Christopher Gray tells you what he can about Secret Theatre
You pays your money and you takes your chance. The old adage certainly holds true for what is on offer from Tuesday at Oxford Playhouse.
A ten-strong company of actors is presenting plays over two weeks, for which members of the audience are invited to book with no notion about the title of the piece or the identity of its author. Only when the curtain rises do they discover what is in store. “We’re offering a genuine surprise,” the Playhouse says, “and an intriguing chance to discover something new.”
Shows 2 to 6, as they are being called, will be staged variously in the main theatre, backstage there, next door in the Burton Taylor Studio or in a secret off-site location. There is a Show 1 but, as will be seen presently, it is not coming here.
Encouragement for audiences to partake in this bold experiment comes in the comparative modesty of ticket prices: £18 top whack, some only £11.
Secret Theatre is the brainchild of the Lyric Hammersmith, which has already presented most of the plays, to great acclaim at its London base and in Newcastle. The final two have just been seen on the Edinburgh Fringe.
Hotfoot from Scotland, the company’s artistic director Sean Holmes talked to The Oxford Times about the project last week from a sunny field in Herefordshire, where he was camping with his family.
“What was interesting about the enterprise from our point of view,” he says, “was to present a number of plays with a permanent company of actors and production team who are working together over a long period.
“The secrecy was an interesting aspect but wasn’t at the centre of the project. Understandably, I suppose, it is what everyone has picked up on.”
It was as long ago as May last year that the first two plays were seen at the Lyric. Show 1 was George Buchner’s masterpiece Woyzeck, which can be named because Oxford isn’t seeing it.
Of Show 2, it can be said that it is taking place on the main theatre stage and is a play that really got people talking. “If you like bold, clever and thought-provoking productions,” the company says, “this one is for you.” It received 4-star reviews and was described as “vivid and vital” and “crystalline and heart-breaking” by the critics. A final hint: it’s a classic piece of American drama.
Show 3, taking place backstage at the Playhouse, is a brand-new, pitch black comedy by an up-and-coming young writer. Show 4, again on the main stage, is a bold take on John Webster’s bloody drama The White Devil. Show 5, at the secret location, is an experimental piece described as “crazy, fun and bonkers”.
The Burton Taylor Studio’s Show 6, as Sean explains, is the work of a major British playwright who offered to write it after becoming interested in what had been staged previously. It won enthusiastic reviews in Edinburgh.
Shaun says: “The writer loved what he had seen with the first four shows and said he would be delighted to work for the company. At the time we had something in mind but it wasn’t written. [Our contributor] worked swiftly and the play was ready in time for Edinburgh. This is a play about identity: what if you find out you’re not who you thought you were?”
Sean says of the project as a whole: “It has been a great experience, not least for the fact that it is taking place over nearly two years.
“When we set up, we didn’t know what plays we would be doing. Working together on them in this ensemble style is something rare these days, perhaps only the Royal Shakespeare Company does it.
“Performing in different styles and seeing how the actors work with each other has given Secret Theatre theatrical muscle, for want of a better word.”
All ten actors appear in every play except Show 6 which has just three characters.
Do they get mixed up with their performances? “We have found ourselves asking: ‘What day is it today?’” says Sean. “But it has become easier after a while.”
Each actor has roles of differing prominence in the various shows, which helps with the business of keeping so many different productions in their heads. It also means that ‘big part’ actors can find themselves playing minor roles of the sort they are not used to.
“What I would like to say to people,” says Sean, “is that here is an opportunity to come to see more than one play which has been seized on by audiences.
“The relationship between the company and the audience is really important as well, and this builds when people come again.
“Keeping ticket prices low means that we can attract people who might not otherwise be able to afford a trip to the theatre.”
Various venues in the city
Box office: 01865 305305, oxfordplayhouse.com