Last summer myself and Henry Lewis sat down to discuss forming a theatre company. We had been told at drama school and by others that we would need a niche: that in these uncertain economic times it is impossible to fund theatre for the sake of theatre, so we would have to decide what kind of theatre company we wanted to be. We rebelled wholeheartedly against this advice. We resolved to prove that if an idea is good enough and the people working on said idea are talented enough you can still create without limiting yourself, even in these troubled times for the theatrical community and the world beyond.
At the same time as the Greenhouse Theatre Company was born as a concept, the London riots began in Tottenham. What followed shocked us all and has been widely discussed, written about and even - as evidenced in The Riots, by Gillian Slovo at the Tricycle - responded to on the stage.
Meanwhile, having just been thrust into existence the Greenhouse Theatre Company needed the right show for our debut; something that matched up to our no-fear, the right play for the right time approach. We read a lot of plays at that time: from Priestly to Simon Stephens by way of little-known rediscoveries by Charles Wood and David Pinner.
It was then that we stumbled onto Mercury Fur, by Philip Ridley. I had seen and been mesmerised by the original production, starring Ben Whishaw and Rob Boulter at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005, a production adored by many and attacked by some for its supposedly fantastical depiction of British youth in a London decimated by rioting, looting and violence. However, it was something that I had not touched or read in over six years.
As a company we sat down and we read. And we stopped for breath. And we read some more.
Writing six years previously it was as if Ridley had predicted the future, had posited his characters in a world in which last summer's riots never stopped, a world in which the London riots led to a society in which children grew up without parents, where drugs keep the populace repressed and destroy memories: in short, Ridley had written a play that seemed to respond to last summer, seemed to use last summer as a starting point and postulate on the consequences. Six years previously.
As I write we have been in rehearsals for two weeks and the strength and beauty of Ridley's writing has become more and more apparent every day. As have the shocking accuracies of what he envisaged back in 2005. The writing that we are dealing with feels like a response to now: a grim parable of disillusioned, disenchanted youth and yet a play so overwhelmingly concerned with love that it feels like you are being embraced with every word.
I asked Olly Alexander, the actor playing the role of Naz in our production - and also playing Herbet Pocket in Mike Newell's big screen adaptation of Great Expectations released later this year - what it is like to be speaking the near-poetry that Philip Ridley puts in his characters mouths and how close it comes to goings on in our own society: "You try not to think about it but it is hard not to draw parallels. I'm playing a fifteen year old kid who has seen the worst things in the world happen and it would be really easy to say 'well that's just fantasy', but these things do happen every day." In what sense? "There are atrocities like the one's described in the show committed all the time; it would be narrow minded as anything to be like 'these things don't happen here.' Because they did, people got run down by cars and punched off bikes and people's homes were set on fire. These things genuinely occurred."
There are so many layers to Mercury Fur and so many reasons that we are doing this play, a perhaps risky play for a debut production. However, it is perhaps most extraordinary that, while we were laying out plans and a structure for our theatre company as parts of London burnt, on my bookshelf was a play that not only encapsulates the fear of what may have happened if those few days had turned into weeks, months then years, but does so whilst retaining beauty and love at its centre. A play, written in 2005, performed now in 2012 for three weeks above a pub in Angel that feels like it actually makes a point about our world that is worth hearing: no matter how horrific humanity can be (pretty bloody horrific) there will always be something, somewhere to redeem us.
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