BWW Interview: Ahead of WatchThis' Production of COMPANY, BWW Chats To Director Kat Henry and Cast Members Nick Simpson-Deeks and Sally Bourne.
Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY will soon be presented by Watch This at Fortyfivedownstairs. BWW had the opportunity to ask Director Kat Henry and cast Nick Simpson-Deeks (Robert) and Sally Bourne (Joanne) a few questions ahead of opening night.
Most musical theatre fans will be familiar with the 1970 award winning musical (6 Drama Desk Awards with 5 wins, 14 Tony Award Nominations with 7 wins and a Theatre World Award plus numerous other nominations and awards for revivals) that revolves around the permanently single, Robert's 35th Birthday. As Robert interacts with his best friends that comprise of 5 couples of varying age and his three girlfriends he examines relationships, the pros and cons of marriage and his persistent bachelor status.
Kat Henry (Director)
Whilst first produced in 1970, Kat Henry (Director) views the work as still relevant 45 years later. Even though the "way we talk about marriage in 2015 is a very different conversation to the one being had in 1970" the relationships and use of the institution of marriage to discuss commitment can be applied as "we incorporate the pressing importance of legalising marriage for everyone" along with discussing questions about "marriage in general and its place in contemporary society". Company shows relationships in "many different stages of evolutions and many different arrangements" which speaks to the eternal theme of relationships in that they "are what two people make of them" regardless of the people in them or the type of relationship they have. She sees that COMPANY's theme of "two people finding their lives together" is an "eternal preoccupation for everyone".
Whilst the original work is set in 1970's New York, Henry's focus will be on the "sophisticated personalities in complex relationships". The people are the focus in an ambiguous era and location so the story can concentrate on the character study, complete with dark insights and a good dose of comedy. Removing focus on the time and location allows Henry to make this work "utterly relevant today" as it looks at a "timeless look at relationships, marriage and loneliness" and prompts the audience to look at their own situations. Henry hopes that people will think about "the relationships they have in their lives and how they see themselves, as well as the way we collectively talk about relationships" whilst still seeing the humour in both the performance and in life.
Henry's favourite part of the process of directing COMPANY has been working with the cast and creative time, citing that it is "a huge privilege that has made the process a pure joy" and that "coming to work each day is a dream".
Nick Simpson-Deeks (Robert)
Nick Simpson-Deeks takes on the central role of Robert who he sees as the "gateway for the audience into the lives of the couples whose relationships we scrutinize over the course of the play" and that the character is "almost a member of the audience himself". He sees Robert as the one who "leads the audience into all these other people's lives" and therefore needs to be "trusted and liked right from the get-go" which can be achieved by "finding things about him that are quirky, endearing and human". Through the course of the story, the truth about Robert in being a "man who is experiencing a crisis of self and a sort of emotional paralysis" becomes clear in his fear and uncertainty as he works out "how to move forward towards something new and better, even though it's terrifying". He believes the struggle is something "everyone can relate to" so hopes that his performance "touches on that nerve".
Whilst Simpson-Deeks has refrained from looking at other interpretations of the role he believes that Robert is the sort of role "you really have to bring yourself to as an actor" even more so than any other roles. He sees the role as one that can "very easily become passive and, well, lost" but whilst he is lost, he is still the central character who needs the audience to "invest in" and "root for". He understands the need to ensure that Robert is "active in his search" rather than just having things "done to him all the time". The book is somewhat ambiguous about Robert which allows Simpson-Deeks the scope to apply his own personal experience to the role. He believes that because of the way Robert is written, no two actors will portray Robert in the same way as it would be "impossible for an actor to hide much of themselves in a role like this, and everyone is different".
COMPANY centres on Robert's 35th Birthday, a point which Simpson-Deeks has in common with the character as he turns 35 during the show's season. He sees parallels in his life being a "35 year old bachelor, dating, living alone in the city, and still very much trying to figure out how long term romantic relationships work" and what he really wants from a relationships and "whether or not it is ok at this age to still be unsure". As with Robert, many of his close friends are now married, settled and with children but unlike Robert he has not felt pressure from his friends to change the way he lives. He believes that his coupled friends live vicariously through him and they enjoy this which also happens to a degree in COMPANY. Whilst his life questions may not revolve around relationships particularly, he does admit that he does sometimes find himself asking "what the hell are you doing with your life, and why on Earth are you still trying to be an actor?"
As a male turning 35, Simpson-Deeks believes that his friends and colleagues, and society in general are more accepting that settling down may not be for everyone and that "as long as nobody's getting hurt", the bachelor lifestyle is more accepted. With regards to what society expects of young men, he hopes "that we expect empathy and sensitivity, and place a high priority on teaching respect for women". He appreciates that Robert isn't portrayed as "some kind of callous womaniser driven by ego" and that "he genuinely cares about the women he dates, or at the very least is interested in who they are". He believes that Robert hopes that "each new romantic interest could potentially lead to the sort of deep personal connection he suspects may be lacking in his life".
