Kneehigh Theatre is one of the biggest names in the industry; they’re famed for their unique mix of storytelling, music, physical theatre and captivating narratives, along with the way they actually craft their shows. Their latest show, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) is a reworking of John Gay’s classic satire The Beggar’s Opera, and is currently out on a fresh tour after exciting and entertaining audiences last year.
I chatted with actor Dominic Marsh (Doctors, Lucky Stiff) who’s been working with Kneehigh over the last couple of years. Marsh told me a bit about himself, all about his experiences of working with the company, and gave me an inside look at what goes into the making of one of Kneehigh’s epic pieces of theatre.
AB: Can you tell me a little bit about Dead Dog?
DM: It’s a crazy show! It’s high energy, it’s non-stop, it’s a sort of barrage, really. In places, it’s farcical, and it has a really tight, fast-moving script with some rapid edits, and it’s sort of slightly filmic in the way that it moves. It’s very high octane!
AB: Sounds awesome. I read that you created the role of Macheath in Dead Dog, so could you tell me a bit about how you went about doing that?
DM: Well, the process of devising this started when Charles Hazelwood brought his idea of doing an updated version of The Beggar’s Opera to Kneehigh, and they worked together. Carl Grose wrote the script, and then at that point, we did a few workshops and stuff. Then, when we started rehearsals, we had the cast and our three fabulous musicians, and basically, what happened was, there was a process of devising.
So, the way that Kneehigh work, and the way that Charles Hazelwood was very happy for the musicians to work, was kind of similar: just throw a load of ideas in and bring what you can to your role, and then you maybe take it a bit far in one direction and move it back another way.
That’s what Mike Shepherd, the director, was there to help us all hone and, from a musical point of view, explore all kinds of genres, different numbers – almost every song in this show is a different genre of music! And they were experimenting through that whole rehearsal process; Charles would have a few ideas about what kind of song he wanted, and then he gave a very free reign to the musicians to come up with what they wanted.
At one point, James taught himself how to play the musical saw, just because it seemed appropriate, and it’s now a lovely integral part of the show. They messed about with loads of ideas, and it’s the same thing with the acting. We improvised a lot of scenes and ideas, and we keep, even now, trying a few new things, but really, that was the sort of goal during the period of devising which created the show. Then, Mike’s job, along with Charles, with the team, was to sort of hone down those ideas and settle on a show that we’re happy with, and a show that provides the punch that we want to provide.
AB: What’s a typical day like in rehearsals, then?
Well, the other thing about it that was brilliant, was that, initially, we got to rehearse down at the Kneehigh Barns. Mike has a big thing about the inspiration of creativity; it’s quite tricky to have this when you’re in a darkened room with no natural light, or somewhere in a smelly basement in London. You know, wherever you might normally rehearse, it’s often very devoid of beauty and nice things – and this isn’t the case with the Barns. When you think about it, those former environments are hardly going to inspire creativity, so what’s great is that there’s this beautiful landscape down in Gorran Haven.
Our warm-up every morning would be going for a jog along the clifftop by the sea, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the sun, since the weather changes a lot down there. Then, we’d get back to the barns and we’d all chip in and take it in turns to put logs on the fire and keep it going, because it was pretty cold at the time in April. They organised nice food to be delivered, too, so we were eating well as well and it all helps to create a really can-do, positive vibe, which was a lovely experience.
AB: What’s been your favourite moment with Kneehigh?
DM: I think maybe it was the first night of Dead Dog.
We opened at the Liverpool Everyman a year and a bit ago, and it was this show that we had done a lot of improvisation around. The creative team had thought this is a message that is very current to today – you have your corrupt politicians, money ruling everything, and the heart and soul of John Gay’s original Beggar’s Opera is still very relevant today and was what made them think it was time for an outing.
When we just finished the show – it’s quite a big, rousing finale, which I won’t give away, it’s quite full on – there was this long pause and then an absolute uproar and massive standing ovation, and it was really exciting. It has been repeated around where we’ve gone, but I have to say that it was a very special night, that first night. We’d only just really got to the end of the show for the first time in the dress rehearsal, as we hadn’t really finished it, and it was our first preview, and we were just suddenly like ‘oh wow, we are doing something that feels really important and really exciting’ and that’s an immense feeling, and one good thing about going on tour is that rather than settling in, you do keep feeling a different vibe.
AB: Glad to hear it. So, lastly, what do you think audiences will enjoy the most about Dead Dog?
DM: Dare I say it, I think there’s a lot to enjoy, I don’t know, it depends on them. There’s some amazing musical moments, there’s some great comedy, there’s some impressive visual stuff going on, and the sound sort of blows your mind as well – I think I’m going to leave that for other people to decide.
AB: Well, I look forward to seeing it! Is there anything you’d like to tell readers?
DM: You know what, I don’t think there is! Just please come and see this show – it’s great fun, it’s also very important and it’s very about now, and it’s a great laugh, so what’s not to like?!
Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 3-7 November and then continues on tour.