Derby LIVE: Exits & Entrances
The Taming of the Shrew is Derby Theatre's final professional show. Pat Ashworth looks back with Pete Meakin, artistic director of Derby LIVE, on three adventurous years of produced theatre in the city.
Finding an actress to play the title role in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew was a piece of cake, says Pete Meakin happily. His choice of Lizzie Winkler has all kinds of resonances, especially as she is ‘one of ours’, a product of the Derby Youth and Community Theatre, who went on to RADA and to a series of fine roles at the National Theatre.
For Meakin, she is something of a symbol of what a producing theatre is all about. With no Arts Council funding forthcoming, professional theatre will not be made in Derby from the end of this month, an inestimable loss to the cultural life of the city and a further vexed chapter in the rollercoaster history of the theatre itself.
A theatre that is truly vibrant has to ‘work as a local theatre, to be rooted in the community in which it serves and to nourish and enable local artists, local practitioners and so on – but it mustn’t be insular or parochial,’ he suggests. ‘It has to impact upon local and national theatre and beyond and also has to seek the best of the local, the national and beyond and bring that into Derby.’
So The Taming of the Shrew will epitomise all that has been best about Derby LIVE, not least its commitment to what Meakin describes as ‘very consciously trying to give something which can’t be sought or provided elsewhere. We have purposely prioritised new work and what we may call classics of whatever era, including the present day, which have had little or no exposure in the locality.
‘Shakespeare has had a fair bit of an outing in Derby and beyond but we haven’t gone for the more mainstream work like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet – rather Much Ado About Nothing (in which Lizze Winkler returned to play Beatrice), Merchant of Venice and now the Shrew – great plays, highly contentious and problematic plays today as much as they have ever been, but all the more reason for producing them in Derby for Derby and Derbyshire audiences.’
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Under the Derby LIVE umbrella, presented and produced theatre as well as other art forms has taken place across a range of venues, depending on which location was deemed to best serve the artistic and logistical financial demands of the piece in question. The three years of Derby LIVE’s tenure have seen seven world premieres of new plays and six premieres of new musicals, as well as the bringing in of writers such as Conor Macpherson, Marie Jones, Katori Hall and Brian Friel, who had previously had little or no professional exposure here.
Who could ever forget Hall’s Olivier award-winning play about Martin Luther King, The Mountaintop, a torrent of history and humanity played out between just two actors on the intimate Guildhall stage? Meakin describes it as ‘a cracking example of a piece that we programmed knowing it would work so well in that particular venue.’ Broadway audiences were the next to see it after its regional premiere in Derby.
Or Broken Hearted, local writer Lucy Gannon’s first stage play since 1990? It was such good writing, a compliment to the region and accurately pitched to encourage audiences to come to live theatre in the city. And then, in the completely different intimacy of a performance space within the Assembly Rooms, there were the close encounters of Friel’s Faith Healer, a co-production with local touring company, New Perspectives.
Meakin is hard pressed to decide which plays he considers to have been highlights for himself personally. ‘Doing new stuff is always great, giving a voice to writers and artists,’ he reflects. ‘But I’d have to say Onassis. Getting Robert Lindsay to perform on the Derby stage in such a wonderful way and give such a fantastic performance as Onassis. And then for that to have a West End transfer... you couldn’t get a ticket for love or money.’
With The Go-Between, a brand new musical co-produced with the prestigious West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Royal Theatre Derngate, Northampton, the theatre ‘almost trumped our ace,’ he says with satisfaction. The Guardian reviewer described it as ‘a multi-faceted gem that packs a singular emotional punch’. The play was shortlisted for the best regional production and the three theatres are now ‘in serious talks for it having a further life.’
Meakin reflects, ‘When we started the new theatre within Derby LIVE, there were people who quite rightly questioned our ability to produce theatre of the quality we had had for so many decades here. But the fact is that in the current financial year, every one of Derby LIVE’s productions has achieved four or five star reviews in the national press. That’s not conclusive evidence but it’s an indicator that the quality, quantity and the variety of work has been exceptional.’
Attendance has been superb at the three Christmas family shows, panto alternatives that have comprised first The Snow Queen, then Wind in the Willows and finally (and topping them all with its juxtaposition of puppets and actors) The BFG. All three children’s classics have been imaginatively and faithfully brought to the stage. Finding non-panto Christmas titles which are both popular and capable of producing top quality theatre, is not an easy task, says Meakin, but there has been nothing but praise for what has been achieved here.
He acknowledges that some of the more adventurous, artistically challenging work the theatre has done has been a more difficult sell. ‘I don’t think that’s a bad thing because if you are going to attract Arts Council funding, then quite rightly you should be doing work that is developing your artists, your practitioners and your audiences, work which is taking people forward,’ he suggests. ‘The Arts Council is there to fund work which the normal commercial theatre can’t afford to do, which has sat nicely with Derby Theatre’s agenda of arts and artists.’
Taming of the Shrew will have a particular poignancy for the cast and production team crew in the light of what Meakin describes as ‘the massive cloud hanging over us’. A number of Derby LIVE staff took voluntary redundancy at the end of last year and others are faced with compulsory redundancy at the end if this month. ‘I take my hat off to all the professionals here who have worked their socks off for the last two or three years to get theatre back to where it should be in Derby. They’re now faced with such difficulties and yet their commitment to theatre and its quality have remained. I make an immense accolade to them,’ he says.
We are sitting in the giant rehearsal space on a Derby industrial estate that has been Derby LIVE’s home since its inception. Meakin is buoyed up by the gleeful prospect of putting on the Shrew, one of the most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays when viewed through 21st century glasses. His production of the Merchant of Venice last year was set in a Roaring Twenties heading for the Wall Street crash, something that had a lot of mileage in the current financial climate. But religion gave the play its pivotal moment, with the demand that Shylock ‘presently become a Christian’: something that resonated even more in today’s global climate than the Jew’s demand for a pound of flesh.
Men behave badly in The Taming of the Shrew. The ending is always problematic: how could a spirited and feisty woman like Kate possibly ride off into the sunset with Petruchio, a man who thinks men have a divine right to subjugate women? ‘Most of us would agree that’s inherently wrong... But we actually want our audience not to be siding with Kate when she delivers that appalling speech at the end; we want them – like Bianca and certain of the characters in the play at the end – to say, "Kate, what the hell are you doing here?"’ Meakin says with relish.
‘That, I’m sure, is going to produce all kinds of arguments, all kinds of disagreements, all kinds of questions over interpretation and validity. And I think that’s great. It’s what Derby should be doing.’
The show will be a fitting exit for Derby LIVE, whose legacy is an audience of city and county people which Meakin describes with satisfaction as ‘incredibly eclectic. The kind of commonsensical acceptance prior to Derby LIVE was that our audiences were venue specific: they went to Derby Playhouse or they went to the Guildhall or they went to the Assembly Rooms.
‘What they are going to see is incredibly diverse – a world premiere play by a young black female writer one day and then a week later, they will go to Abba Mania. Our model very much feeds and fosters that breadth of approach. It’s helped to provide a vibrant, reverberant cultural offer and we’re very proud of that.’