The changing of Bury’s classic theatre

After undergoing a �5.4 million restoration, The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, has been transformed yet again – bringing the performance area down from the stage into The Pit and moving the audience up onto the stage.

It’s a radical rearrangement of the interior of the classic Georgian theatre – but rest assured, this bold restructuring is only temporary. The theatre has been redesigned for the latest addition to the theatre’s Restoring The Repertoire programme The London Merchant – a taut thriller about revenge and seduction.

The Theatre Royal’s artistic director Colin Blumenau said that the idea to move the stage into the auditorium was to place the audience in the heart of the action.

The stage has been rebuilt on a sturdy bed of scaffolding which has raised the acting area up six feet, so the actors can now walk up to the occupants of the boxes and not only make close eye contact but can talk straight to them.

For Colin, The London Merchant represents another significant gear change in their on-going campaign to put back before an audience some of the Georgian era’s most exciting and important plays.

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He said having tackled comedy and melodrama in such plays as Blacked Eyed Susan, Wives As They Were, Animal Magnetism and He’s Much To Blame he felt the time was right to tackle a seductive, gritty tale of murder, greed and extortion and changing the shape of the venue was a means to provide a more dramatic, startling way of presenting this gripping story.

Fresh from the rehearsal rooms, Colin is clearly buoyed up by a run-through that has gone extremely well. When I inquire if his happy mood is due to a good rehearsal, he smiles, eyes shining: “Oh yes”.

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He said that Georgian theatre is well known for its comedies and satires, so now was the time to show another facet of their dramatic menu.

“It is a play has quite an incredible history. It is one of the most enduring tragedies of the 18th and 19th centuries and when we go tit out and looked at it, then later put it before an audience at a reading, they really enjoyed it. So I thought: ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We’ve done a couple of big comedy, we’ve done melodrama, so let’s have a go at a tragedy, so that’s why we are doing this one.”

Colin said that the play had an incredible power and quickly draws in the audience to this very duplicitous world but it was hard to describe simply without giving away large sections of the plot which are best kept secret to ensure maximum audience enjoyment.

The courtesan Millwood has vowed her revenge on men. Exquisite, seductive and cruel, she sets her corrupt and decadent eye on innocent apprentice, George Barnwell. Respected by his peers, praised by his London merchant master, and loved by the pretty Maria – the world is at his feet. With a flourishing career ahead of him, he has everything to lose as she, Black Widow-like, draws him into a vortex of illegal and immoral activity which signals his doom and her ultimate revenge.

Written by playwright George Lillo in 1731, the story was based on a popular ballad set in the merchant district of London circa 1588. Telling the story of an apprentice led astray by a courtesan, the tale illustrated the dangers of the city and youthful excess to young men learning their trades.

Warming to his subject Colin said: “I think for me the strength of the plays lies in its basic humanity, incredible debates about meta-physics and religion, it pre-figures what Darwin was going to be talking about 150 years later. It deals with those great, big themes and Lillo puts them in this very entertaining and very powerful play.

“But, at the end of the day, the thing that I really love about the play, is that there are characters in it that could have been written yesterday – particularly Millwood. I think she is just the most astonishing person. She sits outside of society, outside the establishment, the people who have caused her downfall. She’s incredibly critical of that establishment but in the end, when the establishment accuses her of being wicked and evil and not god-fearing, she rounds on them and asks them directly: ‘So what has man-made devotion to a religion actually achieved?

“They come back with all those things that Bush or Osma Bin Laden spew out and she counters that all it has ever achieved is war and dispute. Interestingly in the end she reveals that she does believe that there is a deity but it is not a man-made construct and I think that’s brilliant.”

He said that the beauty of the play is that Lillo’s ideas are played out on such a huge canvas, so having the audience right in the middle of proceedings is going to be hugely exciting for them and for us.”

He said that there was a warning in the play which was how quickly a solid, respectable, upright citizen could turn into a degenerate wreck. “It’s surprising but it can happen in very few steps. Downfall is a very easy thing to happen and that leads us into a significant debate about religion without it ever being dull or undramatic.”

