Abigail's global view on Shakespeare

There's nothing quite like meeting an enthusiast. Within minutes you feel as energised and engaged as the person you are talking to.

Andrew Clarke

There's nothing quite like meeting an enthusiast. Within minutes you feel as energised and engaged as the person you are talking to. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke was bowled over by director Abigail Anderson who has just swept into the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds.

Abigail Anderson is on a crusade - she is on a mission to rescue some of our illustrious theatrical heritage and prove not only that Shakespeare is not dull but Georgian theatre doesn't deserve to be cast into vast dark cavern and forgotten.

Her friendly, infectiously enthusiastic approach is certainly contagious - particularly if, like me, you have an affection for The Bard. Abigail, associate director with The Globe Theatre in London and a former director with The Royal Shakespeare Company, is well placed to breathe new life into the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night which is producing for the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal - a venue she has a huge love for.

This is her second outing for the theatre, having directed Art last year and she is making the most of the opportunity to do something new and exciting with Shakespeare's dual identity comedy.

“For me there is no difference between directing a piece of new writing or doing a Shakespeare - you always approach it the same way as an original piece of work. This is the first time I have directed Twelfth Night and the first thing I did was to really familiarise myself with the script. I read the play and try very hard to ignore all the other productions of it. I try and treat it as a new work. I try and work out what every line means and bring my own take to the play and build from there.

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“I have directed 16 Shakespeare plays and I try and make each one different, each one is an event and I am always looking to do one that I haven't done before. I don't want to go back on myself.”

She said that she knew early on in her career at Oxford university that she wanted to work in the theatre but she knew equally strongly that she wanted to work on the other side of the foot lights. A seriously shy young girl, she couldn't imagine ever stepping on stage herself - which is surprisingly given her engaging and enthusiastic approach to this interview.

It is clear that she delights in the rich, vibrant history of British theatre and she makes no apologies for wanting to bring the very best of it back before contemporary audiences.

“I have always loved going to the theatre. I was even in plays when I was very young but I got very, very shy as a teenager and vowed I would never set foot on a stage again. But, I never lost my love of going to the theatre. I think during those awkward teenage years, theatre gave me a sense of belonging. As I sat in an audience I felt I belonged to a wider theatrical family which for a shy person was a very big deal.

“So that's why, my work as a director always come from the perspective of the audience because that's what it's about. I want to make people feel welcome in the story.”

She said that the big turning point in her love for the theatre came when she finally got to see a production at Stratford-Upon-Avon. “For me as a young girl Shakespeare was all about Stratford, but I begged my Dad to go: 'Please Dad can we go Dad;' and he finally gave in and it was along way from London and it entailed staying over night, so it was quite an expense. It was just me and him - so it was quite a grown up thing to do and we went to the Swan Theatre, which was very newly opened at that point, and we saw a play called A Fair Maid of the West, which is an Elizabethan pirate romp, directed by Trevor Nunn at the height of his RSC powers, there were songs, there were sword fights, there was mead passed out to the audience, it was a real communal, rough and ready experience and I loved it. Sean Bean was in it and he abseiled down from the ceiling and I was in heaven. I knew that this was where I was supposed to be.”

She said that having had the experience she single-mindedly followed that route ever since. She said that one of her greatest thrills in her career so far was her first day at the RSC as a trainee director picking up her post from her named pigeon hole in the theatre building where she had often queued up outside as an audience member.

Talking with Abigail is a hugely engaging experience because she is able to communicate her passion for our theatrical heritage. She talks quickly and enthusiastically and it quickly becomes clear that the plays that made up Shakespeare and Georgian theatre are not ancient artefacts which should be preserved in a museum-like environment, they are living, breathing works of art, which can withstand the rough and tumble of twice nightly performances and should be regularly dusted down and given a chance to show what they can do.

“I am a massive fan of Georgian theatre. I love that era, even though it is mostly forgotten. I, not only love Restoration comedy but also the dramas which really are the forgotten bit. We do know about The Country Wife and Sheridan but it is the playwrights other than Sheridan and what happened later that I find really fascinating.

“I read English at Oxford and I had: 'Will you be the summer cabbage of my heart and let me cultivate you?' pinned up on the wall in my room. I thought it was a great flirtatious line and it is from Black Eyed Susan - so it was obviously meant to be.

“I had read in The Stage about the restoration of the theatre and that Colin was to be staging Black Eyed Susan as the opening production. I knew I had to be there particularly as I was in the middle of staging a one act play by Sheridan called St Patrick's Day.”

She said the work the Theatre Royal was doing with audiences and with the repertoire was in many ways more important than the work going on at London's Globe Theatre with the Elizabethan repertoire.

“For me the beauty of the Theatre Royal lays in the architecture and in the repertoire - it's the two things together that makes it so special. Although we like to say that there are more than 500 extant plays from Elizabethan and Jacobean period, the truth is these are not unknown plays. There are huge numbers of academics all over the world who are reading and studying these plays, writing books about these plays - and it is really important that The Globe continues to champion that work - but Bury St Edmunds is unique because no-one else is looking at the Georgian repertoire.”

