Gavin Harrington-Odedra is associate director with Lazarus Theatre Company. He is currently working to bring The Tragedy of Mariam to stage at the Tristan Bates Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe.
Lazarus Theatre Company has become well-known for its original and creative approach to the classics.
We found out what inspires Gavin to revisit the classics in new ways, how he’s giving a 400 year-old play its London debut and what audiences can expect from the show.
You’ve directed for Lazarus Theatre Company in the past. How did you get involved?
I started working with Lazarus as the assistant director on Hecuba in 2010. Since then I have been involved in all of Lazarus’ productions in one way or another, from Assistant to Associate Director and Director.
Tell us a bit about the work you’ve done for them before now.
The first production I directed for Lazarus was Electra; Her Life at the Space in 2011. It was part of Lazarus’ ‘Greek’ Rep. We looked at the effects of trauma on a woman’s psyche. It was an all-female production. I also directed As You Like It at The Space in 2012. This was in rep with King Lear, directed by Ricky Dukes. We had the same cast for both productions which added new challenges for us. The first time I directed a stand alone production, not in rep was Iphigenia in Aulis in 2012, Lazarus’ debut at the Jack Studio in Brockley.
What do you enjoy about revisiting the classics?
I love being able to surprise audiences with our productions. Lazarus likes to say ‘We don’t do classics like others do classics.’ And that is exactly why I work with them. There are two kinds of audiences who come and see a classic. Those who know the play, and have seen it before, and those who haven’t. It is exhilarating to surprise both groups. To take a classic and look at it in a different way, like I did with Electra and As You Like It; or to take a play that very few people know, like Iphigenia in Aulis or the Tragedy of Mariam, and to be able to bring it to audiences are what I love about revisiting classics. It’s why classics should be done: to find a new relevance; to ask questions about society now using ancient situations. It’s great to see just how little we have changed, to acknowledge that and to say, ok, these issues are still present, lets change it for the better.
Who are your inspirations?
The work of Headlong, Punchdrunk, Complicite, and Frantic Assembly are always inspiring. It is always a masterclass in theatre when I see one of their productions. I am also very excited about Maryanne Elliott’s productions, and am very much looking forward to her musical on at the National Theatre in the Autumn.
You’re directing The Tragedy of Mariam for the autumn season. Why choose that play?
Firstly, This is the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the Tragedy of Mariam. It is the first play to be written by a woman and published under her own name, and it has never had a professional production in London. It is a play that is surprisingly modern, and has themes just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. The big thing that the Tragedy of Mariam tries to dissect is the role of women and the power that women have. There are some very forward-thinking women in the play who ask questions about why men have all the power, and why that same power is refused women. These questions are still being asked today. The exciting thing about the Tragedy of Mariam being a ‘closet drama’ is that Elizabeth Cary gets to blatantly ask these questions, where her male counterparts who were writing for the public stage couldn’t get away with asking such overtly political questions due to the censor.
How would you describe Elizabeth Cary’s writing, and how does it compare to the more familiar (male) Jacobean/Elizabethan playwrights?
Cary’s writing is very modern. The references and metaphors she uses are a lot more accessible to someone who hasn’t heard or read them before, but there is still a lot of complexity and emotion in the words and subtext. The characters speak in very personal terms and there is no sense of there being a filter or words being processed before they make it to the page. The text is just as powerful, beautiful and passionate though.
What challenges were involved in bringing a ‘closet drama’ to life on the stage?
There is a general perception that ‘closet dramas’ were never written to be performed, but I think that they wouldn’t have lasted as texts if there wasn’t some merit in the play, either to read or to perform. Closet dramas were less likely to be edited by censors because they weren’t performance texts during more puritanical times, so the language used is much more direct, and dangerous. Political and social criticism isn’t hidden behind metaphor or allegory. This can make them much more accessible and the questions that the play asks cut much closer to the bone. This for me is the exciting opportunity of bringing a closet drama to life on the stage: especially one that asks the questions that the Tragedy of Mariam does.
What can audiences expect from your adaptation?
Our adaptation will bring together the talents of a group of actors who are very passionate about the work, and have already shown just how deep they are willing to delve to answer some of the questions asked by the Tragedy of Mariam. The adaptation focuses in on the lives of the women closest to a tyrant, and how his absence frees them all of the normal social conventions. They can marry who they like, take power from their husbands and rule a nation, all to the benefit of the society as a whole.
Like all Lazarus productions, music and movement play a big part in the final production, but we hope to experiment more and take influence from opera and pop culture, and merge them to create a modern retelling of this classic story.
What’s the rehearsal process like?
Rehearsals start this week, but they are going to be very hands on and collaborative. All of the cast will be involved in devising the movement, music, and other storytelling techniques. The cast was great at the investigative workshop we held last week. Discussions went very deep very quickly, and this is really going to help inform the work throughout the next three weeks.
It’s part of the Camden fringe. Does that affect any artistic decisions?
I think that being part of the Camden Fringe could potentially make us more adventurous and not afraid to be bold with our storytelling. It is a strong play that has some very strong characters, so I think this will help to drive us to do them justice.
Mariam is being staged at the Tristan Bates Theatre near Covent Garden. We’ve always thought it a great space – what do you make of it?
I agree, it is a great space, and has great potential for the work that Lazarus does. Lazarus thrives in black box theatres with a creative management who support the work. We have been very lucky with the theatres we have worked with over the years, and the Tristan Bates is no exception. It is very exciting to be going there with this incredible piece of theatre.
The Tragedy of Mariam plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 12th-17th August. You can book tickets to see the show now through the Tristan Bates Theatre website.