Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Caged

The room looks like a bombed-out kindergarten, and through an amped-up
ipod Joe Jackson is singing something about pretty women out walking
with gorillas on his street. The floor is carpeted with piles of
upturned books, a paddling pool filled with soil and assorted goblets,
buckets and other casual detritus. At the centre of the room inside a
circle chalked on the floor is a large banquet table that seems to have
been the venue hosting a particularly unruly chimps tea party. The
walls are lined with sheets of A4 paper with assorted self-help mantras
scrawled on. ‘You cannot change another’, reads one. ‘You can only
change yourself. ‘It is good to step into another’s shoes’, declaims
another.

As the music plays, four people clamber about the room, trying on coats
and hats, picking up assorted props, or, in one case, hanging upside
down beneath the banquet table. Two of the people, Andy Manley and Ros
Sydney, are actors, and such behaviour should probably be expected from
such professional exhibitionists. The woman with the daft hat and
wrong-way round coat, however, is director Gill Robertson. And the
lanky guy holding on to the table by his fingertips beneath the banquet
table? That’ll be playwright Rob Evans, then, who is scripting Caged, a
new, none pantomime take on beauty and the Beast, which, as performed
by Manley and Sydney, is being overseen by Robertson.

Such a hands-on approach by none performers isn’t common among theatre
companies. This, however, is the Catherine Wheels way, where rehearsal
room improvisations become a great big giant playtime which everyone
can and usually does join in with. For what looks set to be an
infinitely more intimate look at Beauty and the Beast than the more
familiar Disneyfied version, play is especially important.

“I think it’s because we’re all daft,” says Robertson, pausing for
breath before she goes to pick up her own children from school.
“Because I act as well, and because Rob acts and directs, and because
Andy does everything, it just means that there’s a lot of good heads in
the room. So when you get stuff up and start looking at it, it’s a lot
better than four people sitting round a table talking about it. In this
way you can have a little think about it, and then just get up and do
it. Rob and Andy and I have worked together like this before, so we’re
used to it now.”

“I like it,” says Evans later. “I think a lot of shows could benefit
from everyone trying out different tasks like this. It’s good to see
each other’s ideas and to be able to feed off them.”

The idea for Caged first came from Manley, who’d seen a production of
Beauty and the Beast in Dundee, and was particularly taken with a scene
featuring just the two main protagonists. A German show at the
Imaginate festival of childrens’ theatre similarly looked at the
relationship between the two. All of which is a far cry from more
common interpretations of the story via a hairy but misunderstood
monster falling for someone way out of his league.

“I wasn’t all that interested in all the other characters,” remembers
Manley, seated with his co-creators later in an office that looks more
like a club-house for a gang, “but I became interested in this young
woman leaving her parental influence and moving into the world of a
love interest, that rites of passage from being a daughter to being a
woman and a lover. There’s also that thing of meeting somebody who’s
completely different to you. How do you negotiate getting on and
forming some kind of relationship?”

“That’s all our story is,” says Robertson. “It’s about two absolute
opposites negotiating their relationship. It’s almost like kids
playing. These two friends play, they fall out and say they won’t play
with each other anymore, then they make up again. Making this show has
been something similar. It’s been fun, but it’s also been painful as
well.”

At one point in the improvised show and tell that took place earlier,
Sydney laid down on the banquet table as if it was a bed. Beneath her,
on the floor, Manley lay in the exact same pose. As each turned on
their side, mirroring each others actions, what strikes one most is the
sense of intimacy at play that one wouldn’t normally associate with
Beauty and the Beast. Particularly in a show aimed at children aged
eight and over.

“But I think that passion you feel for your first friends is
important,” says Manley. “I know I felt a passion for my first male
friends, even though I knew there was no relationship there. I knew I
felt a really deep love for them. I think that’s the same for eight
year olds. At that age a friend isn’t just someone you hang out with.
There’s something much deeper going on.”

“You have to be willing to adapt to each other’s needs as well,” agrees
Sydney. “And when we’ve improvised scenes the pair of them feel quite
young as well, finding out about each other, testing each other and
prodding each other the way kids do. They really hurt each other as
well. There’s times Beauty can be a bit of a bully.”

Such an approach makes for an interesting power-play, in which
Catherine Wheels’ idea of the Beast is happy to traipse after his
captive beloved more like a simpering puppy than the wild animal his
would-be paramour treats him as.

“One of the big differences between our story and the traditional
eighteenth century story,” Evans points out, “is of Beauty as this idea
of perfection, whereas we’re doing a story about a girl who’s having to
find out what she is away from her familiar environment. Being a good
girl for your dad or for your family doesn’t really stand-up here with
him. Ours is a drama about change for both of them. He transforms how
he sees himself, and she changes how she sees both of them. That’s why
it’s a good story to tell for the age group we’re aiming at. If someone
doesn’t turn into a handsome prince, how possible is it to still love
them? We’ve also been negotiating whether it’s about a staid girl who
goes wild, but it’s not. It’s about a girl who’s getting older and
finds a new world. She finds love.”

In the play room next door, the banquet table may be covered in junk,
but once the guests arrive for Caged, anything could happen.

Caged, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, March 24th-26th, then tours
www.catherinewheels.co.uk

The Herald, March 22nd 2011

ends

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