How do you get a non-theatre goer – particularly a young non-theatre goer – to give the theatre a go? Venus/Mars, the latest production at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre – a hotbed for the development of innovative new work – is aiming to address that problem. The play tells the story of a young couple’s relationship, from first random meeting in a nightclub through frisky, happy times to heart-wrenching break-up. Written by Hackney born-and-bred Patrice Etienne (incidentally, a former child actor in the legendary kids show Byker Grove), the fast-paced script employs a Peep Show-style device with the characters – Daniel (played by Adrian Decosta) and Michelle (played by Samantha Pearl) – verbalising the thoughts and feelings underlying their conversations. This vividly exposes the gap between what people think and say in an effort to find common ground in the early stages of mutual attraction and how that well-meaning dishonesty can eventually destroy a relationship. A musician/performer clad in black (Jill Cardo) interacts silently with the two principal characters, perhaps representing their inner voice or conscience, before adding her voice to the climactic argument when the truth surfaces.
With an exclusive soundtrack contributed by Radio 1 DJ, Dev, and the youthful language of a sharp, witty script, it is no wonder that the play received a standing ovation from an audience of 90 teenagers when it showcased at the Brit School. But even for an older chap like myself, who wouldn’t be heard dead saying ‘whatevs’, the themes of the play resonate. This is all the more commendable given that the director of the play is a 25-year-old debutant, Rikki Henry, a protégé of legendary theatre director Peter Brook.
“My thinking in terms of theatre is just to connect,” says Henry. “So, if I’m doing my job properly, if the words don’t hit you, the symbols will. It’s all about telling stories in a very connected way.”
“I’m fortunate because they are brilliant actors. Rehearsals were intense, tough. You have to bend your soul. You are trying to approach things in a very chaotic way because the way the play is written asks a lot of you.”
A Brit School alumni himself, Henry has wanted to be a director since the age of 16. “I never wanted to be on the stage myself,” he says. “Telling the story objectively and just gauging people and how to get the best out of them is what interests me most.’
He studied film production at the University of the Creative Arts, where as well as making short movies on digital camera, he learnt how to edit film the old-fashioned way, with a splicer. His interest in theatre blossomed when a uni friend told him about a project at the Young Vic.
“I went along and just sort of stayed there. I asked if I could stay in the rehearsal rooms or if I could watch someone’s technical rehearsal and it built up from there.
They let me come and see plays. They saw that I was very keen. Very keen. I was relentless, really.”
Peter Brook recognised Henry’s passion and ability and invited him to work as an assistant director on a play called The Suit, a story set in a South African Township in the 1950s, in which a husband punishes his unfaithful wife by making her treat the suit left behind by her lover as an honored house guest. Over the past year The Suit has been staged in Paris, Madrid, London, Italy, China and New York, an important learning experience for Henry.
“Travel opens your mind to see things in a very open way and asks you to build on the muscle you already have,” he says. “I lost some of the fear I used to have just being somewhat responsible for the company of The Suit – setting up rehearsals, reworking the scenes, altering the lighting to adapt to different theatres. And you’re telling older actors what to do. Even when I’m getting it wrong, I’m building something and it’s taking me somewhere new.”
Henry came straight off that international tour to oversee rehearsals for Venus/Mars. One reviewer of the London Old Vic production of the The Suit noted that it used ‘fewer props than are seen in most school plays’, and the confines of the small theatre space at the Old Red Lion pub required similar restraint and ingenuity.
‘Often when I’ve worked on productions I’ve done a bit too much, so I tried to see the space stripped down so some things are quietly expressed and certain things can explode.’
The result is a very promising directorial debut and a play that’s certainly worth a go.
Venus/Mars is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, Islington, until 15 June. For tickets call 08444124307