Adam Spreadbury-Maher is not one to avoid a challenge. Deciding between the cultural opportunities Australia offered in Melbourne or Sydney, the Canberra-born, opera-trained performer decided on London for a career as theatre director. Because it is, he says, home to the English-language theatre tradition, has more theatres than any other city, and plenty of pubs.
He didn’t say the last bit actually. But as the singer-turned-director spreads his influence across north London theatre, it’s in the pub-theatre world he’s taking root. Re-inventing one of the first London pub-theatres, the King’s Head in Islington’s Upper Street, as a venue for small-scale opera productions, the director of A Good Night Out theatre company is building on the success of a small-scale La Bohème in his first theatrical home, Kilburn’s CockTavern.
Not only does London have a lot of pubs, it has a lot of Victorian pubs built on a large scale, many with rooms unused nowadays. He went to Kilburn first when the CockTavern decided to build trade by becoming a comedy venue, as moral support for a stand-up friend who was uncertain about this alien territory, and was rewarded by a tour of the building. There he found large upstairs bedrooms, a cellar and a first-floor function-room – which now functions as the CockTavern Theatre. And it’s here the young Australian is presenting a six-strong season of Edward Bond plays.
A BOND HONOURED
Why Edward Bond? The playwright was a mighty force in serious theatre only a few decades ago. The Fool, his play about ‘mad’ 18th-century Northamptonshire poet John Clare, premiered in the 1970s at the Royal Court, while both the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company lapped-up his work. The Fool’s in this season; it’s a play, says Spreadbury-Maher, “about the state, the church, capitalism.”
The young director (born in 1981) had come across Bond, whose plays were on the Australian syllabus, and was impressed, partly by the playwright’s role in the final years of battle with British stage censorship during the 1960s. It’s a key way in to Bond’s work, which Spreadbury-Maher believes is centrally concerned with the idea of theatre.
He looked at Olly’s Prison (the first Bond play he’d come across after Saved) when invited to direct a couple of shows for Kennington’s admirable White Bear pub theatre, though it didn’t make it from long-list to final selection. Yet the impression was significant enough to lead the young director to fork out a steep-seeming sixty quid for all Bond’s plays on Amazon.com.
HOME IN KILBURN
Then came the tricky business of setting-up the Kilburn operation. He describes running a pub-theatre as a “fragile” operation. Pubs tend to like theatres when they’re bringing in more drinkers, while the theatre has no control over what drinks are sold, or their price. Still, he’s full of praise for the CockTavern’s management – “very open to ideas that are not traditional” – recognising it’s vital to invest a lot of time in discussing and explaining the theatre operation.
The Tavern and its milieu aren’t immediately what would be picked on as fertile theatre-audience land – the director mentions the toilets and the regulars queuing outside the pub at 9am for “breakfast” as two examples of why not. Yet clearly the time invested has paid-off, and the management has been as positive as Spreadbury-Maher enthusiastically describes them. In addition to the theatre performances upstairs, for several months drinkers have been surprised (though regulars doubtless grew accustomed) to a nightly operatic eruption as the second, Café Momus, act of the theatre’s standout success, a small-scale La Bohème, has been played down in the public bar.
La Bohème transferred to the Soho Theatre, where the Momus became the elegant bar shared by theatre and public, with Dean Street regulars, street-livers, Big Issue sellers and passers-by peering in. It gives the act an edge of danger appreciated by the director – unsurprisingly given his career trajectory.
Meanwhile, back in Kilburn, Bond’s oeuvre is holding sway. “A stage is only as big as what you put on it,” seems the principle behind a season where The Fool has over thirty characters. Bond has been produced on the vast Olivier stage, in the small Barbican Pit, and had work toured to schools.; the big productions in the UK, though, tended to come up before the eighties.
Why six plays? That came about when Spreadbury-Maher realised that, by counting 2010 as a new decade, Bond could be said to have a writing career crossing half-a-dozen decades. It was easy enough to go back to the start, with The Pope’s Wedding (1962). But there was only one way of ensuring the season would include Bond’s latest, and that was to commission him to write a new play. If a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing dangerously, and the commission was originally financed by the Spreadbury-Maher overdraft (luckily an alternative funder later stepped-in).
