The family that prays together, stays together, goes one adage. You could also say that the family that plays together, stays together, too. There’s always a lot of idealistic talk about the idea of creating theatrical ensembles, as witness the RSC attempts to put together companies that work together for two years. But what about twenty? Forty?
Last week I visited Cornwall to see the return to its roots of Footsbarn, a company founded there some 42 years ago, performing their latest show, Indian Tempest. Footsbarn may no longer be based in that far-flung county — like Peter Brook, they long ago decanted to France, but like Brook, too, the entire world is their stage now, as they have travelled to and gathered partners and associates from India to Australia.
And though some members may come and go, the company core values — to live, work and travel together — has remained the same. They’ve re-asserted the old, bold idea of travelling players in every way. And it all happened initially because they were based in a county where there was previously no full-time professional home for theatre, so they simply became itinerant with a travelling tent theatre that gave a professional theatre to any community wherever they pitched it.
It’s a model, of course, since adopted by another Cornish-founded company Kneehigh, whose tentacles have also spread far beyond Cornwall from the West End to Broadway, the National Theatre to Sadler’s Wells. On Friday, I did a little walking tour of Truro with Rob Nolan, who was the city’s mayor last year, and he pointed out Kneehigh’s offices in a secluded pedestrianised terrace in the middle of town.
But Cornish theatre has also changed forever, too, by the foundation, some 15 years ago, of a permanent theatre in Truro, Hall for Cornwall in an old 1840 building behind the City Hall, that with some 960 seats in a high, wide hall that has the audience all of one continuous but well-raked level, can accommodate everything from touring productions of Chicago and Calendar Girls (as it has already done earlier this summer), with Stomp, Some Like It Hip Hop, Radio Times, Yes Prime Minister and 9 to 5 to come, to appearances by Rambert, Moscow City Ballet and visits by the aforementioned Footsbarn and Kneehigh (who are bringing their Sadler’s Wells and Stratford East show Wah! Wah! Girls here next month).
Hall for Cornwall’s director Julien Boast, who previously managed the Theatre Royal, Brighton, is really putting the theatre on the map both within the county but also nationally by bringing the likes of Footsbarn back. Not that there was much press take-up for the offer to visit last week: only Peter Roberts from Plays International and myself made the journey.
Nor was I too surprised — not just because of the distance, but because, as I’ve written here before, I know just how busy this autumn is proving to be on the theatre beat, with multiple openings on the same night last week that on Tuesday saw the Almeida’s King Lear go head-to-head with Bristol Old Vic’s re-opening, on Wednesday had the Old Vic’s Hedda Gabler up against The Judas Kiss at Hampstead and the return of Taboo to London at the Brixton Club House and on Thursday had the Young Vic’s new Three Sisters clashing with Hindle Wakes at the Finborough.
I want to see them all myself, and will be playing catch-up even more than usual. Last night, for instance, I was at Taboo, tonight I’m at King Lear and on Thursday I’m at The Judas Kiss, with Three Sisters to follow next week on the Wednesday matinee.
Still, I’m glad I made the trip out west myself, even if it takes nearly as long to get to Cornwall as it does to Edinburgh. First Great Western trains don’t help the journey exactly speed by by not having WiFi on board (thank God for my iPhone to check e-mail — when you can get a signal, that is!), but certainly the journey between Exeter and Plymouth that cuts along the ocean’s edge doesn’t need it as you enjoy some of the best views from a train in the country.
And for those that didn’t make the journey, Footsbarn have, at least, got a foothold in London thanks to regular visits to Shakespeare’s Globe, where their initiatives have included being the first company to play it in December! The Globe’s Dominic Dromgoole is quoted in the publicity saying, “They are genuinely bananas - that’s why I love them so much. They are will and imaginative. It’s liberating, particularly for British audiences, to see Shakespeare done this way. They bugger about with it.”
Indian Tempest, which will go to the Globe next June, exemplifies that non-traditional, irreverent but far from irrelevant approach. It is spoken in four verbal languages - the performance I saw was additionally presented with sign-language — and executed with a great deal of physical language, too. There’s always something going on. The style may be broad, but it is interactive and open-hearted, muscular and musical.