Complicite

This is a series of interviews about the early years of Complicite with Dr Michael Fry (Deputy Director of East 15).

Before we begin here is a selection of videos of Simon McBurney discussing the company and theatre in general that will compliment the more historical focus of the interview with Michael Fry:

Simon’s thoughts on theatre (2015):

“The intensity of the moment of theatre in the present is about living. Living here and now.”

Interview with Simon by Andrew Dickson (2010) that covers Complicite’s productions:

“Each piece is made according to the subject matter.”

Complicite at 30: Simon McBurney and Judith Dimant in Converstion at the National Theatre (2014)

“The key thing is: what are the stories that you are telling?”

Michael Fry is the Deputy Director of East 15, University of Essex. He has worked as director and writer across the country including Liverpool Everyman, Nottingham Playhouse, the Young Vic and the Lyric Hammersmith. His adaptations of Tess of the d’UrbervillesEmma and The Great Gatsby have been performed throughout England and America.

Prior to East 15, he was Senior Lecturer in theatre at Coventry University and was Co-Artistic Director of NOT The National Theatre, for whom he directed Simon Gray’s Japes and April de Angelis’ Wild East.

Michael Fry’s chapter on Complicite in British Theatre Companies (1980 – 1994) focuses on the first fifteen years of the company.

Part 1: Complicite: Connecting with Audiences and Early Tour in Chile

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Influence
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: Théâtre de Complicité started as a group of four with Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden, Marcello Magni and Fiona Gordon. Then it became Complicite led by Simon McBurney. How do you think Complicite have changed and developed over their thirty year history?

MF: The continuity which was accepted even when they began was that it was always Simon McBurney driving it and it is still him driving it. The work that Complicite have done over the last five years is mostly unrecognisable from the work that they started doing initially: both intellectually different and an entirely different scale. This is because Simon has changed and developed as an artist himself. When they started they were like any other small scale touring company at the time: playing tiny spaces for no money. Now they are a sought after act that tours worldwide. Different from mainstream but also entirely mainstream. Early on it was purely a kind of street theatre and spontaneous: “Lets make whatever is in our minds work today”. The shows were devised over a period of time but they developed and changed very much in response to the audiences that they would play. Today I’m not sure that they do change the show in response to the audience because, like it or not, their shows are more mainstream.

PC: Are there any specific examples of that street theatre mentality, the live interaction between audience and performer, shaping particular pieces of work?

MF: Yes the British Council had paid for them to take A Minute Too Late to Chile in 1984. But there was a big language barrier: the kind of places that they went to in Chile, the audiences spoke no English and had little education. They really had to find a way of transcending language: focussing on what excites people. How can you draw people’s attention theatrically? What draws them in? How hard do you work? What is your energy level? What is your physicality? What is your connection with a whole group? You may decide to focus the whole group by focusing on one individual and making the whole group watch. They were put in a position where they had to spontaneously work out what drew audiences to them; what made them hold an audiences attention; what made them stop what they were doing and focus on this group of rather idiosyncratic people. That trip impacted on how they developed their performance level, their energy level and informed performances over the years that followed.

PC: That is fascinating in relation to their current context and their approach to connecting with audiences. With the live streamed version of The Encounter they connected with people on their screens at home.

MF: Did it work for you?

PC: Yes I enjoyed it on one level: the artistry of it and the storytelling but there was a distance, I didn’t completely engage with that liveness in the same way that an audience member in the same room would have. You have to be there, in that moment to fully appreciate the power of a performance like that.

MF: Simon, and indeed all the original company, have extraordinary stage presence, which I think is something that you can’t teach. A performer either has stage presence or they haven’t. Simon in particular has extraordinary stage presence. It may have started in stand up and comedy at Cambridge, where you learn how to control, as well as engage an audience. It was definitely developed when he went to study with Jacques Lecoq in Paris at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq.

Summary

  • Early on it was purely a kind of street theatre and spontaneous.
  • On an early tour to Chile they really had to find a way of transcending language: focussing on what excites people.
  • Simon, and indeed all the original company, have extraordinary stage presence, which I think is something that you can’t teach.

Part 2: Complicite: The Influence of Jacques Lecoq

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Influence
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Theatrical style

PC: How did the training with Lecoq influence their work?

