Melly Still came to prominence as a director for her production of Jamila Gavin’s Whitbread winning novel, Coram Boy, a sweeping 18th century-set tale that didn’t shy away from depicting the realities of the time, featuring abandoned and murdered babies and a public hanging.
She talks to musicOMH about her production of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, which is about to open at the National, and about taking Coram Boy to Broadway.
The National Theatre’s website carries a curt little reminder that its forthcoming production of The Revenger’s Tragedy is suitable only for those aged 15 and over. Given that both Melly Still’s recent productions of Coram Boy and Watership Down were designed with young people in mind, even if their appeal was far broader than that, I wondered if this was intentional, whether she had chosen to move towards material that was more adult in nature? No, she answers, there was not any specific aim to move away from theatre for young people. ‘I enjoy variety.’ And while it’s true that The Revenger’s Tragedy deals with, as she says, ‘aspects of the human condition perhaps inappropriate for younger audiences,’ her ‘children’s’ productions didn’t exactly shy away from darker themes, pain and death were realities in both. It’s a fine line. Following her production for the National, Still will be devising a production of Cinderella for the Lyric and then a staging of Rusalka for Glyndebourne, both fairytales with ribbons of black running through them.
Still studied Theatre, Dance and Art at St John’s College, York and worked as a designer and choreographer before she began directing. Her work as a designer included Grimm Tales for the Young Vic. Does her background in design have a bearing on her work as a director? Does she begin with the visual? Only to a point, she explains. ‘Initially I worked in visual arts and choreography that’s how my brain works. And Middleton is all-encompassing in terms of his approach to theatre, encompassing visual arts, music and dance so it feels natural to fulfil that vision. Middleton loved masque, so we’ve spent a lot of time exploring that form and have been working with dancers, developing material around that.’
In Coram Boy music played a central role, with Handel’s Messiah threading through the entire production. Here, music while not so fundamental to the piece, still plays an important part in the fabric of the production. Still describes how the driving rhythms inherent in the text reminded her of the ‘driving beat of club music.’ As a result she set about recruiting DJs, and the music for The Revenger’s Tragedy is provided by Adrian Sutton and Different Gear (aka Gino Scaletti and Quinn Whalley).
Still’s take on Middleton’s revenge tragedy is not set in 1606 though it draws on that world instead the story is allowed ‘to unfold in the present day’ despite the resulting anachronisms. ‘Nowadays in London,’ she explains, ‘there are so many different people, different cultures and attitudes and beliefs.’ Some of these are not too dissimilar from those that existed in Middleton’s England so ‘it seems fitting to be discussing male honour, chastity and virtue, things that are all determined by patriarchy.’ These ideas still resonate. The misogyny that Middleton satirises is not as removed as we might think. However the ‘present day’ of the production is not a world of laptops and mobile phones the characters still have swords, something that felt right in context as ‘vengeful thoughts reside in fantasy.’
It was after Coram Boy that the idea was first mooted to stage a revenge tragedy at the National. At first they discussed devising something based on Caravaggio, but when they returned to the idea a year ago Middleton’s tragedy was settled on. The rehearsal process for The Revenger’s Tragedy has gone by in a flash. The company have been ‘fantastic, quite brilliant to work with,’ capable of coping with the physical and the poetic aspects of the production. Still is clearly excited about the fact that Rory Kinnear, who won an Olivier Award for The Man Of Mode, is playing Vindice. He’s an actor with such ‘scope and insight. I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. He explores the humanity in every single line.’
Still is also quite passionate about the prospect of bringing Middleton to the stage. He is ‘such a different writer to Shakespeare; he deals with human psychology quite emblematically, he is driven and angry.’ There is a lot of ‘disaffection with the world’ in The Revenger’s Tragedy, it deals with how to ‘live virtuously in a world that is seething with duplicity and corruption, to work out how you can live in that world’.
The Revenger’s Tragedy, part of the Travelex 10 season, opens at the National’s Olivier Theatre on 4 June and is booking until 7 August 2008.
Read the musicOMH review of The Revenger’s Tragedy here.