A country childhood instilled in Elizabeth Freestone a love for touring. After leaving her ‘dream job’ with Pentabus Rural Theatre, she tells Lyn Gardner about her new staging of Henry V – a production that is 22 years in the making
The summer she was 16, director Elizabeth Freestone got up early to pick strawberries. In the afternoons she set herself the task of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays and made observations in a notebook – which she still has – on every one.
On Henry V, the young Freestone pondered how the roistering Prince Hal of Henry IV becomes the inspirational leader of Henry V. She asked: “Is he really as fantastic as everyone keeps saying, or are they trying to get him to be the man they need him to be? Why are there so few women in the play?”
More than 20 years on, Freestone – the former artistic director of Pentabus Rural Theatre Company and the recently appointed artistic associate at English Touring Theatre – has sought to answer some of those questions in a widely acclaimed revival of Henry V at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio, which heads to Bristol in early September before a nationwide tour.
“I’m always trying to make theatre for the 16-year-old I once was, who wants to know about the world,” says Freestone of the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production.
Freestone’s kinetic show, which features Peter Hall’s grandson, Ben Hall, as the young king, begins with a flashback to the young Hal and presents Katherine not as a pawn but a punchy warrior princess.
“It was,” says Freestone, “the only Shakespeare play I wanted to do at this moment. It’s looking at national identity, and it is part of the conversation about Brexit and who we think we are.”
Freestone’s career has been quietly impressive, just like the woman herself. She is someone who has always been prepared to stand up and be counted, even if it might be detrimental to her own career.
While running Pentabus, she spoke up about the roll-out of NT Live, the contracts being offered to venues at that time and what it was doing to rural touring.
“Companies such as Pentabus, which had been serving those communities for years, were taking a massive hit,” she says now. “I thought the NT was being cavalier in its approach and hadn’t taken the time to understand that each cultural ecology is different and a very delicate thing. I was lucky enough to have a stable Arts Council England-funded job. I had to put myself forward to talk about the damage that was being done on the ground.”
Born: Cuckfield, Sussex, 1980
Training: Rose Bruford BA (hons) in directing
• The Water Harvest, Theatre503 (2007)
•Volpone, School for Scandal, The Duchess of Malfi and Doctor Faustus at Greenwich Theatre (2009)
•The Rape of Lucrece at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Edinburgh International Festival and on international tour (2011)
•Milked, Pentabus Rural Theatre Company (2013)
•Each Slow Dusk, Pentabus Rural Theatre Company (2014)
•The Lone Pine Club, Pentabus Rural Theatre Company (2015)
Agent: Clare Vidal-Hall Management
Born into a family with a smallholding, Freestone had what she describes as “a blissful Enid Blyton childhood” in rural Sussex. She got involved with the local youth theatre aged 15 after seeing a production of CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew in a local village hall – she was astonished to discover the characters who lived inside her head could also live vividly on the stage.
She was lucky to have landed in a youth theatre of real ambition, where a production of Blood Wedding came complete with a skinned rabbit. Freestone knew immediately she was “too self-conscious to act”, but was fascinated by the world of plays and wanted to investigate it.
Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom was the first production she was involved with and three years later, she directed Churchill’s Owners for her theatre studies A level. She wrote to the playwright and a couple of weeks later received a phone call at the family home where Churchill “patiently answered all my hilarious questions”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Literary assistant, Soho Theatre.
What’s your next job?
Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Talk to and listen to audiences.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My youth theatre teachers, Anne Fenton, Katie Mitchell and Sean Holmes.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
My lucky pencil.
She secured a place on Rose Bruford’s now defunct degree course in directing, and after college worked in Soho Theatre’s literary department. She moved to the Royal Shakespeare Company where she assisted Josie Rourke, Rupert Goold and Sean Holmes, the latter becoming a significant mentor.
What looked like her big break came in 2008 when she directed Adriano Shaplin’s The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes, about the English Enlightenment, for the RSC at Wilton’s Music Hall in London. “I really messed it up,” says Freestone with characteristic honesty. “There are bits of it I’m really proud of. It had a cast of 21 and an amazing creative team, but I couldn’t bring it all together and make it talk to an audience.”
It was a real crash and burn moment, “but Michael Boyd told me that, although it would hurt, I would get over it and I needed to get the team together, find out why it didn’t work and learn from it”, she says. Boyd also said he would give her another show. So when she pitched the idea of staging The Rape of Lucrece with Irish singer and actor Camille O’Sullivan, the RSC jumped on it.
A year later in 2012 she became artistic director of Pentabus, one of the UK’s foremost new-writing companies, even though it remains largely unsung. Its show Every Brilliant Thing, had its first outing in Ludlow in 2013 before it went on to be a worldwide hit, Joe White’s Mayfly had its first reading under the Pentabus banner, and the company has had a hand in the careers of theatremakers including Joel Horwood and Rory Mullarkey.
Freestone says: “It was my dream job. It’s somewhere you get to have a real, ongoing conversation with an audience, and a place where playwrights can relax. We were able to offer a complete respite from the anxiety that comes with trying to build a career as a writer. They hung out with us, ate with us and we encouraged them to write what they wanted to write and not listen to all the industry noise.”
It would have been easy to stay longer at Pentabus. But Freestone believes “it’s healthy for the industry to have a changeover in artistic leadership” and she didn’t want to stay in a job “where I might be in danger of repeating herself” or “I felt too safe”.
Leaving felt scary, “but scary is good”. As associate director she worked on the New York transfer of People, Places and Things, and in the autumn will be at the Royal Exchange in Manchester staging Queen Margaret, Jeanie O’Hare’s re-imagining of Shakespeare, which presents the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of Margaret of Anjou, who will be played by Jade Anouka.
Putting Margaret centre stage is just one more step forward for women in the ongoing conversation around gender in UK theatre, Freestone believes. Although she’s expressed dismay at the lack of leadership roles for women in theatre, she feels the tide is turning on stage.
“It’s been exhilarating, beautiful and mind-blowing to see how women have identified the problem and are doing something about it. They’ve made some cracking work, and it just keeps coming. There’s no going back.”
Henry V is at Theatre Royal Bath until July 21 and then touring. For more go to: theatreroyal.org.uk