The catalyst for the play was the fact that the world in which Lillo lived was changing. It was a society in transition. The Georgian era was one of great change – not only in science and engineering but also in the way that the class system and economics worked.

The feudal system led by the aristocracy was drawing to a close, trade, mercantilism and the middle-classes were on the rise.

“Those changes, those fears about change were extrapolated out for the 19th century audience and now they have been extrapolated out again for us. It is a play which is entirely appropriate for our age.”

Colin said that it is interesting that Lillo, who sits in judgement of society, saw that although the rise of the merchant classes helped provide opportunities for all, he also recognised that there were increased chances for corruption and this is what drives the play forward.

“Although this is taut, tightly written tragedy – a great and powerful drama – it is also very much a discussion piece. It is a play about ideas. It is a play which should provoke discussion and as a consequence I didn’t want it to be a barnstormer. I didn’t want the actors to stand there and shout. I wanted them to relate to the audience. I wanted it to be a discussion and wanted them to be able to share some of things we have just been talking about with the audience.

“I want to create a dialogue and I have directed it, so the actors, at various points are talking directly at the audience, making eye contact, implicitly asking them for their opinion. I wanted the play to have that intimacy about it.”

He said that the other reason for shifting the inside of the theatre about was to keep everything fresh and to challenge preconceptions that this recently restored theatre was stuck in its current configuration. This has transformed the theatre into the ultimate space for theatre-in-the-round.

With the hire of Eastern Angles’ tiered seating, closing the gap created by shifting the action from the traditional stage area onto a new performing area over the stalls, the theatre has become a very intimate space – a space surrounded by audience members on all sides.

Colin said: “Wherever you sit you are never far away from the actors. Even if you are sitting at the back of the box you feel you can reach out and touch them.”

For the actors the proximity of the audience is both a challenge and a delight. Anna Hope, who plays Millwood, said: “I think it is really exciting to be that close to an audience. I wouldn’t say it was disconcerting. I performed Twelfth Night here and we had the thrust on the front of the stage, so people were a lot closer than they normally would be, so the gap between the players and the audience was shortened.

“I find it so exciting to be in a play that acknowledges the audience. I don’t know why we got into this strange habit, sometime in the late 19th century, of ignoring the audience, pretending they aren’t there. It’s so exciting to get them to be part of what is happening on stage – indeed getting them on stage with us.

“Of course it’s challenging, and as an actor, there’s nowhere to hide, but for us and the audience the theatre itself is going to be at the very centre of the experience. You are going to see this beautiful space come alive.”

Colin echoed this and said that more of the auditorium would be seen during the performance. Designed by Kit Surrey, part of the design team responsible for the Theatre Royal’s historic interior decorative scheme, the staging will help further the theatre’s exploration of the way that theatre has changed over the years.

The costume of the piece will be 16th century marking the period when it is set, but there will be no additional scenery on the stage.

“Although I have thoroughly enjoyed doing the other plays I just wanted to do something different this time. This doesn’t mean I am tired of Georgian plays – I am absolutely not – I think they have been fantastic things to do – but I wanted to ring the changes and provide the audience with something different and keep people excited by what we are doing and not have them go: ‘Oh no they are doing another Georgian plays in that way.’

“When people come here, they will get a brand new play in a brand new theatre.” He said that the Georgians would have staged the play in a very traditional manner. This revival can be considered to be very 21st century – a play which spans the centuries both in style and content.

“The social politics and associated domestic politics are notable not only for their frankness but also for their modern resonance and for the fact that they stemmed from the pen of a man. As ever with Restoring the Repertoire I hope that our theatre-going public will rediscover a piece of work which has lain hidden in obscurity for far too long. Lillo is not a dramatist known to many, but this play I hope will re-establish his reputation.”

The London Merchant is running at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds until October 16. To book tickets at the Theatre Royal call 01284 769505 or go online at .

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