dANTE or dIE’s site-specific promenade production La Fille à la Mode has made a roundabout trip. It was created at the Theatre Royal Haymarket back in 2010, and since then has travelled to the National Theatre, Rich Mix and a department store in Holland amongst other venues, before returning to the Haymarket for a limited run. Talking to the makers and performers of the shows, it’s compelling to hear how it’s developed in those two years, and is still developing now as the company goes from strength to strength.
“Sometimes the content changes as well, not just how you shape it, and I think that’s a really interesting thing to do with a piece – to keep it in development depending on where we are,” says original company member Rachel Drazek. It’s remarkable that although “the site came first,” says Masterclass Programme Director and dramaturg for the show Blayne George, La Fille à la Mode has transferred so well to different spaces. George believes this is because of “the universal quality of the story and comes out of he history of the women we looked at. It translates a story that’s been going for 300 years already. We’re just putting it into different spaces.”
Talking to George about how the piece came about feels like talking to a walking encyclopedia of theatrical history. “La Fille à la Mode was the very first play that was performed here in 1720. It was an illegal theatre so would have hosted vaudeville, cabaret, street performance… so then we looked at the famous actresses that had played on the stage [and] researched what happened to them through fame, as the woman of the moment, the ‘it girl’, the celebrity.” Watching the show, there’s this juxtaposition of period characters with extremely contemporary themes: “What we wanted was for people to realise how easily they consume women’s images,” co-director of dANTE or dIE Terry O’Donovan tells me. “Celebrity culture is crazy, and looking back over the years at how we see those same images recycled and recycled… women aspire to be that, but what is that and where can it take you after your looks are gone and after you’re not the ‘it girl’ anymore? It’s asking the audience to contemplate this.”
This was something they asked their performers to contemplate too, O’Donovan tells me, “We [the other co-director of dANTE or dIE is Daphna Attias] always devise with our performers. There’s a piece where the audience see the girls look at themselves and – the way they devised it – they had to pick three parts of their bodies that they liked and three parts they didn’t like. They had to do something with each of those parts connecting them to the mirror and then link them together in a sequence so it was about their own bodies.” dANTE or dIE’s style involves “mixing live music and a physical language, with narrative and playing with different spaces.” Promenade theatre is a difficult genre to get right, but this is George’s forte and reason he wanted to work with dANTE or dIE. He explains: “I think we’ve become complacent with late twentieth and early twenty-first century theatre practice because of things like TV, internet, video games, [but] by creating something promenade and site specific, the audience have to interact with the space differently, they have to take a step forward.”
The labyrinth-like path through the Haymarket is the perfect space for reflecting the ideas behind La Fille à la Mode as O’Donovan describes “how women are portrayed in society is a very two dimensional image. So it starts with that idea of frivolity and flirtatiousness, but as you delve further into the building, it grows darker and you see more.” O’Donovan also notes that “every place we perform it, it’s different because it’s about different women. For example, at the V&A it was much more about women’s bodies in art, we started the show next to this beautiful sculpture of a woman – so it’s got different connotations to a theatre. The theatre is about the starlets.” Drazek and I discussed this idea of an actor’s façade. “There’s that moment with performers when you get in your costume again or put on your makeup again. There’s some of that in how I access the ideas of it.” Drazek found whilst researching “it girls” for the role that “there’s this dependence on male attention to give you power and that’s a weird relationship. I think with people like Edie [Sedgwick – an 'it girl' of the sixties], the attention grows and grows and they live this high life, and if that’s taken away there’s nothing left underneath them.”
When the idea for La Fille à la Mode was conceived, Masterclass was looking to give new artists opportunities within the building for Masterclass Festival 10. “The aims of dANTE or dIE perfectly fit with the aims of Masterclass, with them as an emerging company and us as a company that supports emerging artists,” explains George. Looking back on their intentions in 2010 and where dANTE or dIE is now, George is confident that they achieved what they set out to. “The show itself is successful, but it’s also about the by-product I think, about everything that’s come out of it. One can only hope that by giving them the platform to create a piece of work that had legs, they were able to go on and keep developing it. I think because they had the backing, it helped open doors to the National and then they were able to apply to the Arts Council and continue. I think that’s great for a young company to push through and get that type of profile.”
George explains how La Fille à la Mode has been about so much more than the show, and how charities like the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust can support young companies. It is a piece of theatre with big ambitions, but talking to the people involved, I quickly become aware of the teamwork that has gone into realising this. La Fille à la Mode looks like a production that still has a long life ahead of it, and dANTE or dIE even more so.
La Fille à la Mode plays at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 19 November.
Image credit: Ludovic des Cognets