Interview: SYCORAX Theatre Company on Debut Show Obsolete Tomfoolery

Sycorax Theatre Company makes its debut with new work Obsolete Tomfoolery which delves into the fascinating social history of witch trials for purposes both comic and thought provoking. It’s set to play the Camden Fringe at the Etcetera Theatre 13th-21st August, so I caught up with the company to cover all things new company, new show and theatre…

6270965e-8201-4569-9698-b353cffba08c.pngTell us a little about Sycorax Theatre as a company – what is the story behind the name and where, when and how did it all start?

SYCORAX Theatre Company was born at East 15 Drama School, when a group of MA Actors were given the project of devising a show in the space of 2 weeks. We threw ourselves into the challenge headfirst and Obsolete Tomfoolery was born!

The name SYCORAX comes from a character from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. As a bunch of theatre nerds we were drawn to this woman who, on first reading, appears to be nothing more than an evil witch. Sycorax has now come to be viewed as a symbol for silenced voices and female magic. We felt like she stands for a lot of what we’re interested in as a company – the undiscovered voices and a bit of naughty sorcery!

What would you say is the central vision and goal for the company? 

Our goal is to get stories out in the public domain which seem to have been forgotten or swept under history’s mighty rug. We want to give a voice to the underdog and those who do not reflect the mainstream narrative. But we always want to do so in a different and fun way. Our mission statement says it all: Our ambition is to unearth untold stories. We question the received narrative of events, creating theatre that is provocative, innovative and fun.

Your new show Obsolete Tomfoolery sounds fascinating – it follows the story of Helen Duncan, a famous medium of the 1940s – what can you tell us about the show and what drew Sycorax Theatre to it?

JB – We originally heard the story of Helen Duncan on a true crime podcast and were instantly drew to the story. We couldn’t believe that no one in the company had already heard of this seemingly fascinating woman! We found it utterly shocking that in 1945 people were still being tried under centuries old witchcraft laws and thought it was a story that still had relevance today. It’s a story that offers no easy answers and has even divided the company as to whether people think Helen Duncan was genuine or not!

Obsolete Tomfoolery looks at ‘human reactions to war, grief and fear’ – how does the show find humour in relation to these central ideas?

It sees the light-hearted side of these shared human experiences. When we started out creating the show we did not intend on ‘making humour’ out of the themes of the story of Helen Duncan. We did group improvisations and found that humans often do funny and daft things where fear is concerned. Like some men of history (and present day) being scared of powerful women so THEY MUST BE WITCHES. A woman… knowing things and making men look foolish?!?!?! WITCH! You’ve got to admit… that is pretty funny.

The show is ‘inspired by the spectacle of séances themselves’ – is there a consciously visual element to the show in the light of this or do you at any point seek to recreate the atmosphere of the sèance in some way? 

We are indeed stimulated by the atmosphere séances create and have each been to one as motivation for our show. We have encompassed lighting and visual imagery to set a mood within certain parts of the play that provides a glimmer of what a séance could be like, both with Helen Duncan in 1944 and today. However, we have not attempted to authentically and entirely re-create what we have seen in our research. Obsolete Tomfoolery is also inspired by Brecht and Cabaret and we see the show as a comedy in parts. As a company Sycorax recognise that to have ‘light’ in comedy we need the ‘shade.’ So we hope to show a sparkle of essences under each.

Obsolete Tomfoolery promises to ask ‘uncomfortable and often unanswerable questions’ and also asks why so many women been accused of witchcraft’ – do you feel that your show seeks to create resonance with contemporary issues in the news when it comes to telling the stories of wronged women? 

We didn’t initially set out to seek a parallel with contemporary issues on women. Obsolete Tomfoolery first and foremost focuses on the story of Helen Duncan, Britain’s last convicted witch in 1944.

However, as we delved further into rehearsals and research we began to uncover stories from all around the world that portrayed how prominent and relative our show is today. One only needs to look at how alleged victims in rape trials (who are predominantly women) are judged on their characteristics and sexual history, something that doesn’t happen to victims of robbery or assault, for example.