MF: Simon articulates that Lecoq was the biggest influence on Complicite in its initial years. Lecoq’s ideas on playfulness – le jeu – were very influential. Lecoq really forced his students to be spontaneous, he put them on the spot. Lecoq wouldn’t have said “be funny” but when they were spontaneous and forcing an audience to watch them they tended to go for comedy rather than pathos. Students that were contemporaries of Simon and Marcello say they were always the two that you watched at Lecoq because they were the funniest. I think they learnt their mutual sense of humour through Lecoq. Simon was a stand up but his performance level through Lecoq became more subtle and mature and much more reliant on the body than a stand up is.

PC: Why did they choose to base themselves in Britain after training in Paris?

MF: Probably because Simon and Annabel had connections here and they thought they would start to get money from the Arts Council. None of them were from France. Maybe inside they knew that their work was going to be satirising the British and therefore they needed to begin it in Britain. The British have the ability to laugh at themselves and enjoy being satirised. And I think they got that.

PC: In those early days do you think there was a drive and a need to be popular as that would allow them to continue making work?

MF: I don’t think so. Accessible maybe. I don’t think that they were consciously driven and ambitious enough to know what their endgame was. They are the company that least panders to what they think the audience wants to see or what the Arts Council wants to hear. Of all the companies they are not the least bit interested in doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

PC: How do Complicite find inspiration for their work then?

MF: Now in the last fifteen years or so I think it comes from Simon’s intellect and his huge and eclectic reading and huge and eclectic social circle. A lot of the ideas that he bases the material on comes from an idea suggested by a friend of his: You should read that – you should have a look at that. In the first fifteen years again it was usually Simon who had the inspiration but I think it was slightly less intellectual as such and more instinctive so the second show was responding to the death of his father.

PC: Did their early work have a distinctive style?

MF: All their applications to the Arts Council describe themselves as a ‘physical theatre group’ even at times ‘a mime group’. Their applications for the Arts Council were all about being like Trestle. You don’t see that same physicality in the productions today. They are much more intellectually driven than focused on physicality. Maybe because there are so many physical theatre companies and it can’t be taken any further.

PC: Would you describe their style as distinctiveness then? They set out to be different?

MF: I don’t think self-consciously. Simon is not self-consciously trying to be different and find the next thing. It is just how it works.

Summary

  • Lecoq’s ideas on playfulness – le jeu – were very influential for Complicite
  • Simon was a stand up but his performance level through Lecoq became more subtle and mature and much more reliant on the body than a stand up is.
  • They wanted to satirise Thatcher’s Britain and the British have the ability to laugh at themselves and enjoy being satirised.
  • They are the company that least panders to what they think the audience wants to see or what the Arts Council wants to hear.
  • The work comes from Simon’s intellect and his huge and eclectic reading and huge and eclectic social circle.

Part 3: Complicite: The Almeida Season and The Visit

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Influence
  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Theatrical style

PC: Simon becomes the Artistic Director of Complicite and it is made up of returning associate artists. Now they are even expanding out to produce and support the work of interesting emerging artists. How did that shift from four members to just Simon happen?

MF: Marcello says that it came about after the season at the Almeida. It was kind of unique. I don’t think that it has ever been replicated. That a theatre gives over its entire repertoire to one company to put on something like 14 shows over 11 weeks. That is quite a long time to give over your theatre to a company. Nowadays they might programme Richard III for 11 weeks. At that time most of the programming was for 3 or 4 weeks when Pierre Audi was running it. So they suddenly really made it.

PC: What attracted Pierre Audi to Complicite?

MF: He saw that this was a company that merited a kind of retrospective. They revived most of their early shows as well as developing new ones. The main new one was Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. Marcello says it was the best time that they ever had. There was a huge buzz. The critics who had not always been friendly to them now revered them. And after it was over it was a kind of anti-climax and they all went off to do different things. Simon became sole director shortly after considering moving on as well. He decided to develop the company in a different way from the styles of the other three.

PC: What was the production style and approach for Dürrenmatt’s The Visit?

MF: It was the first time that they had done an existing play text rather than devising the material. And although they credited Maurice Valency as the translator they mucked about with it a lot more than was acknowledged. But they told the exact story of Durrenmatt. I believe his widow thought it was the best production of the play, in terms of the tone. She thought it captured the tragi-comedy that she hadn’t seen in any other productions. I think they suddenly felt free to experiment with style and form, which they hadn’t done in quite the same way when they were devising the material.

