This week will see the opening of the first major stage production of Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke, directed by Sophie Boyce, a 25-year-old currently cutting her teeth at the Orange Tree Theatre on its Trainee Director Scheme. The play, first shown as part of the BBC’s Play for Today in 1978, forms one half of a double bill, also featuring Squirrels, an early play by David Mamet, directed by Lewis Gray. In this rare revival of Churchill’s witty satire, five actors will play more than 40 characters in a succession of fast-paced, episodic scenes.
Talking to Boyce on a sunny May evening, her excitement is palpable: “I chose this play because I feel it is still very relevant today.” She may well be right. At its core, this is a play about the politics of charity, with a plot centred upon power in a world in which everything is political. This is a conversation that’s very current, particularly in a world where politics dominates every aspect of our lives, and Boyce has opted for a play that can translate to modern audiences.
The play concentrates on the character of Selby, an idealist who leaves her job as a secretary and begins work as one of the corporation’s charity campaign organisers. Her quest to do good leads her to the discovery that politics and business can thwart benevolent intentions. “There’s something political about everything,” she is informed by a local mayor. As a charity worker, she makes a concerted effort to avoid becoming embroiled in politics, but discovers that this is impossible.
This is an ambitious play for a young director, particularly in her choice to cast five multi-role-ing actors, which would indubitably present a daunting challenge to most emerging directors. “Multi-role-ing was a deliberate choice due to the space being a theatre-in-the-round. It has something of a cinematic feel to it, and we wanted to capture the theatrical nature of the characters,” Boyce tells me. “The characters are essentially snapshots of society, and of reality. So one of the greatest challenges is conveying the attitudes of each of the characters as whole people, without portraying just a fraction of that character.”
The play unfolds in a series of 66 short scenes, which presents yet another challenge, one which Boyce is not afraid to tackle. “The main challenge is – how do we do this clearly? Yes, there are 66 scenes; it’s not a long play, but it’s rapid. How do we create a whole world comprised of snapshots without losing pace?”
“One of the real bonuses is that multi-role-ing really underscores how interwoven the characters are. We see their reactions. And that adds something remarkable to the play.” Naturally the multi-role-ing has called for certain adjustments to the design of the show; Boyce wanted as clean a space as possible, which required a minimalist approach to the use of props and costumes.
Yet this is not the first time Boyce has used multi-role-ing in her work. Earlier this year, she was an Associate Director on Geoffrey Beevers’s outstanding adaptation of Middlemarch, in which 11 actors played 60 characters. “Middlemarch is my biggest influence. When I was working on Middlemarch, I observed Geoffrey Beevers’s approach to the logistics of the play, and now I’m applying everything I learned from him.”
The Trainee Directors Scheme has been a vital part of the Orange Tree’s work for over two decades. An early platform for some of the country’s finest directors, it has launched the careers of directors including Sean Holmes, Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith and Timothy Sheader, Artistic Director of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park. After studying at Bristol University, Boyce’s route into theatre began at Malvern Theatres where she worked for two years. There, she gained an insight into how a theatre works and a backbone of knowledge, before going on to do an MA in directing at Royal Holloway.
As trainee directors at the Orange Tree, Boyce and Gray have both assisted on all the main house productions, in addition to various education projects, youth theatre sessions and writers groups, providing them both with an overall view of theatre. “It’s been an amazing experience,” Boyce tells me. “I’ve gained a depth of knowledge. Working with Geoffrey Beevers and Ellie Jones [who recently directed Invincible at the Orange Tree] was truly invaluable.”
The After-Dinner Joke is Boyce’s greatest challenge to date, and one which she’s very excited by. Finding the right play to direct was the first hurdle, but The After-Dinner Joke is the perfect complement to Gray’s production of Squirrels. “It makes for a great double bill,” says Boyce.
At 25, Sophie is aware of the challenges faced by young people in the arts. “Trying to find that balance of gaining experience and earning a living at the same time – that’s crucial. There are so many unpaid opportunities out there, which are great when you’re building a portfolio, but you also have to be able to live.” Her advice to young theatre-makers? “Try and get as much experience as possible. Make it what you will; if you try to make the most of an opportunity, you will. Maximise that chance, build relationships and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. It is a threatening industry, but do have the confidence to ask questions. And, most importantly, do not be put off.”
The After-Dinner Joke is in a double-bill with David Mamet’s Squirrels from 21 May – 7 June at the Orange Tree Theatre. There are £5 tickets for Under 26s at every performance, bookable by phone 020 8940 3633.