As a company, Sycorax aim to unravel untold stories and depict them in a way that isn’t telling the audience how to feel. Rather we invite them to be curious and question their narrative.  How each audience member leaves the theatre is entirely up to them. That’s what excites us so much.3aac314e-8844-4084-8cd8-a51913677332.pngThe show is billed as being ‘as side-splittingly funny as it is thought-provoking’ – how in your view does the show manage to accomplish both? 

As a company we were keen to tell Helen Duncan’s story without forcing a specific opinion on the audience. Through our devising process we found that humour allowed us to balance out the darker or more serious aspects of her life and offer alternative viewpoints. We want to make theatre that anyone can watch and enjoy so it was vital to us that the show was both engaging and upbeat. The dance between comedy and tragedy keeps the audience on their toes for the whole piece, and allows us to play with them more.

Would you say Obsolete Tomfoolery leans towards comedy or drama slightly more, or is this a more precisely crafted combination?

Probably a crated combination. We’re careful not to become too dependent on either crutch, as we find it’s better to have balance.

The history of witchcraft has inspired many well known stories and characters – from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to satire in The Simpsons and onwards to The Crucible, Charmed, Bewitched, The Witches of Eastwick, Hocus Pocus and Sabrina the Teenage Witch – and on and on…and on! Have any contemporary characters or stories inspired any of the performances in your show?  

What became clear when we started researching Helen Duncan was how much people continue to be falsely persecuted for being witches – the individual stories are endless and it felt important to tell her story and make it clear that this notion isn’t just part of history. We were struck by the fact that female politicians are often labelled as witches and that in parts of the world people are still banished and killed for being a “witch”.

You’ll see some government ministers in the show and we’ll leave you to work out where we drew the inspiration for them from…. For the comedy, we’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Monty Python and Blackadder! We love satire and creating larger than life physical characters. You’ll also see how the MC from Cabaret has inspired us in developing the character of Harry Price, the psychic researcher who wanted to debunk Helen Duncan. As with our other characters, we wanted to show a different side to Harry Price and the MC allowed us to do this.

The show promises ‘everything from physical theatre to music hall songs’ – how do such things work within the piece as a whole? Do each of these styles have a specific function within the piece; songs specifically for comic relief for example? 

We don’t want the audience to leave our show and all have the same opinion about Helen. We want to make sure the different sides to her story are shown and using physical theatre/ song allows us to do this. The styles don’t serve a specific function. We use physical theatre both at the most harrowing and at the most comedic moments of the piece. There are things which physicality can help the audience to experience that words and “naturalistic” acting cannot. Equally with song, we feel that music is a powerful tool and have used it both for light relief and for moments of sincerity. It works because we are giving the audience samples of the different areas of Helen’s life and her relevance now so that when they leave they have questions and are inspired to find out more. I think we’ve described it as h’ordeuvres, a sample of lots of exciting things, not too much of anything.

What would you say are your core intentions as producers of a a play like Obsolete Tomfoolery?

Our core intentions have always been to show the many different sides to Helen’s story and to allow the audience to decide. We’re not really interested in telling anyone what we think or what they should feel , instead its more about offering different viewpoints.

If an audience takes just one thing away from seeing Obsolete Tomfoolery, what would you like that to be?

I think the one thing we want people to leave with is the sense of questioning. It’d be great to have people in the pub after continuing the debate and working out what they think not only about Helen’s story but also modern day witches and the connotations that that comes with both positive and negative. So really just a good old debate over a pint!D7CB3044-5E06-477A-B0D7-95A49DB4BA19Now for the Quick Fire Round!

Who or what has inspired you most in theatre? 

Claire– Julie Walters, hands down.

Eleanor H– Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Olivier I adore them.

Eleanor G-The Python lads!

Eleanor P– Complicité

Jess– Joan Littlewood

Katie– My school theatre and my drama teacher from 11-18

Favourite theatre genre and why?

