When DumbWise theatre formed after graduating Rose Bruford in 2008, it might have seemed inevitable that they end up as a company of actor-musicians. Between their core members, they play the piano, clarinet, guitar, drums, bass, and “a bit of saxophone”, director John Ward tells me. But it was only when doing Faust in 2012, that core team members – Ward, musical director David Hewson, and producer Euan Borland – realised that actor-musicianship was at the core of what they wanted their creative legacy to be.
“Finding our identity as a company of actor-musicians really helped us creatively,” Ward tells me over coffee. “When we first started out there weren’t really any actor-musician companies, and particularly when deciding to do adaptions within that – Faust was the real genesis of that.”
Since then, the company has produced a range of actor-musician shows, including (but not limited to) a show about the Matchgirls’ strike, an adaptation of the Orpheus myth, and a piece based on Terry Jone’s Nicobobinus. How did they decide to make Electra their next project?
“We always look for plays or stories that have a strong sense of atmosphere or mood, or a life to it that you think can be communicated by music. With Electra and the Greeks, the material already has its own fascinating universe. It’s a world where the planets are moving around their heads; it’s a world where there are many gods, and they speak directly to the humans. And there’s a chorus as well, so it really felt like there was a lot there for us to channel into exploring a huge musical world, and into creating a world where music has more power than in a solely naturalistic sense.”
“Electra herself, this little demi-god, is running round her world and trying to create justice, and we fed that back into the score. Her words and her actions directly change the music, and the world, so the music became a way to reflect the way she functions within her own universe. There’s also something very punk about Electra, and her anti-establishment attitude. Something about the revenge drive really reminded me of live punk – not necessarily the genre, but the attitude of punk. It was about finding a way to play music that could inspire the world around her – and that in particular felt like a world we could have fun with.”
I point out Ward’s Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt, and he laughs. “I’ve been a bit punk with how I’ve treated the text, how I’ve adapted it – which I think you can do with the old texts, without it being a disservice. The chorus are not neutral in this, they’re something of a rebel chorus, so something we’ve done in this adaptation is putting it in a revolution. The country is in revolt, and there’s an unrest that builds as the play goes on, which makes the characters in power very unsettled, and gives Electra the opportunity to make her move. With that we decided that the voice of the people, the voice of the oppressed and the movement, could actually be the chorus.”
“The music for the whole play belongs to the rebel chorus. It’s important to us that the music in our work tries to change things, not just a house band at the back – we don’t really work like that, and we felt like the revolution was a good vehicle for that. What I really love as well, particularly in intimate spaces like the Bunker, is proper direct address – it’s not hazy, they’re talking directly to the audience. Doing Greek work on the Fringe creates a great opportunity: you can say to an actor ‘don’t be fuzzy about it, talk directly to the audience. Spit’ll fly out of your mouth, and it’ll land on their shoes.’ You want to be talked to by a chorus, and the impact of that on the audience will be really exciting. Because they want to change how the audience is feeling, it’s really active, and they have a real job every night.”
Electra is on at the Bunker Theatre from 27th February – 24th March. Tickets start at £10.00, and are available here.