Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Steven Green and Hamish MacDougall: Project Colony

By | Published on Wednesday 27 March 2013


We first came across producing company Fourth Monkey at the Edinburgh Festival, so when we heard they were headed to Trinity Buoy Wharf with an immersive and site-specific Kafka adaptation, we knew we’d like to find out more. We put some questions to the group’s artistic director Steven Green, and to one of the two writer/directors of the play, Hamish MacDougall (the other, FYI, is James Yeatman).

CM: ‘Project Colony’ is a site-specific piece – what made you choose to use Trinity Buoy Wharf as your venue?
SG: A number of our team enlightened us on the venue, after they had worked on Zecura Ura’s ‘Hotel Medea’ at Trinity Buoy Wharf last year. Once we became aware of the space, it was a must, as the atmosphere there is something quite special, and it fits us very well… it feels quite Fourth Monkey, if there is such a thing!

CM: In this show you invite the audience to become part of the action – just how interactive and immersive is it?
SG: The audience shares the journey with the story’s main protagonist, the traveller. The words immersive and interactive are often scary ones for theatre audiences, and we appreciate and respect that. Equally, we don’t like the idea of the generic ‘immersive’ thing, so we would refer to ‘Project Colony’ as more of an experiential experience for the theatre goer. Yes, you are in it, but not at the expense of your enjoyment as a spectator. The audience for ‘Project Colony’ should feel as an invited guest, not an anxious victim in waiting!

CM: It’s based on Kafka’s ‘In The Penal Colony’. What made you choose that particular text? How closely does your show resemble Kafka’s story?
HM: I have always had a fascination with the story of ‘In The Penal Colony’. On paper, our project is mad. It is a short story about twenty five pages long, and it includes four characters. Our adaptation has a cast of fifty two and is across two spaces. So why this? I have seen a few straight adaptations that simply follow the pattern of the book and I always felt that there was more to explore.

Kafka delves into an entire society, and creates amazing characters that we never get to meet, so we thought… well, why don’t we meet them? A straight adaptation will primarily focus on the machine and we have done that, as you must – to ignore the machine would be to ignore a central and vital strand of the story – but in our show, running alongside this, there is another strand going on here which I have never seen explored. A story of two regimes on one island. An old regime that has ruled the island from the start and never been questioned, their glorious leader has suddenly died and a new regime take over with the intention of changing everything. What we have devised explores this story, but everything we have created comes from the book. It could be called a loose adaptation as we have explored themes through devising that Kafka poses in the story, and turned them into scenes of the play.

Trinity buoy wharf will be an incredible venue for this. It feels like a remote place much like the colony of the story. We hope that the audience, like the outsider in the story, will enter this far out space and be plunged into a world that they don’t understand. They will become voyeurs to two regimes and see both sides of the story. The old regime will take them to the basement to present the wonders of the machine and the glory of the old justice, while upstairs you are invited to a party laid on by the new regime who wish to change what has come before.

CM: What are the main themes of the piece?
HM: I would say the main themes of the piece are to do with opposing cultures and identity. The story looks at the idea of one outsider venturing into a society that is completely alien to them. In true Kafka style, the character slowly realises that they are here to assess that culture and make a judgement that could greatly change the way a society is run. This leads to questions of identity; the outsider does not understand why they are here, which in turn leads them to question everything that they have done before.

We found that really interesting in rehearsals, the fact that when someone is unwillingly put on the spot it disorientates them and leads to bigger, unexpected questions. It’s also about the identity of the people in the colony; the story and our play doesn’t have obvious answers but it poses questions. At the heart of this colony lies the machine. To western eyes it is a barbaric contraption of torture but to the island it represents justice. Is it right to get rid of everything people have known. even if you find it abhorrent?

CM: As well as involving the audience, you have a cast of 52. Do you always work with such large ensembles?
SG: No not at all, this cast size is unique to this production. However, Fourth Monkey do very much believe in ensemble playing and we often work in repertory, and as such, do tend to work with large companies of actors across more than one production. But in this instance we are departing from our normal work. It is our first departure into a non-traditional theatre space too, which is also very exciting.

CM: How did the company come together?
SG: We work to a European philosophy, basically. Working our ensemble together for a period of time in training and development prior to embarking on producing work as an ensemble. We develop an ensemble language in the first instance, enabling us to then create work with these and other shared principles as a company. This same company will also soon embark on rehearsals for our forthcoming season of work at the Edinburgh Festival.

CM: We’ve seen and enjoyed your shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, in the past. Is it harder or easier to stage a show in London?
SG: In many ways it’s easier to stage a show at the Edinburgh Fringe as you know the limitations of what you are working with in regard to the space, set and of course the infamous fast turnaround times, which by definition restrict you to a more practical approach to your work.

In London, the same limitations don’t apply in regard to your creative ambition which in many ways requires a different sort of discipline, namely keeping an eye on your budget! London of course is also incredibly expensive.

Additionally, in London, your audience is more apathetic and more diverse, therefore marketing becomes a key element of your London production to motivate interest in your production. In Edinburgh by contrast, although of course marketing is key, you can get by with a witty and clever campaign or presence on the Royal Mile, which can often surpass advertising all over the fringe media. Word of mouth in both is however as always key and the most invaluable single element to a successful run.

CM: Where do Fourth Monkey go from here? Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
SG: We don’t go far actually! We are back at Trinity Buoy Wharf at the end of May and throughout June for our next production, a new adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, to be directed by Ailin Conant of Theatre Temoin. This promises to be quite spectacular, and incredibly physical too, so this is currently very much in the ever flowing Monkey pipeline, before setting off for the Edinburgh Festival again in August!

‘Project Colony’ is staged at Trinity Buoy Wharf from 2-27 Apr. See Fourth Monkey’s website for more information, and get your tickets here.

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