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Director interviews: Susanna Best & Philip Bowen

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Nov 26, 2020 at 08:07 PM in Project News

Continuing our series of interviews with our collaborating directors, we turn to Susanna Best and Philip Bowen of the Willow Globe theatre, located in the Welsh countryside. Read on to find out how the Shakespeare Link UK company of this living, tree-grown theatre are adapting their theatre practice to the ongoing pandemic, along with some hints about their upcoming Cymbeline production!

Director interviews: Susanna Best & Philip Bowen

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Please describe what is unique about your theatre company and its approach to Shakespeare in performance. 

Willow Globe: Well what’s really unique about the Willow Globe Company is its home, the Willow Globe. This living outdoor performance space, woven of growing willow, powered by Green energy and open to the sky flourishes on our organic small-holding in rural mid-Wales. Phil and I had formed our theatre Company, Shakespeare Link, back in 1992 when we were based in London and working for the English Shakespeare Company; we felt then, and still do, that Shakespeare is a brilliant medium for communication and debate; we set up community workshops – in schools and colleges, village halls, offices, prisons – and travelled performing and teaching for the British Council. When we re-located to Wales to live with Mum – who needed a hand – we found ourselves with space to dream. We thought of a theatre.

Planted by volunteers in 2006, on the scaled-down footprint of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Willow Globe itself is tiny - audience capacity around 120 with the land and sky its frame. Living in this rurally isolated area it’s usually big enough, though when we opened it on Shakespeare’s Birthday April 23rd 2006 around 300 neighbours pressed into every corner. At that heart-warming moment the seeds of the Willow Globe Shakespeare Company were sown. Anyone can join who wants to and can commit to rigorous rehearsal and line-learning. Local community actors and musicians rehearse, work and perform voluntarily, fitting it in with their day jobs. Actors come an d go depending on availability and the Company is usually around 35 strong, 20/25 actors depending on the play, around 5/7 technical supporters, 5/7 in the theatre Band. We commission music for each production and are usually lucky to find brilliant local composers and players.

So we’re based in Wales and Shakespeare celebrates a strong Welsh element in his plays: Glendower, Fluellen, the Welsh fairies in MWW, Henry V cries ‘For I am Welsh you know, good countrymen!’ after the Battle of Agincourt. But his plays are written in English, in wonderfully rich and iconic language, and this area of Wales is predominantly English speaking. We plan do plan English/Welsh Shakespeare translation workshops, and our annual programme includes visiting Shows, workshops, residencies, education and community events which may well include other languages. During 2019 we worked in Latvia and hosted a Gamelan and Puppet Company from Indonesia; we are in the planning stages of hosting a group of young Russian drama students who will perform ‘The Tempest’ in Russian. We’ve collaborated with deaf actors to create and film 3 Shakespeare plays in BSL.

Our productions aim to be clear, accessible, truthful and relevant. We work with Design and Sound teams to ensure that the over-arching visual and aural feel enhances and underpins the mood and the messages of the play. We usually work with an eclectic palette, crossing period and style, looking to find resonances which our audiences will identify with, and recognise. We cut the text ruthlessly to clarify, to fit the cast & the moment, and try to keep within a tight time frame for the sake of possibly chilly outdoor audiences – proving quite hard with Cymbeline as the more we rehearse the less we want to cut! 

CA: How is your company adapting to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic? Has the pandemic changed how you will perform for future audiences, and who that audience may be?

WG: Covid-19 has completely upended our usual rehearsal schedule! We have worked on Zoom, which has proved brilliant – discussing issues in the play, clarifying character and story, getting familiar with the journey. But Zoom can’t replace the connectivity of physical rehearsal. Normally we work through March and April to perform in May and then take the show touring through Wales; now winter 2020 has set in we’ve lost the weather and due to lock-down restrictions we have managed very little real physical rehearsal, the cast are learning lines but have not been able to develop their muscle-memory. And there is no certainty ahead – we will perform next summer in some way – thinking radio, thinking zoom performance, thinking socially distanced live show here at Willow Globe. We will film what we can. Watch this space…

CA: Have you adopted an ecodramaturgical approach to previous theatre work and/or other Shakespeare plays before Cymbeline?

WG: When we start work on any play we seek to find its own voice and reflect every resonance that it has to offer to us NOW. What can the play tell us about our contemporary lives? We celebrate the universal and timeless voice Shakespeare sheds on NOW. We are amazed by the contemporary attitudes he unpacks, the healing clarity of his perceptions, his astonishing relevance. Playing outdoor venues both at Willow Globe and out on tour, our environment becomes a major player in the Show and the cast find themselves reacting to weather, sound and space in a way not possible indoors. As we work towards performance we have to consider that the theatre is a living organism and will significantly affect the staging according to the time of year…

CA: What are public attitudes towards climate change and environmentalism in your country and/or community? How will these affect your theatrical presentation?

WG: Climate change faces us along with all the devasting environmental issues revealed by an increasing awareness of the ‘wood wide web’. All things connect. Hard to be alive now and be unaware. Our local community is pretty mixed – rurally isolated economically disadvantaged / strong family farming traditions – wool and dairy in rolling hills / a strong artistic presence – painters, textiles, music / a growing incoming population who look to escape, often to retire from the pressures of urban life. The contrasts in Cymbeline between a sophisticated, volatile and increasingly toxic Court and the pastoral wilds of Wales will resonate strongly here. There have been suggestions that we should contact the Milford Haven Tourist Board and give them some juicy quotes! Our poster may carry Belarius’s observation ‘How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature’.

In fractured times we bear in mind the overwhelmingly harmonious tone with which Shakespeare, writing just after a prolonged outburst of plague, closes the play. Writing this in the week after the election in USA, thank you ‘Cymbeline’ for reinforcing hope that all will be well.