Training with the text: Fourth Monkey Theatre Company

Known for its challenging and provocative revivals of classic texts, Fourth Monkey’s spring season comprises new productions of Lord of the Flies, 4.48 Psychosis and The Bacchae. A key aspect of the company’s identity is its dedication to working with “new undiscovered talent”, and its reputation for engaging with young people has gone from strength to strength since introducing its Year of the Monkey training programme. Offering a course similar to a foundation year at drama school, the scheme boasts lower fees than institutions and the unique opportunity for young actors to perform in the company’s rep season.

22-year-old actress Georgia Kerr knows firsthand what a hugely positive experience this can be for a young performer. She started work with Fourth Monkey in September, and is appearing in Lord of the Flies and 4.48 Psychosis this year. She continues, “It has worked so well for me – I’ve already been to university, so the great thing about it is it has enabled me financially to do some form of theatrical training. It was every weekend at first so it’s a big commitment but it frees you up during the week to do stuff on the side, to work if you need to. I feel I have improved a performer, all my previous experience is very theoretical and it’s lovely to be able to draw on very physical techniques. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of that.”

Hamish MacDougall, who is directing Lord of the Flies, describes Fourth Monkey as a “bold company” and is full of praise for the young actors. “It’s very much an ensemble-driven company. They’re a good group; they’ve got very good focus. They’re physically very aware, probably more so than a lot of the professional actors I’ve worked with. They work hard – they’re doing a rep system so they don’t get many breaks but that gives them a good discipline.” The programme the actors follow is a year long, with the group split in two. Last year, the other half did the shows and [this group] did their workshop training, and they’ve swapped it around now. On the first day they were quite nervous but they have progressed so much. They’ve picked up my process, now they’re completely with it, they’re very quick. I like working with young companies, they’re very eager and they pick things up more quickly.”

In MacDougall’s opinion, Fourth Monkey has revolutionised how a theatre company can work with young actors. “At drama school, you wouldn’t normally do plays until your last year and even then you’d do four performances – less than a week. It’s different here: the ethos is to learn on the job. I originally trained as an actor and I worked as one for two years. When you do your first long run it’s a huge surprise. With Lord of the Flies we’re doing a couple of months, not just four performances. It’s good training; it gives them that kind of experience of doing a long run, doing a professional process, doing a whole play instead of the scenes you’d do at drama school. It makes it more about what actually happens if you work in theatre rather than isolated classes.”

As for Lord of the Flies itself, MacDougall’s process involves ensuring the play chimes with today’s theatregoers. Nigel William’s adaptation of the novel into a script is “quite descriptive” and “cluttered” with props and sets that are more suited to the school play it was originally written as than Hamish’s vision. “There are scenes where four things are happening at the same time in different locations, and that won’t really work. So we’re stripping it completely back to almost a blank stage, forcing me to focus on the group of 14 actors. The important objects will become even more powerful. I didn’t want it to be like an episode of Lost or a desert island play, and hopefully with this stripped-back approach the audience can focus on the story: what actually happens and how. I want the audience to feel like they’ve made a journey with this small group.”

Setting isn’t the only thing that has changed and evolved. Golding’s original novel featured only boys, but Fourth Monkey’s production switches the original choir of boys to students from a girls’ school.“It’s contemporary, having a mix of genders,” MacDougall observes. He continues, “I’m sure that some people will come and go, ‘well this isn’t the story’, but hopefully some will find it quite interesting. I feel the balance has worked. There is a lot of violence between girls now.” Kerr takes one of the roles affected by this change, playing Jack, now the school’s Head Girl: “I was initially wary about how we were going to make it work as a girl, but she’s quite a young, nasty little girl, and it works well I think. We haven’t had much trouble with the gender issue. Lord of the Flies is a classically male-driven piece but having Jack as a girl works very well, especially in this day. There’s something intrinsically nasty about young girls at that age, who vie for power, and are terribly unforgiving if they don’t get the respect that they demand. She is very aggressive and she spins out slightly towards the end, it’s quite dark and sinister. The spiral makes sense. Girls are precious about power too, especially at that age.”

All of these changes work and hold true to the logic of the text itself because, as MacDougall notes, the story is “timeless… The original was written during the Cold War and there’s a whole thing about bombs and paranoia in the society the children left behind when they landed on this island. Today, we have terrorist threats almost every day and there is a similar sense of paranoia all around the world. There’s a class issue as well, which I think is still prevalent today. A group of public school kids taking control violently – we’re run by a group of public schoolboys at the moment aren’t we! That’s quite contemporary.” There is also an ethos of honouring the original material, despite these departures in setting and characterisation. Kerr describes MacDougall as “a very text based director, working through the play, seeing the arc of our characters and the turning points for each.” Ensuring actors understand how their characters change as the plot progresses is vital to MacDougall’s style. “Georgia’s character is very tricky,” he admits. “She could easily be played as a bullying maniac. But she’s got a very specific journey of her own, which we’ve looked at.”

Also appearing in 4.48 Psychosis, Kerr confesses she feels “so lucky to have been put in both these plays. The directors are so different; their processes are so different. Steve [Green, who is directing 4.48 Psychosis and is also Artistic Director of the company] is a much more physical director. He works from a character base rather than looking so much at the text.” Rehearsals were full of variety. “With Steve, we had to do boot camp, 14 hours of movement that stretched and bent and pulled everything. And then you go to Hamish who is the direct opposite, chilled to the max and a bit more analytical.” Green’s production of 4.48 Psychosis sees the cast take on characters that represent facets of the protagonist’s psyche, with Kerr adopting the role of Grace, evocative and representative of all texts relating to religion or with a religious connotation. Meanwhile, Natalie Katsou’s revival of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a new translation by Ranjit Bolt, sets the ancient text at a musical festival with Dionysus starring as a rock god.

Scrolling through Fourth Monkey’s website is to be presented with countless opportunities, whether you want to act, write, produce or work in any other aspect of theatre. As an alternative to drama school, Kerr is full of praise for the programme: “I believe as an actor you do need training. You want to get the right launch into the industry; you need to develop your technique, you need to know your body and have control of your voice. Drama school is everyone’s first point of call and it is highly competitive.” Her advice to aspiring thespians is to remember “there are other options. There is another route.” She continues, “Something like Fourth Monkey offers you something invaluable, the chance to be doing plays and be applying technique consistently. My advice is persistence. Keep going for it. This is a world of rejection and just because one route hasn’t worked, doesn’t mean another one won’t. Keep active, be doing it, be going to workshops. Drama school isn’t the only route.”

Georgia Kerr will be appearing in Hamish MacDougall’s production of Lord of the Flies and Steve Green’s version of 4.48 Pyschosis, performed in rep with The Bacchae at Theatro Technis from 1 – 18 March. For exact performance dates and to book tickets, visit the company’s website here.

Image credit: Paul Seaby