Interview: Rachael Walton

Presumption, the new production by the inventive Sheffield company Third Angel, was one of musicOMH’s 2006 favourites.

Now the show is going on a national tour, and co-founder Rachael Walton has stepped back from the stage to direct, passing her starring role to Unlimited Theatre’s Lucy Ellinson.
Walton’s personal investment in the role made this an interesting challenge, and found her in a reflective mood. “I thought it was going to be hard because of the nature of the show, how it was made. When it started it was very much my piece, my character, so when I was rehearsing someone else into that role I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it.”

So did they try to rebuild the character from scratch? “We started off with Lucy trying to do a lot more devising” says Walton.”In the end, though, it’s almost exactly the same show as it was originally.”

Presumption had its origins in a scratch night piece in which furniture was brought onstage to recreate the setting for a scene the audience never actually sees. Evolving this into the finished show involved all sorts of of blind alleys, including trying to write the play that might have held the scene we never see.

“We tried to write a play in rehearsals, lots of love letters, exploring feelings. We abandoned that. We wanted to get the sense of a couple being in a relationship and just going through the same words and the same situation to the point where you’re in a pattern of behaviour that you just can’t escape.”

Whilst the more physical elements of the show provide much of the underlying dark humour, Walton doesn’t see this as the defining element of the show. “We’ve been very careful not to try and sell it as actual physical theatre as it’s not, it’s not physical enough for that,” she says, adding, however, that “Lucy’s got some very bruised knees! For some people it’s just an investigation of love, and for others it will be – other things.”

Presumption is a remarkably accessible production when compared with much experimental theatre, partly because it doesn’t rely on an audience’s inbuilt knowledge of existing conventions and techniques in order to get its point across. To Rachel this was a risk in itself – “I know that some people, and some venues won’t like Presumption because they’ll say it’s too mainstream, that it’s not really experimental theatre. But to us it is experimental – it’s us doing experiments for ourselves, not slotting into some genre.”

Shifting between mediums has always been part of the Third Angel mission. “What we always had in mind was that we wanted to do whatever it is that we wanted to do. This sounds quite simple but turned out to be quite difficult, especially in relation to the Arts Council, to venues, or even to the people who are following your work!”

“Presumption is the first time we’ve had a script in 12 years!”
– Rachael Walton on Third Angel’s new production.

Rachael says that the Third Angel style, which feels so complete in their recent work, has evolved both because of, and despite, their competing directions.

“Until a few years ago we had two often distinct audiences – a gallery, live art audience and a theatre audience – and our work did start out very sectional. Experiment Zero, which was our first, was very definitely all this-is-this-bit and this-is-the-other-bit and I think that’s just because that was the way we knew how to make our work.

At that point Alex Kelly was quite into storytelling and I was very anti-storytelling and was more into doing live art work. As our work’s progressed I’ve become more interested in narrative, but not so much linear narrative as other ways of telling a story, ways of trying to develop a relationship with an audience but still being able to step out of it, step through the fourth wall.”

With Presumption the narrative may be fractured, but the finished piece feels utterly complete, and has changed very little in its touring version. It also has a lot of well crafted monologue. So had Third Angel, via the devising process created a final, written text which could perhaps in future be resurrected by other companies – in other words had they written a play?

“I’m not sure”, says Walton. “I’m a terrible ad libber – I just make things up and refuse to write down lines. However Chris Thorpe is a writer, so his sections were written down. We’ll be opening in Birmingham and it’ll be the first time we’ve had a script in 12 years!”

Presumption is on tour during February and March, starting at the Birmingham Rep – dates are on the Third Angel website.

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