Max Stafford-Clark and Stella Feehily talk to us about the process of creating Love and a Bottle and working with LAMDA students
What was it about the play made you want to rework it?
SF: I’d read Love and a Bottle and loved it. It seemed like the perfect project to work with LAMDA students on. It’s young and full of spirit. The females in it are also resourceful, strong and very, very funny – that’s the other reason I wanted to do it. It’s quite sassy. Max had asked me to do it and I said the only way I would is if I could do it with LAMDA.
MSC: Farquhar gives identities to his characters and he also gives them an emotional existence. Stella has done just this through workshopping the piece, especially with a character called Mrs Trudge, who she has since renamed Mistress Endwright. She’s gone from a 15-line part to having one of the biggest parts in the play. By doing this, Stella has really released a whole emotional strand of the play.
What does the process involve? How do you begin?
SF: Well Max has actually worked with LAMDA students before on a verbatim play called Mixed Up North, which was written by Robin Soans. Max and Robin went up north and interviewed locals and that formed the basis of the play. Whereas this project was quite different – I had this ancient text which I had to try and make sense of to begin with. Then I had an idea that because there were so many different characters, it would be best to conflate them all – I cut the character of a playwright named Lyrick and instead gave that role to Roebuck, which meant that we actually brought the play much closer to the autobiographical account of Farquhar’s first visit to London. So by the time we had our first proper rehearsal I already had a draft of this new version. From there, we started to cut the play – it needed to be a lot leaner. Once we’d done the cutting, we went through the process of casting, and once we knew who was playing who, I started to write each character to match the students’ personalities. So the creative process really sprung from the students’ differing personalities and writing each character to suit them. Joseph, for example, is a talented musician, so I have adapted his character Roebuck to play the violin.
How has it been working with LAMDA students?
SF: Having the opportunity to knock the piece around with enthusiastic, talented drama students was essential in helping me write this play. I would ask them to do silly things to help me which I perhaps wouldn’t ask professional actors to do; they would run around the room and try out different accents, which really helped me envisage where the energy should be in the scene. Coming from an improvisational background myself, that is exactly what I wanted – for people to say yes, let’s go, let’s try that. They’re such a warm bunch of actors, and we loved seeing them develop so much from the initial readings to seeing them create these gorgeous, hilarious characters and speak the language so fluently and with ease.
We sent one of the students, who plays a beggar, to Finsbury Park station to beg – he wasn’t allowed to come back until he got at least 50p! It took him about three quarters of an hour and he said it was a mortifying experience. But when he came back, he played the scene completely differently; the humility that he brought to it was just extraordinary.
What are the differences between working with student actors and working actors?
MSC: I would say it’s very similar. The first job you have as a director is to create a company – and the majority of that has been done for you because you’re presented with a company when coming to LAMDA. The second thing is to be able to harness the actors’ enthusiasm for the project, which has to be led by my own enthusiasm and the ability to turn the energy of discovery into the energy of performance. Immersing the students in the historical background was fun for both of us, and it was a learning curve for me as well as for them.
How important are drama schools in the role of new writing?
MSC: Well the facilities are marvellous. Having the opportunity to unearth a hidden gem means we’re also restoring it to the canon and saying this play is worth considering, which will be a considerable service to the whole theatre community that LAMDA has expedited.