A PLAYWRIGHT IN PRODUCTION
With similar energy money’s been found to enable the playwright to stay locally and be available for rehearsals. Though Bond’s writing, in polemic and plays, can be fearsome, the adjective with which this director most naturally describes him is “sweet”.
The writer’s really at the centre of this season, having carte blanche to go where and when he likes into rehearsals. He’s defined his own role succinctly: “I can tell you what the play’s about; I can’t tell you how to do it.” It’s a perfect dovetail with a director whose approach is rooted in the script. Spreadbury-Maher’s focus is on new work or lost works from the past, not reinventing the well-known through directorial innovation. “The play is the product of the playwright,” he asserts, “the director has to tell the story the playwright wrote.”
And the playwright here is “a member of the company, someone who loves to sit and talk with directors.” And watch rehearsals. “Edward has gone where he’s wanted to go (there have necessarily been more than one production in rehearsal simultaneously) or where he’s been asked to go. There are no schedules for visits, no pomp or fanfare. He’s been an important part of the journey.”
Certainly, the relationship’s been working well. The biggest hurdle came early on, when the young director had to convince Bond’s agent to let him meet the writer. From that meeting, there’s been engagement – from casting onwards – that’s been positive throughout, allowing an exploration of work Spreadbury-Maher sees – as with Sarah Kane later – as creating a genreTHEATRE AND HUMANITY
“Edward’s prime interest is the state of British theatre,” says Spreadbury-Maher. Not that he writes backstage, or for that matter front-stage, dramas. Apart from the new-born playwright’s early struggles with the dying days of the censor there’s the relentless pursuit of what it is to be human. So, the change in Bond’s theatre fortunes within the UK coincided with the new mood brought to eighties Britain by Margaret Thatcher and her government. Bond’s brand of toughness, his scalpel-like cutting-to the raw nerve of human existence, was something audiences no longer seemed prepared to face.
This analysis matches my recall of Bond productions. Up to The Woman (178), in which Bond took on the Olivier stage and the Trojan War, triumphing with both in an all-senses epic play, his work had prominent London premieres or transfers. After that, it generally took on a smaller physical scale and, unless premiered in Europe, came into being in regional studios or touring schools. (Neither has less artistic value, of course, but it says something about the state of British theatre that it was rarely willing to face up to him, except in a smattering of revivals, usually of the two with a loose Shakespeare link, Lear and Bingo).
There are moments – rare but intense – of humour in some of Bond’s plays. There’s The Sea, of course, from 1973, and what I think of as the ‘tea party’ scene in The Woman. Spreadbury-Maher again relates this to the author’s pursuit of truth; the humour is never a conscious attempt at comic technique but arises out of exposing the truth in character and human relationships.
The plays continuously ask what theatre is there for, beyond entertainment. He believes “we can see more of ourselves on stage, and be told it’s OK, others feel the same. We find out what it’s like to be a human being through the stage.” Whether it’s serial Bond-goers, locals surprised over their Guinness or faces pressed against the street-level Soho bar windows, Spreadbury-Maher is determined to offer people the new or unfamiliar. And his advocacy of Edward Bond ensures that doesn’t mean his Good Night Out mantra is merely a synonym for easy viewing.
Edward Bond at the CockTavern Theatre – remaining performances:
THE FOOL (1975):
19 Oct 8pm.
23 Oct 1pm.
THE UNDER ROOM (2005) (in The Cellar):
19-23 Oct 7.30pm & 9.15pm, 24 Oct 4pm & 6pm.
THERE WILL BE MORE (2010):
26-30 Oct, 3-6, 10-13 Nov 7.30pm Mat 6, 7, 13 Nov 4pm.
RED BLACK AND IGNORANT (1985):
31 Oct, 1, 2, 7-9 Nov 7.30pm, 13 Nov 1pm.
TICKETS: 08444 77 1000/www.cocktaverntheatre.com/bond_season
Also in the season have been performances of THE POPE’S WEDDING (1962) and OLLY’S PRISON (1993).