Theatre Delicatessen has undoubtedly cornered the 'pop-up theatre' market. The mind-child of Roland Smith, Frances Loy and Jessica Brewster, Theatre Delicatessen was born in 2007 and has since made it's mark by inhabiting disused buildings around London, then transforming them into immersive theatrical experiences. Picking up awards and notable press along the way, Theatre Delicatessen now finds itself at home in the old BBC offices on Marylebone High Street, where rehearsals are underway for Henry V, as part of a Summer spectacular of sport and theatre at the venue, which has been cutely nicknamed 'Marylebone Gardens'. I caught up with Henry V's director Roland Smith, to see if Theatre's 'Bright Young Things' were improving with age...
In 2011, you were profiled in The Observer as one of Theatre's 'Bright Young Things'. A year down the line, how have things changed?
We aren't as young, and there are whole new crop of innovative theatre makers kicking us up the arse.
Seriously, that profile in The Observer actually gave us the courage to stop, to take a break and get our own house in order. The first 4 years of our existence had been a whirlwind of creating work, learning how to create spaces and trying desperately to establish ourselves as a company. Since then we have also merged with the charity CurvingRoad Ltd, whose purpose is to support emerging theatre artists, which has increased the scope of the company.
The main difference is now that we aren't running to stand still. We have a firm foundation, which means we are able to take even bigger risks.
Theatre Delicatessen is famed for it's unique locations. When you step into an unused building for the first time, what criteria must it meet? What are you looking out for?
The space must make you catch your breath. From the moment that we take our first step through the door there must be something that excites and intrigues us about the building. As soon as you get a tumbling rush of ideas, mixed with a healthy dose of fear and trepidation about meeting the potential of the space, you know that you have got it right. Often we have a potential project in mind - in this case we were looking for a building that could serve as the barracks for Henry V.
There are practical considerations of course. The next thing that happens is that Fergus Waldron, our production manager, and I start measuring width of doorways to ensure we have the necessary fire exits to open the space to the public.
The time is certainly ripe for Shakespeare, with the whole world celebrating the Bard's work this Summer in the Shakespeare Festival. Of all his plays, why were you drawn to Henry V?
In 2006, one of my closest friends, Captain Richard Holmes, was killed whilst serving with the Paratroopers in Iraq. In the July before I had been best man at his wedding, and in the following March I stood in the same church delivering the eulogy at his funeral. The impact Richard's passing had on his family and friends was shattering. At the same time, we had to reconcile our grief with the understanding that Richard loved his job and there was nothing that any of us could have done to stop him. He absolutely believed that this was his vocation, and that he could make the world the better place by serving in the military.
Henry V was a play that I had studied at school, but a couple of years ago I picked it up again, more out of curiosity rather than any strong desire to bring it to the stage. Immediately, I began see that same headstrong self-assuredness that had so defined my friend Richard in Shakespeare's King Henry.
As ever, it was then a case of waiting until we could find the right space to bring this vision of Henry V to performance. The first time I saw the complex of disused studios in the basement of 35 Marylebone High Street, I knew that this was it.
You founded Theatre Delicatessen with two others, Jessica Brewster and Frances Loy. How is it decided which of you takes the directorial helm for each production?
The process is really quite amorphous and collaborative. Each of us has a list of potential projects buzzing around in our heads, but the first that the other two hear about it is usually when it is bought up quite casually, resulting in conversations like "Has Frances mentioned this Ibsen idea to you?" or "Do you get what Jess is going on about with this 'marketplace of performance' thing?" From here the idea snowballs, until suddenly you realize you are programming an all-female Doll's House or transforming a 5-storey office building into a Theatre Souk.
Your approach to theatre is pretty economically savvy. Would you advise this pop-up approach to theatre to young emerging directors, given the tight funding budgets in the arts?
Not this approach, necessarily, but definitely to explore other ways of funding and making the work happen. Artists need to explore every opportunity to seek financial support - and should not be afraid of collaborating with business to make the work happen. This is, of course, the norm with large-scale arts organisations and their high-profile corporate supporters, but working with business can help new small-scale companies and artists at the start of their careers.
You have drawn comparisons in your production of Henry V with the Falklands War. What led you to this decision?
It is the first conflict I remember being aware of, and so I think has shaped my vision and concept of warfare. It was also very much a British campaign, and this unilateral military action under the direction of a strong national leader clearly has resonance with Henry V.
There was also a reflection for me in the narrative of the conflict. One of the characteristics of the Falklands War was the force route march undertaken by the British Army across the island. This mirrored, in a strange way, the way in which King Henry led his sick and enfeebled army across Northern France towards Calais following the fall of Harfleur.
After meeting such critical acclaim for your previous productions, notably Theatre Souk and Pedal Pusher, does the pressure to continue in the same vein ever feel intimidating?
Absolutely not. Part of the reason we chose the name 'Delicatessen' was that we wanted the freedom to tackle a wide range of theatre styles and approaches. We didn't want to get tied down to one style or form. At such an early stage in our careers we wanted the freedom to experiment, to play with different ideas.
Many people treat immersive theatre with suspicion, or feel apprehensive about it's inclusive elements. What would you say to encourage these people to indulge in this format?
This audience 'participation' has become very fashionable, but it is rarely done well-too often it ends up being awkward and alienating. When I go to watch theatre, I hate being pulled up onto stage or being involved in a performance - in fact I don't know anyone who does enjoy that happening to them.
For us, immersive theatre means immersing the audience in the world of the play. Key to this idea, however, is that the audience remain audience and performers remain performers. If the audience are present in the barracks, alongside the other squaddies, they will relate to King Henry in a different way to if they were seeing him from the stalls through a proscenium arch. You can't escape from the action, as it surrounds and engulfs you - and that is why it is so exciting.
Theatre Delicatessen's production of Henry V is at 35 Marylebone High Street from 22nd May- 30th June