Rod’s Blog March 7th 2019: What’s the value of applause?
Nearly every performance of Mother Courage was given a standing ovation last October and I wasn’t expecting to see that very often, but audiences are on their feet after every performance of Glory – our latest show. I would be disingenuous if I were to say this isn’t important: we make theatre for audiences to enjoy in many ways, and a full house is rewarding and so is warm applause, but a standing ovation is special and in this new show our actors really deserve it.
We started rehearsing Glory at the end of January and Q Division (set builders in Leeds) delivered our wrestling ring for day one. The four actors knew that right from the start they would be training as wrestlers as well as rehearsing as actors and we were incredibly lucky to have Kev McCurdy as our Fight Director. Kev’s CV is ridiculous (!) he has choreographed fight sequences for some of the most famous films and TV series as well as being a regular fight director at The Globe and the RSC. As soon as he got the email asking for his availability to work with us he replied straight away saying he would definitely want to do this job because wrestling is a passion of his – indeed, if he hadn’t become an actor, he would have trained as a wrestler and gone to America to fight in the ring!
I’ll be honest, I had low expectations of the actors. They’re actors not fighters – and although they have all done some stage combat and they have certificates to prove it, let’s be honest, when was the last time you were genuinely convinced by the authenticity of a fight onstage? This is not to denigrate the fight directors who are out there – and they’re all very good at their jobs, but it is much harder to suspend disbelief when watching a fight onstage, because it is exactly that, a fight on a stage!
Glory had to be different – our stage is a ring, a real wrestling ring, albeit one designed by the brilliant Eleanor Bull, to look like it has known better times. But our ambition was always to attract wrestling audiences to this show and they would quickly be disappointed if the fight moves were cautious and safe. Within two hours of his first fight session, Kev had the actors seriously throwing each-other and slamming each-other onto the canvass. It was breathtaking – IS breathtaking, as audiences wince and watch some of the fights through their hands.
But the wrestling sequences aren’t the only reason that this play is loved by audiences. Nick Ahad has written a very funny state of the nation comedy. The very best comedies have a dark and satirical underbelly. Think of the First World War scenes in Blackadder, the excruciating lack of self awareness of David Brent in The Office. The lead character of Glory, Jim Glory, is a has-been, a once great now tired old wrestler with tired old wrestler attitudes – essentially ignorant and racist.
As a director one never really knows how audiences will react to the work. Nick and I were nervous on the opening nights that what we found really funny in the rehearsal room might really offend a largely white and middle class audience at The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster. And there are sharp intakes of breath when Jim Glory makes racist comments – what makes it worse is he tries to justify these attitudes and accuses the audience of being dishonest if they claim never to judge others. But, at the same time, Jim’s comments are so extreme they are funny – offensive out of context of course – but within this world, funny. The comedy lies in truth – and in a country wrestling with itself over the decision to leave the EU, Jim’s sometimes simplistic views couched in quasi academic quotations strike a chord and remind us what a fractured society we live in.
This is why I am excited about Glory. Yes it’s lovely to get a standing ovation, whoops and whistles. Yes it is very satisfying to see a cast of four actors committing so much that they work extremely hard every night and do a rigorous fight call before every show. But the real excitement is taking the show to venues which are not theatres, places like Belle Isle Working Men’s Club, Grove Hall near Pontefract, The Jump Club in Barnsley. These are audiences who have loved our previous touring work such as The Damned United, Playing the Joker and Wrong ‘Un and I am sure they will want to see a show set in a wrestling ring – what they won’t expect is the social commentary that the play brings as well as the laughter it generates.
This is why Red Ladder is so successful as a theatre company. Our work brings people from different communities together and it raises important questions in quite a risky and even inflammatory way. The three fighters who come to Jim’s gym are all fighting their own private wars: Dan is British Chinese and fights with cheap racist jokes aimed at his Dad in the takeaway; Ben is a black British ex-squaddie who has witnessed atrocities in Iraq and now suffers PTSD, and the newest fighter , Sami, is a young man who has fled Syria and is seeking safety here in the UK and daily faces the abuse that asylum seekers endure – especially since the Brexit referendum.
The play invites us into their private hells and asks many questions about how we can continue to thrive as a nation when we are so divided. As always, our aim is to provoke conversations after the play – to ask people to think about the world of the play and how it compares to their own lives. This isn’t just theatre – it is a launch-pad for social change.
Here’s a list of the performances and where you can see Glory in a venue near you!
We always need support – if you have seen Glory and you stood up to applaud because the play moved you so much – then maybe you will want to become one of our valued supporters. You can become a Ladderista for as little as £5 a month or a one off donation!
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.
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