Reverse psychology is a concept well-known to theatre marketing folk, it seems. Call a season Secret Theatre and everyone will spill the beans and demand to be let in . . . or so they hope.
It could backfire (some people really can keep a secret). In the case of this particular bunch of four plays at Northern Stage, however, I imagine it won’t.
The Secret Theatre season consists of two famous plays – A Streetcar Named Desire and Woyzeck – and two new ones – Chamber Piece by Caroline Bird and Glitterland by Hayley Squires.
Collectively and individually they have been a talking point in London, exciting audiences and reviewers. This is their first trip out of the capital and who wouldn’t want to see what the fuss has been about?
The mastermind behind Secret Theatre is Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith.
The Lyric is a Frank Matcham-designed theatre like our Theatre Royal but its programme is more in line with that of Northern Stage, whose own artistic director, Lorne Campbell, is eager for Secret Theatre to be a badly kept secret.
“The Lyric’s Secret Theatre company is one of the most exciting things to happen in British theatre in recent years,” he says.
“Bringing fresh energy and new thinking to great classic texts and the very best of new writing, they are creating theatre which is accessible and innovative, entertaining and deeply engaging.”
Explaining the new approach, Sean Holmes says: “It’s 10 actors and 10 other artists working together for two years.
“We’ve already done a year so we’ve made these four shows which have been on at the Lyric and are now coming to Newcastle.
“What that gives us, and the RSC is probably the closest thing to it, is a group of people who can bring more than one show out on tour. What we’ve done is make shows for different spaces, both main house and studios.
“It allows an audience to see up to four plays in a fortnight and to see the same actors playing very different parts in different plays.
“I think what that does – what I hope it does – is give the performances a different quality, because it’s a group of people who know each other very well. Also, we have been exploring ways of making the shows more visual.
“While being true to the narrative and making sure the story is clear, we have tried to marry that with a more visual, dynamic and physical European aesthetic.”
Sean says he has directed lots of really good plays by really good writers and “respects the writer as a primary artist”. But he says sometimes this can result in theatre that is “a bit safe and staid” – the opposite of what Secret Theatre was intended to be.
“If I was going to pick one thing that really excites me about Secret Theatre it’s the quality of acting. What audiences really want, I think, is exciting acting when you get to see people doing something that surprises you.”
Sean says he assembled a relatively young company of actors to capitalise on “youthful energy”, picking those who didn’t glaze over or look scared when the challenge ahead was explained.
“What is really exciting about coming to Newcastle is that Lorne Campbell has been really supportive and Northern Stage is perfect because it has the main house and also the studio spaces,” he says.
“People are welcome to come and see one of the plays but the icing on the cake would be if they came to to see more than one to see how the same actor tackles very different roles.”
Seasoned Newcastle theatre-goers will not find the idea of an acting ensemble too strange.
The Royal Shakespeare Company came here for many years, with actors darting between various venues and costumes (in 2002, Sean’s brilliant RSC production of The Roman Actor was a Northern Stage hit). We also saw Alan Lyddiard’s Northern Stage Ensemble multi-tasking for several years before the funding dried up.
It turns out that Secret Theatre was a response to refurbishment work at the Lyric Hammersmith which put the main auditorium temporarily out of bounds. “I suppose the least creative thing in the world is if you’ve got adequate funding and no concerns at all,” confesses Sean.
If the Newcastle residency is a success, it might be repeated elsewhere. This is what’s in store for us . . .
A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
“It’s a play that has been done in the same way in this country ever since it was first performed in 1947,” says Sean Holmes.
“Everyone speaks with a New Orleans accent. Let’s call it poetic naturalism.
“We’ve done a production that is faithful to the story but we have made it very fresh and surprising and, I think, more powerful.
“I think we have released it from the pressures of the film and Marlon Brando.
“I think the period is, in some ways, the least interesting thing about the play. We haven’t given the characters mobile phones or anything but I think we have found ways to make it contemporary.
“If none of your actors is, visually, a natural to play Blanche, Stella or Stanley, you have to look at the play differently.”
Woyzeck (Georg Büchner)
The German playwright’s final work was unfinished when he died in 1837.
It tells the tragic tale of a soldier, the Franz Woyzeck of the title, who lives with his wife and illegitimate child and whose life starts to unravel after he agrees to take part in some medical experiments.
It ends tragically, so far as it does end, and it remained unperformed for years. Subsequently, it has fuelled countless productions and become a classic.
“It’s quite a fragmented play but we’ve made something very visual out of it,” says Sean.
“Lots of people have attempted to finish the play but it’s a curious thing, perhaps more of an event than anything else.
“We have tried to make a sensory experience out of it and I think audiences have responded to that, finding it quite exciting.”
Chamber Piece (Caroline Bird)
This, from an up-and-coming writer, is decribed by Sean as “a really dark black comedy set in a slightly alternative Britain where the death penalty still exists.
“It looks at what happens if someone who’s meant to die doesn’t.”
He suggests: “There’s quite a lot of Joe Orton in the way events spin out of control and there is a big twist at the end.
“The play was very successful in London. It’s a dark subject but I think people found it really rewarding.”
Sean says the play is performed at quite a lick, which has had a knock-on effect. After the cast went straight from Chamber Piece to A Streetcar Named Desire, the Tennessee Williams play reached its final curtain 10 minutes earlier than normal.
Glitterland (Hayley Squires)
It’s loosely based, according to advance publicity, on The White Devil – John Webster’s revenge tragedy looking at sex, death and corruption in high places.
But it doesn’t matter if you know the Jacobean play or not, according to Sean, who says the Squires play is set in a world with a clear connection between Hollywood and the political system – as under the American presidency of JF Kennedy, who was serenaded on his birthday by a breathy Marilyn Monroe.
One critic called Glitterland “a thick slice of slick pulp fiction”.
This production would seem to benefit from the off-stage half of the Secret Theatre company, including the set and lighting designers.The four Secret Theatre plays are being performed at Northern Stage on various dates between June 4 and 14. For tickets and details of a related workshop programme, visit www.northernstage.co.uk or call 0191 230 5151.