In their third and final year at the University of York, the students on its Writing, Directing and Performance course put on a series of shows that they’re assessed on. These include two modern plays, which took the form of Nothing Compares to You by Bryony Lavery and Playhouse Creatures by April De Angelis last year. A few months later, the third years are back after being given the task of putting on plays from a much earlier period. This time, the department has given them two plays by French playwright Pierre de Marivaux: La Dispute and Le Acteurs. These plays are only short, lasting at about half an hour each, so the year group has split into two to work on both plays and perform them as a double bill.
I was very excited to get the chance pop into the department’s Scenic Stage Theatre to chat to the cast and creative team behind Le Acteurs and sit in on a rehearsal of La Dispute to see how the third years were tackling the project. Le Acteurs follows the antics of a noblewoman’s servant putting on an improvisational comedy with other actors that quickly blurs the lines between reality and illusion. La Dispute focuses on a Prince and his lover asking who, out of two girls and two boys, is the most likely to cheat on the other, and brings together four orphans and their guardians and releases them into a world they’ve created to watch and judge them.
“Marivaux was quite a radical playwright; his plays were traditional, but they had some strong feminist undertones to them,” says director James Dixon in response to being asked why the department chose these plays for the group. “At the time he was writing, in the late eighteenth century, feminism was pretty unheard of. Audiences weren’t used to stuff like his plays – they were used to the big, show-stopping spectacles of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that continued to play throughout Marivaux’s time of writing. This is what makes them pretty interesting to explore and put on.” The two plays came towards the end of the prolific playwright’s career, where he began to shift towards asking his audiences questions about the world they lived in. Le Acteurs is quite sparse in terms of stage directions, giving those involved in the creative process loads of flexibility. “We can really play with it; we can set it where we want, cast it how we want and design it how we want. If we were given something like a Moliere play, this would have been impossible, so it’s really nice to have that control.” says Holly Morgan, an actor in the play and director of last term’s Nothing Compares to You.
Moving on from their conceptual ideas for the play, I asked what the team’s rehearsal processes were, and what they first did when they got the text. “The first thing we did was read the text individually, and picked out some key moments, ideas and turning points. We started workshopping and exploring the main ideas and themes in the text, and started attaching actions to lines like Max Stafford-Clark, allowing us to play with the characters and their objectives. Doing this at the start of the rehearsal process prompts big questions for you to bear in mind throughout the rest of the project.”
Wrapping up the conversation, I asked what the company thought the biggest challenge they had faced throughout the project was. “Well, from a producing perspective, it’s hard to market a play from just after Shakespeare’s time. Marivaux isn’t that well known, even though he wrote a lot.” says Fiona Kingwill, one of the show’s producers and actors. “Marivaux is the most succinct, snappy of all playwrights, and his characters are well defined; you’ve really got to make sure you’re executing them with clarity” adds James.
Then, while the cast of La Dispute warmed up, I had a chat with Hannah McCready, one of the production’s dramaturgs, about how they managed to get to this stage. “At the start of the process, we went and read the original French text, along with a translation the department gave us. We then wrote a literal translation of it to try and get our heads round it; there were loads of French idioms and pronouns, which made it a bit challenging. We had a chat with a guy called David Johnston, who translates for the RSC, and he chatted to us about how to make it relevant, clear and cohesive, and this helped us massively.”
Le Acteurs and La Dispute both look promising shows. The creative teams behind them have done brilliant jobs, and it’s been fascinating to get a glimpse into how everything comes together to form what will hopefully be some excellent theatre.
Double Take is at the Department of Theatre, Film and Television from 5 – 7 March. For tickets, visit http://www.york.ac.uk/tftv/