PC: Why did they feel that freedom with a text?

MF: Because they were working with a text that allowed them to throw a style on to an existing play. Most young directors prefer to do the classics, then they are reviewed for their work on it rather than the play. In that sense it is comparable with that – the critics were not reviewing the subject matter or content; they were reviewing Complicite’s style.

PC: It is interesting to think how criticism can influence creativity. Do you think they made the decision to do that specific text because they thought it would get attention?

MF: I don’t think it was as calculated as that I think it was more they could see that this particular text suited what they did. Although Annabel is credited as the director it was quite obviously Simon who was the co-director – He was playing the central male role – it was his idea. Simon and Annabel would go home every night and talk about what had happened and where they wanted to take it.

Summary

  • The Almeida theatre gave over its entire repertoire to Complicite to put on something like 14 shows over 11 weeks.
  • After the Almeida season Simon decided to develop the company in a different way from the styles of the other three original members
  • Doing The Visit by Dürrenmatt allowed them to throw a style on to an existing play.

Part 4: Complicite: Simon McBurney’s Approach to Theatre

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Theatrical style
  • Influence
  • Key collaborations with other artists

PC: After that season Simon took sole charge and has been creating and developing work ever since. I know we are focussing on the first half of their career but briefly how has Simon approached work since then? He finds something that interests him, it is researched. Then what?

MF: He plays games with the company and sees what works. There is an interesting documentary on Streets of Crocodiles: everybody is in a complete panic because it is three days to go and the show is not at all ready or in any fixed shape. The National is panicking and the other actors are panicking. Simon even shows a little bit of panic and yet it was one of their biggest triumphs. A week later, there it was, astonishing and experimental. I think he needs to work like that. Simon is going to work you for 24 hours in the last week in order to get it ready because that is how he likes to work. He obviously needs that kind of pressure. So initially it is all relaxed and gamey and suddenly it becomes very tense and pressured.

PC: And in that pressure cooker moment of three days to go, what strategies does he use to bring it together?

MF: By drilling: “Go there. Do that. Do less of that. Move that. Bring that light on there.”

PC: There seems to be interesting parallels between Simon’s approach and Joan Littlewood’s in terms of the mixture of improvisation, games and drilling.

MF: Joan Littlewood was exactly like Simon, it is one of the reasons he seems to revere her. She worked in exactly the same way. Again the idea was that everybody was contributing, it was democratic. But really it wasn’t, it was her driving everything. Again everything came together in the last very tense week. There are serious comparisons. She was iconic and idiosyncratic. He is not as rude and he is cannier and savvier about how to get money but Complicite have always have great producers and administrators. Joan Littlewood didn’t. She had Gerry Raffles who was brilliant in his own way but she was the one driving it. Simon has Judith Dimant as the producer who does all the administration and business side of things.

PC: How can your students at East 15 and younger students of theatre learn from Simon? Could they use his approach as a model?

MF: I don’t think they can. It is so much about him: his personality; his intellect; his imagination and his quirkiness. Complicite could not have happened without Simon. His working methods or his approach can’t be emulated.

PC: If you were encouraging students with that in mind, would you encourage them in terms of finding their own interests and creating their own work?

MF: Finding their own way of approaching theatre and theatricality. We’ll stay away from words like plays and texts. Finding their own ways of responding to subject matter with physicality and theatricality.

PC: Which brings us back to Jacques Lecoq and his approach, such a variety of different artists have come out of that: Steven Berkoff, Ariane Mnouchkine, Julie Taymor.

MF: Yes. None of them are Simon McBurney clones.

Summary

  • Initially the devising process is relaxed and gamey and suddenly it becomes very tense and pressured. Simon needs to work with that pressure.
  • Joan Littlewood was exactly like Simon, it is one of the reasons he seems to revere her.
  • The producer, Judith Dimant, is a key part of Complicite and is central to their process and work.
  • Simon’s working methods or his approach can’t be emulated. It is so much about him: his personality; his intellect; his imagination and his quirkiness.

Complicite productions in reverse chronological order with links: