Behind the Scenes

Keepers of the Flame

Sean O'Brien talks about the play
Interview with Max Roberts, director
Interview with Imogen Cloet, designer
Paul Sirett, dramaturg at the RSC talks about his involvement with the play
Michael Boyd
Alan Howard

Sean O'Brien tells us more about his new play and explains some of the key themes as well as the historical background to this fascinating story of secret history, murder and poetry.

The play originated with a fact. In the 1930s generation of politically engaged English poets, which includes W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (both heroes of mine), there was no first-rate poet who stood on the political right. What might have happened if a gifted young poet had done so?

My imaginary poet, Richard Jameson, begins as a romantic patriot, a lover of English landscape and legend. He joins the Fascist party led by the newspaper magnate Sir Henry Exton. He writes for Exton's papers and becomes involved in a plot to restore Edward VIII to the throne as a Fascist figurehead. Fascism was certainly popular among the ruling class between the wars - witness the late Diana Mosley, or her husband Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, whose thugs were sent packing when they tried to hold a rally in Newcastle.

Keepers also retells the Faust legend. In exchange for worldly success Faust sells his soul to the Devil. What would the price of Jameson's bargain be? And who'd be Mephistopheles?

In Keepers of the Flame, the ambassador from Hell is Francis Finnegan, a demonic Irish adventurer at large in the fantasies of the rich.

Thirdly, Keepers of the Flame is a love story. It may seem unlikely to us that people of such utterly opposed political beliefs as Jameson and Jane Exton (whom he marries) would become lovers. But - again - in upper class English society wild divergences of political conviction were readily accommodated. See for example the Mitford sisters, who included a communist and two fascists, one of whom was in love with Hitler.

A tragedy of his own making costs Jameson the ability to write poetry. Poetry is, in a sense, his innocence. At the end of his life, alone in a house on the Northumberland coast, he wants the truth to be known, but will this be enough to save him?

What kind of play is Keepers? It's a tragedy, a tale of wrecked ideals, a political thriller, a horror story, a love story. Or something like that. Come and find out for yourself!

writes and re-writes from the director's chair

Max Robert's the plays' director talks about how this production has come about.

How did the relationship between Live and the RSC come about?

When Michael Boyd was an associate director with the RSC, he had responsibility for the Newcastle Season and he came down to Live Theatre. He was aware that we were a new writing company who had a distinctive identity and also had key relationships with a number of seriously talented writers. He was interested to see the venue in action and find out more about us - Lee Hall's Cooking With Elvis was the first production he saw and from then on we began to discuss how a creative partnership between Live and the RSC could be developed; and how the RSC might expand its relationship with Newcastle and the North East. I'd always known Michael as a fantastic director who was not only a director of classic texts but also had a passion for new writing and new plays. When news came of his decision to accept the position of Artistic Director of the RSC we were able to formalise the relationship and 2002 saw our first collaboration with a new writing festival which ran alongside the main season. It was during this festival that an early draft of Keepers of the Flame was given a rehearsed reading.

Why was the decision made to work with Sean O'Brien on Keepers of the Flame?

I'd been aware of, and an admirer of Sean's work for some time - and it seemed to me that as one of the country's leading poets was living and working in Newcastle, Live Theatre should try and forge a relationship with him. I was keen to try and capture his exhilarating poetry within an accessible and compelling narrative, and so his first play, Laughter When We're Dead was commissioned, a classically constructed revenge tragedy, written in rhyming iambic pentameter, about a Geordie Home Secretary in a future Labour Government. It enjoyed a successful run at Live Theatre and was later broadcast as an award winning drama on BBC Radio 3. Sean then became a writer in residence at Live for two years. The logical progression following last year's New Writing Festival was to present a full production as part of the RSC Newcastle Season. Sean's verse drama again seemed an entirely natural and logical piece to develop further - especially as Alan Howard who read the play at the festival had become an admirer of Sean's verse and theme and indicated he might like to be involved in a production. I'm delighted, as I'm sure are our audiences, that such wonderful actor has agreed to take our stage.

How is work on the production going?

As is often the case with new work, the piece has gone through several re-writes and drafts. We've worked very closely with Paul Sirett and Sunila Galappatti from the RSC's literary department who've made a major input to the piece and supported Sean constantly throughout the process. Michael Boyd has also read various drafts and offered invaluable insight and inspiration. The play is ambitious in subject and scale and additional resources have been made available through the collaboration to achieve those ambitions - not least the recruitment of a 10 strong ensemble cast. Working with the RSC's casting department has proved crucial and we've tried to put together a company of RSC and Live associated actors who will enjoy and hopefully benefit from each other throughout the experience. The nature of the collaboration so far has been enormously supportive and I'd like to thank all those at the RSC who have shown such a commitment not only to this piece but our primary aim of nurturing and sustaining new writing. It's something we believe in passionately and having the additional support and resources to try and achieve our challenging and ambitious aims is of paramount importance to us. Making that work accessible to our existing and ever expanding audience is the most important objective however, and I hope that this collaboration is another important step in providing audiences with further ambitious and exciting productions of the highest quality.

Paul Sirett, Dramaturg at the Royal Shakespeare Company has been working with the play's writer and director on the development of the script. Here he tells us a bit about what it is has been like to work on Keepers of the Flame over the past couple of years.

I first read Keepers of the Flame about two years ago and was immediately grabbed by the ambition of the play and the wonderful quality of the writing. Fascism and poetry: what a glorious, combustible mix. There was only one problem: it was written as a radio play. And so the long process of reimagining and re-writing the play for the stage began.

It has been a joy and privilege to work with the writer, Sean O'Brien and director, Max Roberts on the development of the play. The commitment from everyone involved has been fantastic. And Sean has worked phenomenally hard. Contrary to what some people seem to believe, plays don't often emerge perfectly formed overnight. The process of writing and re-writing; inserting new ideas; and editing goes on right up until opening night, and sometimes beyond.

Every time Sean finished a new draft of Keepers of the Flame and put his feet up to have a well-earned rest he would be hit by a barrage of notes: What about this character? What about that scene? What about the structure? Have you thought about this? Have you considered that? We had meetings in London, meetings in Newcastle, public readings, private readings, long phone calls, very long emails. There must have been times when Sean felt like strangling us. But, I'm glad to say, he didn't. In fact, Sean always took our comments with great good humour.

"Keepers of the Flame is a brave play, a play that is engaging, terrifying and humane"

In the end, though, no matter how much dramaturgical input there is, the play belongs to the writer. It was Sean who had to make all the hard decisions; it was Sean who had to sit at his desk and write and re-write and then re-write the whole thing again. Keepers of the Flame is a brave play. It's a play that embraces the influence of Shakespeare, it's a verse play, a play about larger than life characters as well as ordinary people, a play that is engaging, terrifying and humane.

As I never tire of telling writers: write the play that only you can write in the way that only you can write it. Write the play that you would like to go and see. And that is precisely what Sean has done.

grand designs

Imogen Cloët is the designer for the production. Last year she was nominated Best Designer at the 2002 Barclays Stage Awards for her work on the Live Theatre/ Northern Stage production, NOIR. She was also Production Designer for recent Live productions Smack Family Robinson, The Filleting Machine and The Last Post. We asked her how she will be rising to the design challenges of the play.

What's it like designing such a large production in a such a small theatre?

It's a challenge! - Keepers is a fast moving play, with lots of short scenes that move back and forth across the 20th century, so we need to create a really fluid space that doesn't tie us to any one place. Because of this and the fact that Live Theatre doesn't have a traditional stage area, there are no opportunities for bringing sets and major props off and on, so it will be uncluttered and sculptural. It's a fairly small area compared to other theatres, and there isn't room for lots of furniture and scenery. My design will be more concerned with making a bold clear statement that sets the atmosphere of the play.

During the play, the action moves backwards and forwards in time. What ideas do you have for making it clear what era the different scenes are in and what is real and what is remembered?

The idea is to create a memory landscape that will assist the flow of the play. The audience will, we hope, be able to follow the action and understand the play through use of significant period props, costume, colour and projections to indicate the time of the scene we are currently in and what is real and what is a memory....

You've worked with Live before , but will be working with the RSC for first time - how do you feel about that?

Live Theatre is a really creative dynamic company that champions new writing and has a national reputation for its work in this field and it's an affirmation of this and the quality of our previous productions that the RSC want to build a working relationship with us, so I'm really pleased about that. As part of the co production the RSC have agreed to let us have access to their extensive prop, furniture and costume stores, so I'm looking forward to going to Stratford and seeing all the posh frocks…

stage presence

One of the country's finest actors joins the production in the leading role...

Alan Howard made his stage debut in Major Barbara at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in 1958. In 1966 he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, with whom he performed in over 30 productions, including Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970) and title roles in Hamlet (1970), Henry V (1975), Henry VI and Coriolanus (1977), Antony and Cleopatra (1978), Richard II and Richard III (1980). He has since performed with a number of companies, including the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre and The Old Vic. He was in CP Taylor's Black and White Minstrels (Traverse Theatre & Hampstead Theatres) and Good (Stratford, London and New York). He last appeared in Newcastle at the Theatre Royal in Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage (1999). As well as having had an illustrious stage career, Alan has also made countless film, television and radio appearances. He played the Lover in Peter Greenaway's film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Recent television credit is PD James' Death in Holy Orders. Alan has just finished filming Foyle's War II.

Alan Howard in rehearsal for the Oedipus Plays at the National Theatre, London

We asked Alan why he decided to get involved with the production;

"Why Keepers of the Flame? It's a dangerous, challenging, exciting contemporary verse play by a poet interested in writing for theatre. Why Live Theatre? CP Taylor was a moving light at the inception of this small, brilliant powerhouse venue, keeping alive the local and national flame of theatre. Why Newcastle? I like the city and surrounding countryside very much and the audiences are some of the best in the kingdom."

a word from Michael Boyd

"Over the past few years we have been working closely with Live Theatre on a number of exploratory projects. Some of you may have joined us last year for the new writing mini-season where we did the first public reading of this new play. That was one step in the long process of bringing a writer's work to the stage and this year we will see a natural progression of this with a full-scale production of the play. It is an exciting and nerve-wracking journey for all of those involved, particularly the writer, and since last year's play reading Sean has been working with Max Roberts at Live and the RSC's Dramaturg, Paul Sirett to develop the script. I hope you will come along and enjoy the first fruits of our collaboration."
Michael Boyd Artistic Director RSC

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