A world premiere arrives at York Theatre Royal this week (28 October-12 November 2022) in the shape of “Guy Fawkes” – a new comedy taking an unconventional look at the infamous York-born villain. Here, Director Gemma Fairlie, whose theatre credits include “Cressida” at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School; “Cinderella” and “Jack & the Beanstalk” at Stephen Joseph Theatre; and “A Christmas Carol” at Theatre By the Lake, chats about the journey of bringing this new work to the stage…
How did you get involved with the Guy Fawkes project?
The Penny Dreadfuls wrote the radio play about Guy Fawkes in 2009, which I heard and thought would work brilliantly as a theatre piece. So in 2010 I approached the guys and we started to have conversations. It always takes time to get everybody in the room and start to figure out how it might work but I knew David (David Reed, the writer) was excited about making it theatrical and exploring the journey of the characters in a different medium.
What intrigued you about the play?
Guy Fawkes gets caught. Everyone knows that. But how can you shift an audience’s perception about a story they think they know? Are there moments where we hope he doesn’t get caught? Are there moments when we are on his side and want to blow up parliament? It’s like Hamlet or King Lear. Everyone knows they die but you want the audience to have that moment where they don’t want that to happen, where they want a different ending. Can we have Guy as a hero and an anti-hero? And can a story that is so clearly a tragedy about a man that fails actually work as a comedy that makes us question that failure?
When did York Theatre Royal get involved?
That was around 10 years ago when we brought the play to York with the idea of the theatre being a co-producer or partner. I came to a programme meeting at the Theatre Royal and pitched the idea. They were really excited. Of course, it absolutely is a York originated story although it’s set in London, and that’s a vital part of it. The North-South divide, particularly what that meant in the 1600s and how that relates to the characters and their experiences, is vital to the story.
Then Covid happened and the planned York production was postponed.
What’s great is that this is absolutely the right time to put it on. What put Parliament back between 1604 and 1605 was the plague. What kept stymying them was this awful medical emergency and in the same way Covid has shifted our perspectives and our timescale over the last three years. It feels very prescient in that way. I think there’s disappointment and frustration with our current political system and a great deal of tribalism happening. It’s obviously very different to the persecution of Protestants and the Catholics, and what was happening politically in Guy Fawkes time, but there is a parallel in terms of underlying tension and fear, with nobody knowing if they’re safe or quite knowing what’s going to happen next, what the next government will bring. Now is the perfect time to be doing this play.
The play is billed as a comedy but the Gunpowder Plot – an attempt to blow up Parliament – was a serious matter.
What we are brilliant at in the UK is satire. This comes from a long tradition going back to pamphlets about the Whigs and political cartoons in general all the way through Monty Python, The Fast Show, even Spitting Image which has recently had a renaissance. We love to skewer our political leaders, we love to question and cause trouble with humour. That’s absolutely what the arts should be doing – questioning our society and our values and what we hold dear as humans. Otherwise what’s the point? For us as a team it’s about finding the right tone for the play – between comedy and the ultimate tragedy. So, sometimes there is slapstick and it is very silly but there is an underlying truth and passion to this story and a real darkness to Guy’s fervour.
What should audiences expect?
We want people to discover the story of Guy Fawkes afresh. It’s really important people come in knowing it’s a comedy so that doesn’t freak them out, but I think of it a bit like Blackadder Goes Forth. The end of the series where they have to go over the top is a really heartbreaking moment. You have a bunch of clowns and they’ve been ridiculous, you’ve laughed at them a lot but you’ve also invested in them and grown to love them. That’s so important. The moment at the end where you think they’re all going to die, that’s incredibly moving, and that’s what comedy can do. If you laugh at someone you start to care about them and really invest in their journey. We want our audience to laugh, laugh, laugh and then hopefully cry at the end.
You did casting auditions in Yorkshire – how important was that?
It was absolutely essential we represented York in the show and we have that authentic voice. We wanted to put York actors in front of York audiences and celebrate local talent. Also, having the right mix of people in the room that (a) an audience would love and (b) who would have comedy bones was key. You have to know very clearly who they are as characters and they’ve also got to work together as a team. We’re very lucky to have found a wonderfully talented bunch and it’s a total joy for David (Reed) and I to see it come to life, and see what the cast bring to it.
Was there ever a point you thought you might not direct Guy Fawkes because of your pregnancy?
Absolutely not. I was always aiming to direct it whether it was with a babe in arms or the day before being induced in hospital. Guy Fawkes has been my baby for so long, so what’s really lovely for me is to see this theatre baby come to life while I my son grows in utero. It’s kind of crazy to know they are both finally going to be out there in the world as both babies have taken me quite a long time to bring to life. Plus, laughter is really good for you in pregnancy and I’m getting lots of that in the rehearsal room!
What’s next work-wise?
Directing Cinderella at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough this Christmas. I’m very lucky I get to have this time in the rehearsal room at two incredible theatres, doing the thing I absolutely love, before I meet my son.
What sort of work are you attracted to?
I do a lot of Shakespeare, new work, and I come from a physical theatre background so I do movement and choreography within that, and occasionally a bit of circus as well. The pieces that I’m drawn to tend to have an epic edge to them, and they always have to have heart. Generally they will have moments of big physicality and lots of comedy. When I go to Scarborough I’ll be directing and choreographing five actors playing the whole story of Cinderella, playing multi roles and singing their hearts out. I love that I go from Guy Fawkes with a stage revolve, pyro technics and sword fights to Scarborough, working in the round with lots of strictly come dancing moves and glitter. That’s the real joy of being a freelance director.
So there you have it! “Guy Fawkes” plays York Theatre Royal from October 28th to November 12th 2022 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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