A review of Act One at the Fringe Festival this year.
In February this year, the University’s drama society, Act One, gave us their adaption of King Lear, co-directed by Piers Horner and Madison Fowler. It was a dark and savage re-working of Shakespeare’s infamous plot of uncompromising ambition and fierce revenge, set in a seemingly apocalyptic future Britain and retaining the powerful Shakespearean English. (An excellent overview by Katie Brown may be found in gair rhydd’s February 13th issue, no. 969 in the online 2011/12 archives).
Once the run had finished, however, Piers and Madison (Madison, incidentally, is to be credited with the original idea for Lear) found that the cast were not at all keen to relinquish their characters just yet. The actors asked the directors to take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“It was a lovely moment actually,” recalls Piers. “One of our original aims as directors was to ensure the actors felt they had ownership of their parts in the play, and this was clearly the case. It was their excitement that really spurred us to look into it.”
They managed, through some swift research and use of Madi’s contacts, to secure vital sponsorship from the Students’ Union, which covered production costs.
As Piers told gair rhydd, “It’s extremely expensive to put plays on at the Fringe, with nearly all productions making a loss, but the prestige is such that thousands of the best shows from around the world make the trip.” A £300 contribution from the Act One coffers later (the Fringe registration fee) and the finances were set, the commitment made.
A venue was secured next. “It’s essential to match up the feel of a play to the feel of the venue,” Piers commented. “We had to put together a marketing pack for the show and sell it to venues we felt were appropriate for the ‘feel’ of the production. One of our favourites was the prestigious Zoo group of venues. We applied for their 60-seater ‘The Aviary’. 60-seaters are the ‘standard’ size for Fringe venues, so we were very pleased, therefore, to hear back from Zoo offering us their 90-seat ‘The Monkey House’. Needless to say, we accepted!”
With marketing now well underway and Twitter followers hitting 600, the arduous practicalities of streamlining the production took precedence. Piers reflects on the manic period of activity that was their summer: “There was a lot to learn in a very short space of time. One of the hardest things about a student society taking a show to Edinburgh is that there is very little time to rehearse, with cast and crew focussing on exams, then breaking up for the summer.” In this respect, it would appear that the team had some advantage, having already performed Lear – but, as Piers recalls, this would turn out to be “a double-edged sword. New actors were needed, as not every member of the original cast could make the Fringe, and these actors needed to learn roles and develop relationships with the others” – all in a very short space of time. “The entire show also needed amending”, continued Piers, “to account for the fact that the staging in The Monkey House is arranged as a thrust configuration, rather than in the traditional face-on style used for the original production.” The show then needed to be cut from approximately two hours down to the venue’s specification of 75 minutes, meaning a total overhaul of choreography and music too (an original soundtrack by Glastonbury DJ Nick Cotton).
It was indeed no mean undertaking. “We learned this the hard way!’ shared Piers. By the time they were in Edinburgh, however, the only real uncertainty was the size of the audience – the average Fringe audience size, according to rumour, being two. This they blew, with audiences of between 20 and around 70 on their final night. With three Act One shows at the Fringe this year (Lear, Wuthering Heights and The Institute), Cardiff University has never been so well represented and a huge congratulations must go to the Lear team, & all the teams from Cardiff University who presented shows in Edinburgh this year.