Sometimes, it turns out the old ways really were the best. Take theatre for instance. In an age before the lure of telly and film, most British theatres had their own permanent teams known as repertory companies. These tightly-knit groups of actors rattled through productions at a fearsome rate, sometimes switching shows on a weekly basis. The work was tough, but the system built strong bonds between actors and audiences. Famous names like Judi Dench and Ian McKellen believe it gave them the skills for which they are revered today.
However, this ‘rep’ system fell out of favour in the 1970s, and these days, virtually all British theatres hire actors for one production at a time. They come in, do the job, then move on.
Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre abandoned rep just like everywhere else, but in 2017 it decided the time was right to revisit the ways of the past. It had a history of celebrated rep companies going back decades, with actors including Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Steadman and Jonathan Pryce having made big names for the city, the Everyman and themselves, and according to the theatre’s current Artistic Director, GEMMA BODINETZ, the rep company dream never died.
“You’re always trying to find ways that audiences can connect with the work you do, and it felt to me that growing a familiarity with the actors on stage would be a lovely thing to do.
“I’d also observed the director Mike Shepherd working with his company, Kneehigh, and I could see the rapport he has with actors, and the shortcuts he can make with a group of people that trust him. They also share a group responsibility. It’s a different thing when actors feel like they’re here for a while, they’re part of the theatre, part of the whole season.”
Wanting to capture some of that trust and rapport for itself, the Everyman recruited 14 actors – including older, experienced performers and fresh faces straight from drama school – for a season of five productions, all performed within six hectic months last year.
And the result? According to NICK BAGNALL, Associate Director at the Everyman And Playhouse, “it worked beautifully. We were changing the face of regional theatre, and that was really exciting.”
There were a clutch of prestigious awards too, and The Stage newspaper said, “Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre must be applauded for resurrecting its repertory company and repackaging it for the 21st Century”.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the Everyman’s rep company is back for 2018, with seven actors returning and seven new faces. They launch on 3rd March with the musical Paint Your Wagon, followed by A Clockwork Orange, Othello and a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt called The Big I Am.
So why are there four shows this time rather than last year’s five?
“There’s been a lot of learning,” says Bagnall, “and doing four shows has already made a big difference. We’re not dribbling in corners with tiredness any more. And also, last year we weren’t able to work in our communities, which a lot of the actors are really keen on doing. There weren’t enough hours in the day.”
If the Everyman team was anxious about how its first rep season would be received, nerves were quickly settled when the opening production of Fiddler On The Roof went down a storm. For Bodinetz, who directed the show, it remains a treasured memory.
“The first preview of Fiddler was the moment I knew we were doing something special. It was a bit ropey and there were things that went wrong, but you could feel something in the room. You could feel it was a different way of working.”
Having successfully resuscitated one magical old musical, Bodinetz hopes to do it again with Paint Your Wagon. The stage version of the gold-rush era story is quite different from the famous film starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and it offers the company of all-rounders plenty of opportunity to let their hair down. Or hoedown, if you will.
“The palette of musicals we can do is quite limited,” says Bodinetz. “We only have a cast of 14 and a small budget for a band, and although we choose actors who can sing and move under the direction of a great choreographer, they aren’t musical theatre specialists. You can’t do something like 42nd Street without exposing them.
“But I was really taken by how funny Paint Your Wagon was, and there are some really resonant themes in it. For instance, there’s sexism in there, and we’re really playing with that. What’s interesting is that the female stories are at the forefront. It’s about women wanting learning, wanting freedom, and it’s about oppression.”
Even during the season’s planning stages, issues around sexism have grown in prominence in the public eye, with the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo movement helping to shift the terms of debate. Something of this mood will also be reflected in Bodinetz’s second show, Shakespeare’s Othello, in which she will be switching the lead character from male to female.
“I love Othello but I kept thinking that when that first black general walked onto a Jacobean stage, there must have been quite a reaction. And I wondered whether that was still true for a contemporary audience. But I think if a woman turned up in an army uniform today – a black woman, and a lesbian – she would be in the same position as that black male in Jacobean England.
“People would ask ‘Can she really do what those men do?’ or ‘Why is Desdemona in love with her and not him?’. I want to take the audience back to asking some of the questions of themselves that the original audience might have asked.”
The season’s other two shows are directed by Nick Bagnall, who kicks off with Anthony Burgess’ infamous A Clockwork Orange.
“I read the book when I was 16,” says Bagnall. “It seemed to hit me in the stomach. I loved its language, its violence, just the whole muscle of the book really hit me. When we were thinking about big titles for this year, I suggested it without really knowing whether there was a play version of it.
“It turns out that in 1984, Burgess wrote a version for the stage – a play with music. I read it and realised it’s a condensed version of Stanley Kubrick’s film, but it’s got a massive theatricality about it. It moves in and out of music hall, cabaret, song and dance. No one else has ever done it in its entirety with Beethoven’s music. It’s a really big piece of theatre, a proper Everyman company show. It’s incredibly dangerous, but it’s also got a redemptive quality.”
The final show is “a massive, open-hearted romp” called The Big I Am. Freely adapted from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt by the Liverpool-based writer, Robert Farquhar, Bagnall is excited to be bringing this fresh new work to the Everyman stage.
“It opens in 1942 when Peer Gynt is born in the north of England during a bombing raid. It’s a story about a man in search of himself. It all started with a conversation about John Lennon – the cruel genius. We started thinking about how that tied into Peer Gynt, and it very much did in the sense that he was a man who was capable of extreme cruelty but also extreme genius and extreme questioning.
“It goes everywhere – from Liverpool to Dubai to a hippie commune to Las Vegas – and we tell the story through 70 years. It’s completely bonkers but also really sad and moving. Bob’s done an amazing job, the dialogue crackles along.”
Also integral to the season is the theatre’s youth programme, Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP). Their own show, The City And The Value of Things, acts as a season opener, and one place in the main rep company is always reserved for a YEP graduate. This year, Nadia Anim joins the Everyman’s chosen 14.
This integration of youth and experience is clearly important, with Bodinetz explaining, “Finding meaningful ways that YEP members can learn from the professionals is hard if actors are just here for an intense rehearsal and then they’re gone.” As Bagnall says, “YEP are involved throughout the whole season, plus all our assistant directors are from the YEP Directors programme, so once again they play a big part in it.”
If the rep company system pays dividends for the actors and creative teams, it also gives audiences a unique opportunity to follow familiar faces through a wide variety of roles.
“You can see an actor go from a Californian gold digger to playing Iago,” says Bagnall, “and just watching how that development and transformation happens is fascinating. But you also get a sense of the camaraderie, and you see how an ensemble can transform throughout the season.”
This transformation, it seems, is not confined to the actors themselves. According to Bagnall, the Everyman as a venue also enjoys their transformative touch.
“When they arrive they do claim the building, which is great,” he says. “They create their own special energy, and that’s not to say there aren’t loads of bloody problems with people living in each other’s pockets, but the brilliant things outweigh all that, and we all feel a massive buzz.”
Whether the Everyman’s 2018 rep season is remembered for its bloody problems or its massive buzz remains to be seen, but somewhere in the crack between the two, there’s the potential for magic to be found. After all, rep may be a new way of working for today’s generation, but it remains one of the oldest theatrical tricks in the book.
The Everyman’s new Company season begins with Paint Your Wagon on 3rd March.