Kneehigh’s Irreverence: Subverting the Mainstream

This is the fifth in a series of interviews about the history of Kneehigh with Dr Duška Radosavljevic. The interviews provide an introduction to the company and an academic’s outside eye on Kneehigh as a devising ensemble.

Do use the Kneehigh Cookbook and their Vimeo site for more free online digital resources from the company. In addition there is a fifteen minute audio clip of Emma Rice ‘On Directing’ that I believe captures the spirit of how Kneehigh currently work.

Dr Duška Radosavljevic is a Reader in Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her research interests include contemporary British and European theatre practice as well as more specifically, ensemble theatre and dramaturgy.

Duška has worked as the Dramaturg at the Northern Stage Ensemble, an education practitioner at the Royal Shakespeare Company. As a dramaturg, she has worked with various local, national and international theatre artists and organisations including New Writing North, Dance City, Dramaturgs’ Network, National Student Drama Festival, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Circomedia. In 2015 she was the dramaturg on Robert Icke’s Oresteia at the Almeida. Between 1998 and 2010, Duška was a member of The Stage Awards for Acting Excellence panel of judges at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has written hundreds of theatre and dance reviews for the Stage Newspaper. She also writes for Exeunt.

Duška’s academic publications include award-winning Theatre-Making (Palgrave 2013), The Contemporary Ensemble (Routledge 2013), Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes (Bloomsbury Methuen 2016) as well as many chapters in various collections including one on Kneehigh in Liz Tomlin’s British Theatre Companies: 1995-2014 (Bloomsbury Methuen 2015).

PC: You mentioned that Kneehigh’s early work was influenced by the quite radical alternative theatre scene. Do you think their work still has this quality?

DR: People question whether Kneehigh’s work is inherently conservative or inherently radical or whether it is political at all. This is because when work at some point becomes commercial it therefore becomes part of the mainstream even if it had started off as being radical. It loses the initial impact, it loses political weight. But actually my argument in relation to Kneehigh has been to highlight the importance of the political underpinnings of the work: Kneehigh’s work has in fact never been overtly political, the political values were contained in the inherent subversiveness – the ‘naughtiness’ – that has always run through the work. Even when they became more of a structured company they always retained this irreverence and subversiveness in the way that worked. This is obviously the way they were when they went to Stratford and presented Shakespeare on their own terms. They weren’t trying to conform or respect the local traditions. It was about doing it the way they had always done things. Being faithful to their own emotional memory. Having those qualities run through the work, their political drives remind me of the kind of work that Dario Fo has done: very populist but very political, though maybe a bit more overtly political than Kneehigh’s work.

PC: Is what they do still subversive even though they have gone into the West End and the RSC and the National?

DR: Yes. They have got to all these pinnacles of British theatre but on their own terms. They make sure that the experience of the piece becomes the dominant experience of the audience within this time and space. There was a big political change in 1989 and what we consider to be political theatre up until then changed. We had to reconsider the mainstream, think about what is radical in performance: what actually engages the audience fully? People talk about ‘immersive’ theatre as if it’s a new thing but actually there were companies and artists who were motivated by that desire in the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the legacy of that in Brief Encounter at the Haymarket cinema. It was essentially a site-specific piece because it was done in the place where the film was originally screened. The set designer was Neil Murray but in this case every aspect of the experience was designed: there were rose petals in the toilets, thick carpets and ushers and usherettes with pillbox hats around the auditorium before the show and in the interval who stepped on and off the stage to assume other characters. The use of actors in the interval of Brief Encounter draws the attention away from what is customarily done in the British playhouses: the consumption of ice cream. I think this might point to their roots in creating outdoor events when they had to take into account all aspects of the audience experience. Outdoor events are so much less containable because the audience could be a lot more anarchic: doing unexpected things. If you have to make an effort to contain the audience within the storytelling experience, as part of the actual framework of the piece itself, then somehow you are more likely to control the audience. So in this case you could argue Brief Encounter was an immersive experience as a result of the evident consideration of all the aspects of the event’s design to the minutest detail.