“We’re storytellers, and with the physical theatre aspect of it, it has to serve the story, it has to help people understand.”
Flabbergast Theatre’s production of The Tragedy of Macbeth, playing at the Southwark Playhouse, is a mix of the original text with a musical soundscape, thanks to collaborations with Wilton’s Music Hall London and Grotowski Institute Poland. The show uses a mix of puppetry, clown, mask, and physical theatre to tell Shakespeare’s tell in an unsettling and unique fashion.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Henry Maynard, the Artistic Director of Flabbergast Theatre. We discussed how he fell in love with physical theatre, Flabbergast’s journey, and looking at The Tragedy of Macbeth from a perspective of feminine power.
So how did you first get involved in the world of theatre?
Going way back, I was at primary school and I had a teacher who was really interested in theatre and took us to lots of West End musicals. We went and saw Starlight Express, Cats, and Joseph and the [Amazing] Technicolor Dreamcoat. Looking back, I’m astounded that he managed to get us to see so many! I grew up in Huntington, which is just north of Cambridge. So we would do trips down, and then he would do these little school plays. Obviously, there was a nativity, but we also did a music hall. I think that really inspired a love for performing. And then I went on and did GCSE drama, did really quite well in it, and then took A-Level theatre studies. It was at that point that I decided that I wanted to go to drama school. So I applied for lots of drama schools – Didn’t get into any of them. [Laughs] Or at least I got into some, but I didn’t get the funding, so I knew that I wouldn’t be able to afford to go. Eventually, I got a Dance and Drama Award and I managed to go to Mountview Academy. Three years into training at Mountview, I discovered that I had a love for physical theatre, which wasn’t something that I had known about prior to that – I didn’t know a lot about it! We didn’t have anyone in the family doing it, or any guidance, really. So I didn’t know anything about Lecoq or even what drama schools were. I obviously knew that RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] was the good one because that had “Royal” in the title.
Yeah, so I was a bit blind. So I did three years of basic British theatre training with a little bit of physicality thrown in – Very little in the way of European theatre arts. And it was through that that I discovered that I really love the physical side as well as the acting. When I graduated, I was like, “Oh, I’ll give myself five years, and if I don’t make a success of myself in five years, then I’ll go to Lecoq and I’ll do that kind of route. And as it was, I fell into work with a number of different companies, one of which was Blind Summit, and I started doing a lot of puppetry. And that led to War Horse and various other jobs with the Royal Opera House. So things started to move. And so then I just set about trying to find the different theatre arts that really excited me like mask, clown, puppetry, Bouffon . . . all of those kinds of things. And more recently, Butoh and stuff through workshops and the company experimenting with our own process.
What is it that drew you to physical theatre the most?
I was good at it! [Laughs]
And it sounds facetious, but I think everyone likes being good at stuff. It works for me, kinetically. I’m quite a kinetic person – The way I learn is a bit more physical. I’m certainly not neurotypical and I didn’t know if that has any bearing on it, but I found I could express myself in that way, and people were like, “Wow, that’s really good!” Great, well I’ll do this, then! [Laughs] That’s what I mean in terms of never knowing that was something that I was good at or passionate about until I went to drama school and had minimal kind of contact with physicality and all that stuff. It excites me! A lot of English theatre . . . I mean, it’s changed, but certainly, in the 80s, it was so neck up – Stand in the middle, perform your soliloquy in the sweet spot, and don’t move. And don’t get me wrong – I think there’s always physicality, and theatre is also about stillness. It’s about knowing when to be still and not just moving for movement’s sake. So it’s about dynamics. But it was just so stale, really. All theatre should be physical, right? It is a physical act, like your physical body in a room. And if the decision is that I’m still, or I can’t move, or I’m lazy, or whatever, then that’s the physical choice. So I think there’s a bit of a misnomer about physical theatre. I remember at drama school, I was like, “Oh, fucking physical theatre is just an excuse to fucking fanny about!” [Laughs] Which, to an extent, it is, but also, when it’s done well, it can be really expressive. And that’s the point, right? It has to be done well, and it can’t just be physical for physical sake – It needs to be embodied because otherwise, it becomes more like dance. There’s nothing wrong with dance, but it’s not my passion. It bores me a little bit because I find it to be too abstract. A lot of the time, it’s a bit too aesthetic for me, but I have seen some amazing dance pieces!
What drew Flabbergast to work on The Tragedy of Macbeth?
It was a few different things, some of which was quite cynical, and some of which was generally passionate. We started out doing a show called Boris and Sergey with these two little Bunraku puppets. And we did six different shows with them – We toured them all over the world! It was loads of fun, and we had a great time. We got a great reputation for it. We had some great opportunities, like we did a music video with Plan B, and we played at The Globe and his album launch. And we went to the Seychelles and performed in front of a Saudi Sheikh. So there was some really fun things but it’s very, very difficult to sustain the company because there was six people in the group and we could only really play small-scale theaters. It’s not that it wouldn’t have worked, it’s just that people weren’t booking it for anything other than their studio space. So that financially wasn’t great. And then I did a solo clown show, which was a lot of fun. I’d done Macbeth three times – Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. I played Malcolm, I played Duncan and Macduff, I played Macduff on his own, but I’ve never played Macbeth. Because I’ve been in it so many times, there’s just so many ideas, and I also wanted to play Macbeth, wanted to give a crack at it. And also I wanted to do something that would be a mid-scale production that would help the company become more financially stable, that would hopefully help us to get to a point where we could start funding the creation of new work without having to go to the Arts Council cap in hand, which we still have to do. [Laughs] The problem with Macbeth is there’s loads of versions, and everyone’s doing it all the time. So you’re competing with a lot of people, but it does sell – It’s a really good production. So there’s this business side of it, that was like, we can make more money out of it. But also, passionately, I’d been thinking about it for years, and it was like, “Well, how can we do something with Macbeth that other people aren’t doing with Macbeth?” I think the fucking worst versions of Shakespeare are when somebody sets it in an era, like, why? To me, that’s a bit shoehorny. We want to do something that was driven by the story, rather than putting something onto it and then going, “Okay, that’s our concept. This is this, all it does, the design is going to be like that.” And so rather than that, we wanted to hopefully let it grow through us. But also through the story of trying to create a world in the constructs of what Macbeth’s about without it being too stuck in frills because again, that’s almost wrong as well because the play’s set in the 1000s at the end of the Viking epoch. So why are you playing it in frills? That’s a different era.
What does your role as Artistic Director entail when working on shows like The Tragedy of Macbeth?
Well, we’ve recently got a new producer for the last year, which has been fantastic. Lucy Godfrey, she’s been doing a great job. But up until then, I’ve just been a one-man band. That’s not entirely true, because obviously, I have ensemble members and people helping me out with lots of things. And some people have been very generous with their time. But in general, the driving force has to come from me, right? Like, I’m in the van right now because I had to go yesterday to pick up the set and bring it down to London. So I’m kind of the producer and the artistic director, but I’m also doing the show. Design the poster, do the brochure, do basically everything that it takes. And again, that’s not to say I don’t get any help at all. Because obviously, my producer helps an awful lot and some of the ensemble members are engaged in helping me out with that. It gives me overall artistic choice in the company and where we go, what we do, how we do it, what shows to put on, but it does also mean that because of the size of the company because we are only really emerging . . . 2010, I think was when we set up the very beginning. So 13 years, but it’s a very slow process. And it’s a very tough industry with lots of gatekeeping and a lot of competition because there’s a lot of people out there who are also brilliant, especially in London. The problem with London is it provides huge opportunity, but it’s also incredibly competitive. Both in terms of like, you’ve got massive West End productions and all this kind of stuff, but also the amount of theatre that happens in London every single day. It’s mind-boggling! They say that more people watch live theatre than watch live football. More tickets are sold to live theatre than live football. And you can believe it because of the amount of shows . . . Even just scouting the West End, you know? I’m in Harry Potter [and the Cursed Child] at the moment, and that’s 1,000-odd seats, then we do two shows a day, so that’s 2,000 a day. It’s mental!
So what was it like collaborating with Wilton’s Music Hall London and Grotowski Institute Poland for this production?