On performing Sondheim's work, Simpson-Deeks sees it as "perpetually equal parts challenging and rewarding". He understands that the more the work is analysed, the depth becomes apparent and realises "you'll probably be lucky to just scratch the surface" and it inspires a performer to keep digging. Whilst Sondheim's work is often the focus, he also acknowledges George Furth, who wrote the Book for COMPANY. He highlights that Furth has created "wonderfully nuanced, flawed, rich characters" to which Sondheim then adds a musical voice on top of the complexity. He feels Sondheim's work "taps into the human condition in a way that moves or even changes us" all the while being "terribly entertaining, witty and engaging".
Simpson-Deeks' favourite song from COMPANY is Sorry-Grateful which John O'Hara, Mark Dickinson and Nathan Carter perform in this production. As Robert, Simpson-Deeks has this song sung to him whilst Robert is quiet, and he enjoys that Robert gets to be passive during this moment.
Sally Bourne (Joanne)
Sally Bourne is following in the footsteps of some iconic ladies that have played the cynical, older, acerbic Joanne. When asked how she intends to portray Joanne, her first response to the line-up of ladies that have filled the role before is a tongue in cheek "... not intimidating at all!" Bourne hopes to capture Joanne's "history and experience" and "insanely and magnificently dry and very smart" observations which are paired with her "sadness and distain for life" which she drowns in drink.
Bourne can see some of Joanne in herself, particularly the "biting wit" depending on who she is with at the time and she admits that she does "sit back and observe more and more now", as Joanne does. She can see "the ladies who lunch" in some of her friends as she and her peers have become "more confident" and they don't let people get away with as much as they would have in the past in the same way Joanne "doesn't let anyone get away with anything without calling them on it... or at least making a comment on it". Bourne does not she is gentler than the "magnificently harsh" Joanne.
Joanne's signature song The Ladies Who Lunch was originally about the Upper East Side society women in the 1970's New York. When asked if this still applies in 2015, Bourne believes that it is still "incredibly relevant" as "Sondheim makes reference to lots of types of women that still resonate today". As a mother with children going to school in the affluent area of Brighton, Bourne believes that there could be ladies of leisure with time on their hands like those in the song and that there are probably "pockets of those women all over Melbourne". She does acknowledge that in 2015, 45 years after the song was written, "many more women work rather than having endless days to lunch and be 'kept' by their husbands" and quips that if her friends are lunching it's because they are performers and it means they are out of work so at cheap café rather than somewhere extravagant like the song, suggesting "perhaps the verse Sondheim missed?".
When posed with the question of why she thinks Sondheim's work is still so sought after, Bourne states that "it pretty simple" as with any other "beautifully written piece of musical theatre or play, because the work is good". With her own career spanning 35 years in Australia and London and witnessing much of her father's 50 year career, including seeing him play Nicely Nicely in GUYS AND DOLLS when she was 7 and Sancho in MAN OF LA MANCHA at the age of 9, she has experienced a lot of theatre and "had the bench set high early on". As a passionate performer of the form, she states "Sondheim is just simply... a master and COMPANY is one of his best".
Talking about Sondheim, BWW was advised that Bourne had an interesting story about the great man... rather than try to paraphrase, Bourne's account, verbatim:
"I was one of the performers in the celebration of the musicals of Sir Cameron Mackintosh (HEY, MR PRODUCER) in London. It starred Bernadette Peters, Julie Andrews, Judi Dench, Elaine Paige and so many more icons! It was a lot of work for our 60+ ensemble of musical theatre stalwarts as we all were in so many numbers and we ran around like mad things to get through it all but there was one moment when I was in the wings when I had a few minutes and Bernadette Peters (life icon!), Ruthie Henshall (who I'd worked with in LES MISERABLES and adore) and Julia Mackenzie were doing Gotta Get A Gimmick from GYPSY (one of my favourite musicals ever!) and I was standing 2 feet from Sondheim in the stage left wing watching it and there wasn't that many people around and the stage left wing at the Lyceum is massive... I remember thinking.. Oh my god, I'm watching Sondheim..... ummm... watching Sondheim's amazing lyrics and his work on my favourite show, I had a small theatrical shudder of delight before I had to go back and get changed for yet another number. Not super interesting, just a fan moment! I can't believe I've never done a Sondheim in 37 years of musicals... so I'm easing myself into by playing Joanne!
Bourne's favourite moment from COMPANY so far is seeing how her cast mates are bringing the work to life and "how amazing it all sounds". She cannot pinpoint a singular moment in the show as there is so much in it and the "affection changes daily".
Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
17 September - 4 October (Preview 16 September), 7:30pm (Sundays 5pm)