In I Know You of Old, theatre company Golem! Theatre takes the original script of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and reforms it into a brand-new play, in which the young lover Hero’s death becomes reality. Following a similar adaptation of Macbeth in 2016, Golem! was born with the intention to cast a light on the underrepresented elements of theatre and literary classics. Here, playwright David Fairs and director Anna Marsland explain the reasoning behind the company’s mission and give some hints about future projects.
Can you explain the origin and meaning behind Golem!’s name?
Anna: A golem is a creature made out of old clay, which is taken and reformed into a Frankenstein-type monster and brought alive with text that’s put in his mouth. Golem! can make new plays out of original material. We take something old and we reform it, making something new, something that’s alive and exciting.
Can you tell us something more about Golem!’s members and how the company was born?
David: This all started when I wrote a script called Macbeths, which was a reorchestration of Shakespeare’s original play, focused on just Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and set in their bedroom. I was given the opportunity to perform it at the Catford-Upon-Avon Festival in spring 2016, and I had already been having chats with Sara Lambie, who played Lady Macbeth. Conor O’Kane was producing it and we needed a director. About ten years ago, Anna had directed me in a play about ice cream and cocaine and she was working in London as the resident director of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so I got in touch with her. From Catford, we transferred to The Hope Theatre and, during the run there, we decided to form this company.
What is I Know You of Old about, and what should the audience expect from this production?
Anna: I Know You of Old takes all the original text of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and reforms it into an original story. In this story, Hero – who, in the original play, is accused by Claudio of sleeping with someone the night before her wedding day – rather than just fainting, dies, and the play begins two weeks after her wedding day, the night before her funeral. Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick meet at the chapel where her body is being held.
Audiences can expect something very different from the original – it’s set in 2017 – but with some of the classic Beatrice and Benedick scenes, the humour, the love and dynamism of it. You don’t need to have seen Much Ado About Nothing to come and see this play, although there’s an added bonus for people who know the original, as they’ll see how it stretched. It’s a story about how much damage words can do, about misogyny, love and what happens when the person you love turns out to be something that you despise.
David: The characters in our play have some of the same DNA as the original, but this is about exploring, ‘What if you saw more of them under different pressures and in a different sort of environment?’ You see what would happen if Much Ado expanded and had tangents.
Where does the title come from?
David: The title is a reference to one of Beatrice’s lines in the play.
Anna: The other day, I read an article about infatuation, which might be ‘cured’ by getting to know someone better, and I Know You of Old has a bit of that.
David: The play is about people’s expectations of how well they think they know somebody. In Much Ado About Nothing, except for some public moments of conflict and brief moments of privacy, Beatrice and Benedick have little stage time together and you don’t get to explore their relationship. Nonetheless, they have the most perfectly formed and perfectly vicious arguments, all based on the other person’s weaknesses and the other person’s needs, and you can only have that sort of relationship if you have had lots of experience of the other and if there is a lot going on that people don’t know about.
On Golem!’s website, it says the company aims to ‘provide justice for the missing or sidelined, often female, stories in Shakespeare’s plays’. Should we read this production as a political statement? If so, what political elements are you hoping to highlight through this production?
David: I think the political element is just telling a real-life story where the women stay in the story and don’t go away. In Macbeth, for example, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the main characters in the first part of the play, then she disappears and dies off stage. The sort of political element in the formation of Macbeths was telling the full story of two people from start to finish.
Anna: I Know You of Old does it in a different way, it’s a story with a woman at the heart of it, but we don’t meet her, and we questioned ourselves on how we could make feel her presence. It’s a combined interest we had about telling these missing stories, but I don’t know whether it will always be about the female characters or other missing aspects.
Golem!’s main focus is on the plays of William Shakespeare. Is there a particular reason for that? Have you ever considered working on other authors and, if so, who?
Anna: We didn’t set up to do that.
David: It just happened. We have ideas mapped out for a similar approach but to other authors.
Anna: That could be playwrights or other medium.
David: Novels, poems . . .
Anna, as a director, how do you face the challenges imposed by Shakespeare’s elaborate and often unfamiliar language in terms of audience engagement? Did you devise anything specific to keep the audience connected throughout the performance?
Anna: We constantly ask ourselves: ‘Do we understand what we mean? Have we been specific enough?’ If there is a funny bit, we’re trying to find the joke in it and the contemporary meaning of the words, which an audience would get and probably Shakespeare didn’t intend, but we can try to bend. Also, we work a lot in a physical way and we’ve done a lot of actioning in the rehearsal room with the body language.
David: As the actor, if you understand what you’re saying and that’s there in your body and in your intention, the audience will understand it too. Even if they don’t quite know what the words mean on a conscious level.
David, you’re not only the author of I Know You of Old, but also one of the three cast members on stage. Can you tell us what the main perk and greatest challenge is of this double role?
David: The roles are separate in terms of timescale. I spent the first period of time just being the writer and working on the first draft. We workshopped it as a company and then I re-drafted it, eventually coming to the final rehearsal draft. At that point, it’s just about handing it out to Anna and playing the character. The benefit is that I’m there in the room, if it’s ever useful to have a discussion about the reason why something is written in a particular way. There has been a little evolution, but only as far as it’s useful, otherwise it’s just about being there and playing Benedick.
What is Golem!’s biggest ambition as a company? Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
David: Next thing we’re interested in doing, now that we have these two Shakespeare plays that complement and contrast each other, is to connect them. Probably taking both shows up to Edinburgh in 2018 and alternating them [on a] day to day basis.
Anna: Also, we’re interested in creating work on a larger scale, increasing the audience and the number of characters.
David: We’ll definitely be expanding the cast to six or seven actors.
It’s probably difficult to think about different projects when you’re so immersed in your current production.
David: I have a large file of notes with these potential ideas, a couple of which are the ones we very much want to start exploring in the next couple of months, and then a whole range of other ones that are interesting to us. Next projects will possibly be the wider Shakespeare adaptation and, then, one based on another author.
Another classic author?
David: Yes, another classic author.
Anna: More like 19th century . . .
David: With a slightly different focus in terms of the missing elements to it.
At that point, they both sealed their mouths and refused to give out any more details. I’m intrigued!
I Know You of Old is playing at The Hope Theatre through 1 July.