Claire– Comedy – when it’s done well it’s so clever. Was blown away by The Play that Goes Wrong because the comedic timing was so impeccable

Eleanor H– Ohhh what a question! I’m gonna cheat and say Shakespeare because that way I get a bit of everything!

Eleanor G– love a bit of everything. Need a bit of drama, comedy, musicals, trauma and Shakespeare in my life. I couldn’t pick a fave.

Eleanor P– I’m not sure what it would be called but I like theatre that combines media and song and music… I like when it appeals to multiple senses.

Jess– That’s like asking a parent to pick a favourite child! I need different things at different times, sometimes there’s nothing better than a well done Shakespeare and at others I need some very angry political shows!

Katie– I don’t necessarily love a certain genre, more a story that is gripping and told in an enigmatic way.

Do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ tale? 

Claire– During amateur theatre once a girl forgot her line and said to the audience “sorry I’ve just forgotten my line” during a very sincere moment. Was hard to bring it back after that.

Eleanor H– I was playing Pentheus in the Bacchae, a character notoriously void of humour and mid way through me rambling on about how powerful I was my servant brought on a prisoner bound by a belt which promptly snapped right in front of me leaving my long sought after prisoner completely free and able to escape. The effort it took to not corpse was incredible!

Eleanor G- Picture this. I’m mid-way through a performance of Sweeney Todd, I’m onstage acting my little socks off and Mrs Lovett goes offstage and all you can hear in the auditorium over the microphone (not yet turned off) is ‘’oh god quick I need a poo, move move I’m going to poo myself’’. It was awkward to say the least

Eleanor P– Cheesecloth is a vital prop in our show. Halfway through our first ever performance we realised we’d left it in the dressing room… it led to some scarf-based improvisation!

Jess– In Edinburgh last year, we were performing in what can only be described as an underground oven and I’d had a few too many vodka and iron brus the night before. I honestly thought I was going to faint mid-show, but I managed to get to end and no one noticed – hopefully!

Katie– In a recent play Woman in Mind, a fellow actor had to come on carrying a folded table and tray with glasses and plates on. Needless to say there was a night when they were all dropped and smashed. That was terrifying on stage but hilarious to think of after when we knew we dealt with it well

Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line?

Eleanor H– If we are talking phones and chatting I’m 100% for a phone ban. People are unfortunately unable to stay off their tech these days so lock it away for the show.

Eleanor G– Like phones and stuff? NOT FUTILE – theatre etiquette is so important. It is live performance and all humans could be politely educated in NOT using phones everrrrrr, not coming in late, not talking, not eating. It takes the actors out of their performance and it jolts audience members out of the world being created before them!

Jess– For me, creating a respectful and mutually supportive environment is absolutely key to making good work. Only when people feel safe can they do their best. However, when the debates start to eclipse the devising then it’s time to draw the line.

If you could bring change in terms of opportunities in Theatre to London right now, what would it be? What does London need?

Claire-More affordable opportunities!! Free rehearsal spaces and chances to perform are essential!

Eleanor H– Diversity! We are from East 15 a school which is, according to the stage the most diverse of the Drama schools and yet in a year of 50 we have 2 BAME actors. I’d like to see diversity tackled from grass roots level and supported all the way to Masters level. In my opinion theatre should represent society and thats pretty hard when its just a bunch of middle class white kids who are being churned out.

Eleanor G–  would love to see a re-introduction of repertory theatre. I feel as though being able to audition for repertory theatre companies and having more opportunities to learn on the job would make mainstream theatre so much more inclusive of people from all back grounds (regardless of drama school training!). Fringe theatre is ace though obviously and inclusive and thanks for that.

Eleanor P-Diversity still has a long way to go so championing that and I’d love to see more support of new musical theatre writing.

Jess– Access, access, access! From a young age people need to be told they have a voice that is valid and interesting. By the time we get to adults in theatre it’s too late, diversity and inclusion must begin in schools.

Finally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence!

Witches in WWII being investigated by MI5; you’d be mad to miss that.

So there you have it! Remember, Obsolete Tomfoolery plays the Camden Fringe at Etcetera Theatre 13th – 31st August and you can find tickets here.

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