So we did a Work in Progress at Wilton’s Music Hall. So basically, we had a good relationship with Wilton’s we’re actually going back in there to do an R&D on Midsummer Night’s Dream! They had booked my solo clown show, they’d also booked Boris and Sergey, and we turned around and said, “Oh, we’ve got this idea which we’d like to have a bash at, see if this physical theatre approach works”. Working with devising rather than a director saying, “Okay, you go there, you go there, you say this line like that.” How can we devise Shakespeare? And they basically turn around and said, “Well, we’ve got these two Mondays, which we haven’t got anything booked in. So if you want them, you could do it. You could do a Work in Progress.” And so we spent just under 10 days rehearsing the entire show with 13 actors and just threw everything at it – Bouffon, clown, mask, Lecoqian techniques. And then we ended up doing it. We put no PR, marketing, or anything like that into it and we ended up selling like 250 tickets per night! And people were coming away going, “You put this together in 10 days and it’s better than 90% of the theatre I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to see what you would do if you make this into a full-fledged show.” Okay, well, that seemed to work. I think selling that well was in part to do with Wilton’s Music Hall, part to do with the fact that it was Macbeth, in part to the fact that Flabbergast people were interested to see what we were doing because we’ve never done a narrative piece before. So that was great. And they’ve [Wilton’s] always been very supportive. It’s a shame that we’ve never been able to find a slot long enough with them to do Macbeth, but they’ve booked in Midsummer Night’s Dream for next year, so that’s great. And we have a four-week run at Southwark Playhouse that’s just as brilliant and is more in line with what I wanted in terms of the length of the run. I wanted a bit of a longer run rather than just doing a week, and Wilton’s is very booked up with all things. And then the Grotowski Institute was really great. So basically, I formed a new ensemble of people that I had worked with on The Swell Mob, our immersive piece. And then we invited a few other people that we thought were good and we formed a new ensemble, beginning of 2020, just in time for the pandemic. [Laughs]
And the idea was that we were going to use Macbeth to develop the ensemble and to up our skills – Me teaching them, but also then bringing their skills to the table, and then engaging in development on things like Butoh. So after we did a lot of table work over Zoom, we were examining the play – We’d meet up for a couple of hours every week on Zoom and we’d do a scene or two and really go into the script. What does this mean? What are they talking about? We’ve got some people who are second-language speakers of English, so it’s also about helping them to understand. Even English speakers don’t know what it means! So it was going through with a fine-tooth comb and just making sure everybody really understood. And then one of our company, Briony [O’Callaghan], who plays Lady Macbeth, said that she was gonna go to the Grotowski Institute for a workshop with a guy called Matej Matejka, and she was like, “If anyone wants to come, we should all go”. It was just after one of the lockdowns when we were released into the world. We’d done one bubbled workshop together as a group where we went and did a residency – It was just us. We had a rehearsal space and a little living space. And it was after that, in the summer that she was like, “I’m gonna go to the Grotowski Institute. Does anyone want to come?” And in the end, I think four of us – Me, Dale [Wylde], Elisabeth [Gunawan], and Briony all went together and we did a 10-day workshop with Matej. And it was explosively brilliant. It was really physical. He’s done a lot of work with the Grotowski Institute in the past, but he has his own process as well. It was just the most incredibly magical, brilliant thing. And I got on really well with Matej. I think he was very impressed by the four of us as a group. So then we ended up inviting him over to the UK and we did a two-week residency, again bubbled, after the end of one of the lockdowns in January ‘21. So he helped us to take what we already had and also add his thing to it and craft a new thing. And then because of his contact with the Grotowski Institute, he managed to get us invited over to Poland to work in the forest [Brzezinka], which is just amazing. It’s a barn – It’s a bit ramshackle! I don’t think it was ever supposed to be lived in really. There’s a part of it that he was supposed to live in and the rest of it was supposed to have cows in it. [Laughs] And that’s where Grotowski was working before he died. And there’s been lots of residencies there. So it’s got a feeling of ghosts. And you’re away from everything – You’re in the middle of the forest and there’s nothing around. The closest town is a drive away, there’s no internet . . . You go for runs in the morning in the forest, we do a little bit of communion with nature, and then we go and roll around on the floor and explore this Macbeth. We did 10 days rehearsals in London, at Fourth Monkey, then we did 10 days in Grotowski Institute, and we basically came up with the first-ever full version of our version of Macbeth. The first time we did it, it was nearly three hours long. We did it for just a very small invited group in Poland. So then we did it in Ludlow at Stokesay Court, that was part of the Fringe Festival there.
What do you hope audiences take away from The Tragedy of Macbeth?
I really want them to understand the story. That’s always been our drive. We’re storytellers, and with the physical theatre aspect of it, it has to serve the story, it has to help people understand. I want it to be visceral, a really striking, impactful performance, and I want them to remember it. I want them to talk about it in the bar afterwards, but I want them to talk about it after that. The thing is, a lot of people who love theatre, we will have those performances that we saw once that got us hooked, and now we’re like just chasing that thing again, but the fix is never as good as that one you had the first time! [Laughs] So I want it to be like that. The audience reviews from Edinburgh, I’ve got people saying, “I was at The Globe, this knocks the socks off it! This was better than the National Theatre of Scotland‘s production.” You’ve got Scottish people saying, “This is the best production of Macbeth I’ve ever seen.” That’s what I really want. For people to really have an experience, to really understand the story, and to maybe see things in the story that they hadn’t ever seen before.
And finally, how would you describe The Tragedy of Macbeth in one word?
Thank you to Henry for the insightful interview and to Emily Leary for arranging it!
Flabbergast Theatre’s The Tragedy of Macbeth runs until 8 April at the Southwark Playhouse. The runtime is 120 minutes with no readmission and a no latecomers policy. Tickets can be purchased here.