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Dundee Rep Spring Season 2009

Dundee Rep, it would seem, is getting bigger by the day. A decade on from the instigation of the Tayside based theatre’s pioneering Ensemble Company, two major revivals are on the go. Already touring is Stephen Greenhorn’s Proclaimers juke-box musical Sunshine On Leith, while the equally acclaimed reinvention of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt will travel to London’s Barbican Theatre in the spring. All this on the back of what’s widely regarded as one of the highlights of the festive season, Beauty and the Beast. The announcement of the company’s 2009 spring season this week, meanwhile, looks set to build on both shows success even further.

All of which is vindication for Dundee Rep’s current artistic director James Brining, who, along with Dominic Hill, who left Dundee last year to become artistic director of the Traverse Theatre, has pursued a loose policy of combining commercial sensibilities with quality drama. This was first introduced by Ensemble founder Hamish Glen, who ended the company’s first season with a production of Cabaret. As well as being something of an end of term treat, it set the tone for a series of home produced musicals which led directly to Sunshine On Leith.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been weightier fare running alongside it. Howard Barker’s Scenes from An Execution, David Greig’s version of Ubu and Gerry Mulgrew’s recent staging of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children have all made intellectual demands on audiences. All, it has to be said, have succeeded. This season too will make similar demands as it kicks off with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Following this will be a new version of The Little Mermaid written by Mike Kenney, while later in the year the Rep will premiere Balgay Hill, a new play based on the life of Associates singer and Dundee native Billy Mackenzie. For Brining, such variety is crucial to keeping the ensemble fresh.

“When Dominic and I arrived in Dundee five and a half years ago,” Brining recalls, “the ensemble was already established. It wasn’t our company, but we decided to shrink it, and we had to learn as we went along what worked best for the company. Things like Monkey, Gypsy and Ubu aren’t just indulgences on our part, because you can’t do that if you want to keep your audience as well as engage with new audiences. That’s the challenge for us every time put something on, to make it feel like we’re blowing some fresh air through the place. We want to try to evolve what a rep company is, and we have done things that you might not expect to be typical of a rep theatre. Sunshine On Leith, for instance, is hugely ambitious, and is now touring big commercial theatres. Yarn, which was a site-specific piece we did with Grid Iron, is different again. Dundee Rep has to become more and more unique.”

This is all pretty forward-thinking stuff, and it’s a testament to Brining’s vision that the Ensemble Company remains a going concern. When it was launched in September 1999 as part of the New Ways Of Working project backed by Lottery funding, it was only meant to be for a three year period. The fourteen actors who made up the company included seasoned veterans working alongside two or three ‘apprentices,’ usually not long out of drama school. This scheme featured early sightings of now established names including Allison Mackenzie, Andrew Clark and Hannah Donaldson. While Brining and Hill continued this approach, paring down the company allowed for greater flexibility in terms of casting.

“At the moment,” Brining says, “half the company are in Sunshine On Leith, while the other half are about to get ready for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? That’s a very funny, but very dark play. It’s quite intense, and if you cast actors who don’t know each other already, then you spend the first third of rehearsals trying to build up some kind of rapport. We don’t have to do that.”

The revival of Peer Gynt, a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, ups the Rep’s profile even further with one of the biggest shows seen in Dundee for some time. In terms of quality, scale and ambition, it’s a show that defines what Brining wants for the Rep.

“What I want Dundee Rep to be about,” he says, “is producing work that is local, national and international. This season fits in with that, and Peer Gynt especially is a genuinely international piece of theatre.”

Peer Gynt also marked the end of Dominic Hill’s tenure in Dundee as co artistic director. Where other companies might falter at such a major loss, the Rep seems to have thrived.

“For me,” Brining says “Dominic going was a great thing for him to develop as an artist in the different kind of theatre that the Traverse is. But oddly it was also good for the company in that it’s kept things fresh, and allowed us to bring other artists in to direct, like Gerry Mulgrew and Alison Peebles.”

One example of a play that taps into the local is Balgay Hill. Yet, as with its subject matter, it also has the potential to go global.

“The story of Billy Mackenzie is one that’s really important to Dundee,” Brining points out. “He was an extraordinary artist, and everyone who knew him in the 1980s has a story to tell about him. He was this glorious bunch of contradictions. What’s great about it as well is that it isn’t your typical jute, jam and journalism Dundee story, but it is about Dundee as much as it’s about Billy Mackenzie. Simon McCallum who’s written it has created something that isn’t a big event play in the way that Sunshine On Leith is, but is quite fractured and challenging.”

With a platform performance of Liz Lochhead’s Quelque Fleurs completing the Rep’s own productions, it’s clearly a busy time for Brining and the Ensemble. After a decade of its existence, Brining has lost none of his enthusiasm for the potential opportunities it can bring about.

“This season offers so many different things to so many different types of audience,” he observes, “and that variety really suits me. There’s hardly any other jobs I’d have that luxury to work in this way, so I’ll be around for a while yet. If we can stay fresh, strike the right balance in terms of work, and continue to challenge, excite and stimulate audiences in different ways, then I think Dundee will continue to be a very interesting place to be.”

Tickets for Dundee Rep’s Spring 2009 season are on sale now.

The Herald, December 23rd 2008



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