I asked Abigail why did she think that Georgian theatre had fallen into such total neglect - particularly when Shakespearean theatre was better represented by authors such as Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe?

“I honestly don't know,” she candidly admits; “But I could give you a couple of likely theories. Firstly, I think that technically these plays are the most difficult that you can do. Some of them are in verse but the verse is not as natural and sinuous as Shakespeare's verse. The language is more heightened in a way, so it's harder to deliver the lines and technically we are losing the skills to do it.

“Secondly, and probably the most important, is the architecture of the theatres. Georgian plays die more spectacularly than Shakespeare does when they are played with no awareness of the audience. Put a play like that behind a Proscenium arch and they can look immensely artificial. So the audience is not engaged, they are not very pleasing, so what happens? You don't play them anymore.

“So the rise of the Proscenium arch probably killed off the Georgian repertoire whereas the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre has a robustness to them that keep them in the repertoire. What has been interesting is that since the rise of studio theatres, there has been a re-discovery of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. They all work so much better with the audience up close. Companies are mining the Elizabethan repertoire and they will eventually get round to the Georgian plays - it's just that they haven't got there yet.

“It will swing back. You only have to look at the current trends in theatre architecture; it is all about thrust stages. You only have to look at the new theatre they have built at Stratford, the Courtyard Theatre - that has a big, old thrust stage. Nobody wants proscenium arches any more because they present a barrier to the audience and you don't want a feeling of us and them because it prevents an audience from being properly involved.”

Abigail is obviously passionate about heritage theatre and is not afraid to say that many audiences, particularly young audiences, are put off Shakespearean and Georgian drama not only by architectural barriers but because, in the last 100 years, many of these plays were badly performed.

“Good theatre has to be intimate and not like big telly. Audiences used to be very close to the action - particularly in early Georgian times. If you look at the Hogarth painting of The Beggar's Opera, the Duke, who was the patron of the actress playing Polly Peachum, is seen lounging in a chair on stage left. His mistress is playing her scene in the play and he is right there on stage with her. I would love to do that. I would love to put loose chairs on the stage and really involve the audience in the action.

“It has already started to happen. Look at Xanado which played on Broadway recently. It had audience members seated on stage - they could be roller skated behind and they were given simple things to do during the performances, such as holding up objects and as the run developed those seats became highly sought after. At first the ticket prices for those seats were greatly reduced as they thought that people would be reluctant to sit up on the stage - then it became very fashionable, it became the place to be and then the prices started to get more expensive.

“What we are discovering here in Suffolk is exactly what they are also learning all over the world that the way to make theatre exciting is to involve the audience. The Georgian theatre was right to build bridges with the audience. What makes theatre different from cinema or big telly, is that it can engage and involve the audience in a way that they can't. Films make better films than theatre, so why try and copy them? Let theatre do what it has always done and bring people into the heart of the drama. Theatre is so much more exciting when it is not just presented to you but you are complicit in it.”

She said despite expectation to the contrary that theatre works particularly well at times of national crisis. “Times are hard, the news on the telly is depressing, what better way to get out of yourself than coming to see an uplifting show with a group of like-minded people? Laugh together and share an enjoyable communal experience. There's nothing like it. It doesn't have to be comedy, it can be drama, it's just a desire to share - a celebration of our common humanity.”

She said that her guiding principal as a director has always been to put the audience first. She doesn't direct for the actors, she directs for the audience. “There's always a part of me who's that shy teenager, sitting in the audience, who wants to be engaged, wants to join in but needs to be drawn into the play, invited to take part, encouraged to leave her fears behind and just to commit to the experience. As a director that is a very positive, very liberating point of view.”

She said that she is finding directing a hugely invigorating experience and finds directing at the re-vamped Theatre Royal inspirational.

She said that in order to blend in with the architecture of the Theatre Royal, they are updating Twelfth Night from 1601, Tudor England to a modern day which happens to be 1819.

“We are doing it like that so that the characters look as if they belong in the theatre. Doing it in real contemporary dress would jar with the surroundings. Because the audience is being spoken to directly, they won't sit back and think: 'Oh, that looks old and pretty' it will feel contemporary.”

She said that although there is no furniture on set, the presentation of the play will be quite bold and will make the audience sit up and take notice. “It's certainly not going to be chocolate box.”

She said that one of her long held dreams was to combine new writing with Shakespearean and Georgian Theatre and get modern playwrights to sit in and work with production teams at places like Theatre Royal in Bury and at The Globe to absorb exactly what it takes to work with an audience.

“Then I would like to commission a writer to come up with a play using the techniques that he has witnessed and how he knows that a space works. He would be learning from the Elizabethans and The Georgians - the people who knew how to involve audiences in the theatre.”

Having told the story of Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night Abigail will be setting sail with Three Men In A Boat which will be playing at both The Theatre Royal in Bury and at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.

Twelfth Night will be playing Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from Tuesday until March 14. Tickets are available on www.theatreroyal.org or 01284 769505.