Make space for political theatre
Zoe Corbyn reports on The New Factory of the Eccentric Actor and its extraordinary large-scale free theatre events.
“Maggots in the soup!” The puppeteers’ chants grow louder and louder as a camera made of cardboard zooms in on angry toy sailors throwing their tyrant captain overboard.
A director screeches instructions in Russian through a giant megaphone.
The scene is a reconstruction of Battleship Potemkin, the famous silent film by Sergei Eisenstein which tells the story of the 1905 uprising onboard the Potemkin and its spill onto the streets and steps of Odessa.
Puppetship Potemkin is being bought to life by the New Factory of the Eccentric Actor.
It’s a scene from their fifth production, entitled 1905, staged last weekend at the Mary Ward Hall in Bloomsbury in central London.
The play commemorates 100 years since the 1905 Russian revolution and tells the story of the fictional Petrov family, caught in a year of unrest in Russian history that is often seen as the dress rehearsal for the 1917 victory of the Bolsheviks over tsarist Russia.
But 1905 is not just any play. Indeed, the New Factory’s political theatre has a rather special ethos.
“The production should be an event, an extraordinary event,” explains the company’s playwright and founder member Penelope Dimond. “We want people to come out saying: ‘That was amazing – I’ve not been to anything like that before’.” And that it is. Staging large-scale shows in big spaces is a New Factory hallmark and 1905 boasts a cast of over 60 professional actors, musicians and performers. They intermingle with the audience to draw everyone into the show.
To see grand-scale experimental theatre is unusual these days. That it portrays an important piece of political history in such an interactive, entertaining and thought-provoking way is a rare and wonderful treat. But working with such large numbers of people is no mean feat. “The first time everyone is actually together is on the first night,” explains co-director Gary Merry. “I really relish it, it gives the scenes a real kick,” enthuses actor Sue Maund. Also extraordinary is that New Factory shows are free and the actors give their time for nothing, which means a short intensive rehearsal period of under a fortnight.
But, as well as drawing people in, this is to make a political statement. “Theatre has become very very expensive,” says Dimond. “Even small fringe theatres are charging a lot and the whole point is that theatre should be available for everyone. This is really theatre for the masses.” For Merry, the bottom line is that The New Factory will do a show with the money that they have got and the goodwill of the performers. In the case of this production, the company received a grant. Most of it has gone on venue hire – the kind of spaces that they need are expensive – but they also performed the same production earlier in the year in a space that they were lent for free.
The core of the New Factory is a team of five. In addition to Dimond and Merry, there’s writer – director Josh Darcy, designer Jonathan Swain, and musical director Martina Schwarz.
Schwarz’s original music scores dance to accordions, oboes, trombones, and more – whatever instruments are available. The design also adds to the extraordinary air. Swain is on stage throughout holding up signs or creating art works as the event unfolds.
Dimond, Darcy and Merry act in the shows too. The play sees Dimond make her entrance as the only woman in Lenin’s government Alexander Kollontai, Darcy as Father Gapon, grasping to come to terms with the uprising that he has started, and Merry as the writer Maxim Gorky.
The company’s name pays homage to the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, shortened to FEKS, a group staging large-scale extraordinary events in St Petersburg in the early 1920s.
The New Factory was born in 1995 after Dimond read Jonathan Treitel’s The Red Cabbage Cafe and knew that she had to adapt the novel for the stage. Its premiere, where the audience were given bowls of soup in the cafe, set the pattern for future shows. The New Factory now produces steaming bowls of vegetable soup to welcome their audiences. “It’s quite an undertaking, really, because you might have to feed 300 people, so there’s an awful lot of chopping up of vegetables for hours and hours,” says Dimond, unperturbed. “We try to have food that’s appropriate to the productions.
Occasionally, you might be lucky enough to get a tot of vodka – but we can’t promise that.”
The second show was New Babylon 1871. Staged in 2001, it was the first political history for the company. Inspired by a FEKS film, it charts the rise and fall of the Paris Commune. It solidified the tradition of singing the Internationale at the end of the shows. For New Babylon, it was a French rendition. For 1905, Russian rings out. Then came two smaller productions, though 20 performers still somehow seems quite large.
Lenin in London portrayed Lenin’s home life in London between 1902 and 1903 as he was producing the underground revolutionary newspaper Iskra, riding his bicycle to Primrose Hill and eating ham sandwiches.
The company have also charted the eating habits of historical political figures. Backunin’s Breakfast, Engels’s Elevenses, Lenin’s Lunch, Trotsky’s Tea and Stalin’s Supper.
And the future? Well, we won’t have to wait too long for the next production. The company are looking to do a show next year about the 1926 General Strike, with the Internationale sung in English. Beyond that, who knows, but I’m guessing that 2017 might be a year to mark in your diary.
Zoe Corbyn – November 2005 – The Morning Star