested motorised wheels be fitted into the legs of the chair… there wasn’t time. I therefore said, not unfairly (I feel), that the chair must therefore be pushed or pulled if it was to move. We could find invisible means of pushing or pulling it, but one of those forces must be exerted.

They looked at me like I’d just cancelled Christmas. Sometimes, who they really want is Dumbledore.

CM: What’s next for you? Any new projects lined up?
SE: Yes, a few things. As I speak to you I’m sitting in Monaco, delivering an immersive show for the Grand Prix. Myriad & Co. has a show coming up at the end of the year which is under tight wraps but going to be extraordinarily exciting. Watch this space.

There’s also ‘The Vanishing Man’ and two more “traditional” theatre pieces which are coming up over the next 12 months.

Also a film in the making…

It’s a busy time.

Following a preview performance on 29 May, ‘Nocturne’ is on at London Wonderground, Southbank Centre, selected Fridays until 11 Sep. See this page here for more info, full list of dates and tickets.

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