With the recent announcement that Tim Roseman will be stepping down as Joint Artistic Director of Theatre 503 in September, The Girl in the Yellow Dress marks the beginning of the end of Roseman’s five-and-a-half year tenure. Under his leadership, along with fellow Artistic Director Paul Robinson, Theatre 503 has become a particular haven for writers; in 2010, it became the first venue of its size to win the Olivier Award for Best New Play for Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop.
Though his successful partnership with Robinson may be ending, The Girl in the Yellow Dress explores a partnership of sorts in its fledgling stages. Beginning by summarising it as essentially being “a play about people trying to understand each other”, Roseman explains the basic premise of The Girl in the Yellow Dress. It is “about a French Congolese student [Pierre] living in Paris, who comes to get English grammar lessons from a British woman [Celia]”. However, while grammar lessons may seem an innocent activity, “it turns out he’s been interested in her for some time, though they’ve never actually met. Gradually, as the play continues there’s an unusual and surprising relationship… and they start to understand each other’s secrets.”
Wholly occurring within the framework of the lessons, Roseman calls it “sort of an erotic thriller”. This is an interestingly charged description of a play that takes place entirely within a chic middle class Parisian living room, and within a classroom context. However, that a scenario of such apparent simplicity should contain an erotic thriller is deliberately deceptive. Roseman expresses enthusiasm for the play’s multiple layers: “Ultimately, it’s absolutely about secrets. It’s about people who don’t know what they can tell from each other and I think it’s often full of surprises, so every time you think you understand something and have got a handle on why people are making the choices they’re making, it turns it on its head. Right until very last minute of the play, you don’t quite know why people are doing things that they’re doing.”
Roseman first came into contact with The Girl in the Yellow Dress, written by Craig Higginson, when the Salisbury Playhouse asked him to direct it in the autumn of 2011. The decision to bring the play to London appears to have been a simple one. “We thought that it was such a good piece of writing and the performances were so stellar that it really deserved another outing.” In spite of the location change, some aspects of the production remain the same: “with the exception of the lighting designers it’s all the same people who did it before”.
Having previously rehearsed and processed the text in Salisbury, the opportunity to work on it again allowed for it to be analysed in greater detail. “We found very quickly that actually you have to play this play in immense detail – you can’t work out the layers until you work out exactly what you know is meant in the text”. This toothcomb approach transferred to how Roseman approached understanding the characters and their intentions. “What does each little moment change? How do they deal with the things they want? So often something will have happened years ago in their history that the other character doesn’t know about.” Roseman therefore worked to increase the tension as to “whatever those little details were and how they affected the details now and more importantly why they aren’t being straight with each other.”
Roseman found there was an advantage to his prior experience with the material, as well as noticing a similar affect in the performances of the actors, Fiona Button and Clifford Samuels. Describing the play’s first outing into the rehearsal room, Roseman comments: “That was a very detailed process of unpicking and I think this time round they have become much richer, more mature performances.” Having a longer relationship with a text clearly helps to bring out its many nuances, in Roseman’s opinion: “I think in any production, as long as you can keep it fresh, more time to consider choices and to discover links and to make sense of why someone says something at any time is going to help.”
The Girl in the Yellow Dress is a two-hander in which language is of great importance. While in a literal sense the play is a text, within the play both the language bridge and the language barrier between the characters is often the device through which their relationship develops. The ultimate focus is not on the language, but rather on what the language facilitates. Having set out that “the whole play is about language”, Roseman explains: “One of the things that happens is a knowledge balance… Say you come to me to learn a language. By the start of the lessons, as we got to know each other, that relationship would settle based upon what each other new. What Craig [Higginson] did so brilliantly in this is he looked at how that power relationship changes when it becomes more about the connection than the language.” Being able to work through the text in two separate productions has only served to advance the complexity of the connection between the two characters.
Roseman’s relationship with The Girl in the Yellow Dress is a fortuitous and productive one; being able to develop a play with the same actors has allowed the text and performances to grow. Though transition onto a London stage may be the signal that denotes success, its success can equally be measured by the depth and understanding Roseman has afforded The Girl in the Yellow Dress. The Evening Standard declared that “a piece this layered necessitates fine-touch direction and gets just that from Tim Roseman” and it is clear that Roseman’s connection to this text, these characters and Theatre503 itself, has led to the creation of a very memorable piece of theatre about partnerships, parity and passion in la belle Paris.
The Girl in the Yellow Dress plays at Theatre503 until 14 April. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre’s website here.
Image credit: Flavia Fraser-Cannon