In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but has been forced to close due to the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to the creatives behind Last Easter by Bryony Lavery, due to run at the Orange Tree. She also looks at significant show that opened this week in a previous year…
What is it?
The London premiere of a comedy about death, first staged at Birmingham Rep in 2007. It follows four theatre workers as they take a road trip to France in search of a miracle when one is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Writer Bryony Lavery’s stage directions include the immortal line: “The lighting is wonderful beyond belief” and there is a gag about an unusual use for a Tesco Bag for Life that I still remember with joy more than a decade on.
The Orange Tree’s artistic director Paul Miller couldn’t believe his luck when he realised that a play described by the Times as “an impressive, profoundly civilising work” and the Guardian as a “wise, humorous play about the miracle of friendship” hadn’t been seen in London. “I’d known Bryony’s work for a long time,” he says. “In more recent years, she has written so many fantastic adaptations for the stage that I felt perhaps we had lost sight of her wonderful original work. Last Easter was a chance to right that.”
Miller offered the gig to director Tinuke Craig after seeing her revivals of Debbie Tucker Green’s Random and Generations at Chichester in 2018. “There was something about her approach that combined sensitivity with rawness, which I thought would be a good fit with the play.”
How far did they get?
The start of the third week of rehearsals. “I think over the weekend people began to realise it was coming. But it’s a particularly [gut] wrenching moment to stop because the whole thing is coming together and putting it in front of the audience is within touching distance,” he explains.
But Miller has every hope that when the theatre reopens, Last Easter will finally see the light of day. “It is such a wonderful play about the resilience of the theatre community and its spirit that it would be ideal for when we come out of this period of hibernation. We will need plays like it.”
Is there any Arts Council England funding for the show?
What is Miller doing during the shutdown?
“Getting to grips with the Orange Tree’s parlous situation and embracing Zoom with zeal. We are not a national portfolio organisation, so we are hugely reliant on box office and philanthropy – 60% of our income comes from ticket sales. There are no bar sales.
“The membership of the theatre has been enormously supportive, and lots of people have converted existing tickets into donations or credit, but it’s very tough. We will be furloughing all the permanent staff so that we can keep them together for when we reopen and we will apply for a government-backed interruption loan. We will apply for some of the £50 million ACE has put in place.”
He continues: “We will get through this, but it is not going to be easy and our survival isn’t just about us. The expectation is that in the 15 months after we reopen we would spend £440,000 on freelances – the survival of the Orange Tree is also about the survival of the freelance ecology.”
But Miller feels optimistic: “In the end, the world will want to come together again, and the Orange Tree is a place they know they can do that. So many people cherish this theatre because it is so intimate. They will come back.”
Last Easter by Bryony Lavery was due to have its press night at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond on April 7, with the run continuing until May 9.
What was it?
A stage version of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel about a sudden plague that afflicts a small city.
According to publishers, sales of Camus’ novel have been on the rise since lockdown, and no wonder, as it tells of a town where a dead rat found on a landing escalates into a rising death count and quarantine.
The piece is often read as an allegory for the rise of fascism in Europe, but this story of a town facing disaster – and how people respond in the face of catastrophe – would be highly topical at this time if we dared to watch it together in the theatre.
Reading about the production now, director Neil Bartlett’s prescience is astonishing. Writing in the Independent, Paul Taylor said: “Bartlett’s masterstroke is to present the story in such a spare, minimalist fashion that it seems to be applicable to everything from Ebola to Syria and Brexit.”
Deconstructing the original text and framing the show as if it is part of a public inquiry into the unfolding disaster and its handling (something that might happen in the UK in the wake of Covid-19), this production tells a tale of authorities in denial, doctors overwhelmed by the mounting death toll and people coping in adversity. Sound familiar?
No wonder Fergus Morgan wrote in The Stage: “Time and time again, Bartlett lands on something that reverberates deafeningly beyond the stage, and his production’s predominant image – an isolated city, wracked with fear, awash with panic, and besieged from within – provides a foreboding that is difficult to shake.”
A really jolly little number, then? Actually, surprisingly so. The ultimate message is that even in adversity people are resilient and, as Camus’ narrator argues, “there is more to admire about one’s fellow citizens than to despise or despair of”.
Joseph Alessi, Burt Caesar, Billy Postlewaite, Sara Powell and Martin Turner.
Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of The Plague was staged at the Arcola in London, with press night on April 11, 2017. The production ran until May 6.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner