Students Staff

12 September 2014

Double bill of plays at Theatre Royal by Essex playwright

The Wildman of Orford by James Dodds

Poster from Fishskin Trousers

A double bill featuring plays by Liz Kuti from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies is on at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on Wednesday 17 September.

We caught up with Liz to find out more about the plays.

Suffolk Stories includes Liz's play about Orford and the Wild Man, Fishskin Trousers plus a new play about the Norwich Comedians set in 1815, The Broken Token.

The Broken Token emerged from research funded by the British Academy into the Norwich Comedians in late 18th and early 19th century. The Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds is one of the original sites where the Norwich Comedians played.

What is Suffolk Stories about?

Suffolk Stories is a double-bill made up of two plays, Fishskin Trousers and The Broken Token. They’re both exploring history and legends connected with Suffolk – Fishskin is set in the fishing village of Orford and on the island, Orford Ness. The Broken Token is set actually in Bury St Edmunds, in 1815 after the battle of Waterloo, and it’s set backstage at a country theatre, where the Norwich Comedians are performing. It’s about an actress in the company, Ann, and a returning soldier, Jack, both of whom are haunted by ghosts from the past. It’s just the two of them, real-time, for an hour and follows their meeting and what they discover.

Fishskin Trousers was on last year in London’s Finborough Theatre, during September The Broken Token was premiered in California, in the William Clark Memorial Library, UCLA. Since then it’s been performed in Essex’s Lakeside, in London and in Oxford.

Both plays have been on in the Lakeside Theatre and in the RADA Festival (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s annual festival for new work made by RADA graduates).

The director of both plays, Robert Price, is on the faculty of RADA, where he teaches voice and directs. He’s also an actor and is married to me! And because our original actor Greg Baxter was no longer available, Robert is playing the part of Jack in The Broken Token.

Can you tell us more about what inspired Fishskin Trousers?

It’s partly about the myth of the Wild Man of Orford, but that story is woven together with two other stories – one from the Cold War in the 1970s about a scientist called Ben who is troubled by the mysterious noise on Orford Ness that disabled the radar installed there; and a third, fictional story about a contemporary young woman called Mog who is in Orford and on the island, trying to make a difficult decision.

The three stories are woven together and interconnect. It’s a monologue play, in that the play is entirely conveyed by the three characters directly telling us their stories so it’s up to the audience to make the connections.

The Broken Token is about the Norwich Comedians – who were they and why did you research them?

They were a travelling theatre company who toured the seven major towns of East Anglia – Colchester, Bury, Lynn, Yarmouth, Ipswich, Cambridge and of course Norwich. The first reference to them is around the early 18th century and they disbanded around 1850. They were a well-known provincial company – the poet Coleridge saw them at Cambridge and he was a fan of theirs. And the actors were celebrities in this area. In Colchester they had a purpose-built theatre on the High Street at the back of Moot Hall, and then from 1811 they had a playhouse in Queen Street where the old bus garage now is! That theatre burnt down in 1918 but one wall in the bus garage is the original wall! Other sites they played were the Barnwell Theatre in Cambridge which is now the Buddhist Centre. I started researching them because I was teaching 18th century theatre and had brought students to the Theatre Royal at Bury and we explored the history of that very beautiful theatre building and that’s where I learned about the Norwich Comedians and wanted to know more.

But I have always been interested in theatre history, I think because I’ve always wanted to know how people used to play and imagine. . . I’ve written several plays about the history of the theatre including a play called Mr Fielding’s Scandal-shop which was on BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Day in 2005. I think I’m attracted to that kind of theatrical, itinerant life, which is full of colour and humour. . I read a lot of actors memoirs and biographies from the 18th and 19th centuries and I find their language and their humour and their attitude to life, and their love of plays and theatre, very playful and appealing.

What interests you about making theatre from the history of the Eastern region?

I like theatre that is rooted in landscape and history. I spent a long time in Ireland, and worked in Irish theatre a lot, and much of the best Irish theatre is very engaged with questions of identity, and of connection to the natural world, but also to myth, and ghosts and legend. And there’s a richness in the language that comes from that. It’s just the kind of material that makes me want to write, that inspires me. Where we live is full of forgotten people and stories, and I think those stories help us understand who we are, help us feel connected to the landscape and to something bigger than shopping and consuming. I just write what I want to experience and hear in the theatre.

How important is research when writing a play?

Well it depends on the play! Some plays are entirely made up and that’s fine. For plays where you want to create a specific, real world that’s rooted in something that really happened, then you need to do the research. The research can be a lovely fascinating process and can be less painful than the actual difficulty of writing the play. And then of course there’s the point when you shake off the research and free yourself to write and make up if necessary because theatre is not the same as history or journalism. It’s about imagination and pleasure and entertainment, and crafting a drama that works, and that tells a story and thrills and moves and entertains (we hope!). So to do all that you can’t always stick to the facts; in fact you mustn’t because we all know those dramas where the factual research sits very leadenly and then the drama doesn’t work.

What has been the response to the plays so far?

Fishskin Trousers got a very positive response last year . It was given four stars by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian and was Time Out Critics’ Choice and we were really happy that lots of people seemed to like it and wrote very positive responses. You can read the reviews on our company website at The Broken Token has only been performed six times and we are still fine-tuning! So we have no reviews of that yet.

...more news releases