BWW Interview: Elf Lyons Talks MEDUSA at Nuffield Southampton Theatres
Elf Lyons is a writer, comedian and performer. Her latest creation, Medusa, was written in just three weeks with Nuffield Southampton Theatres' Lab Associates team, reimagining one of Greek mythology's most notorious and angry women.
Your background is in comedy and clowning. How did you get into that and what do you love about physical performance?
I did a BA in Drama, and then I did drama and film, and a Masters in Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary University of London, which was far more about performance art, avant-garde and new wave.
I don't really have a lot of comedy knowledge; I wasn't a comedy nerd, but I was a theatre nerd, and so that was where I started. I've been trying to bring theatre into my comedy and my stand-up.
It was only when I went to École Philippe Gaulier that I started playing with my body. A certain teacher, Carlo, said "You only use your arms - the rest of your body is very static." So I went through lots of various exercises and failures, and René Bazinet taught us mime for four weeks, which was just a game-changer for me.
Clowning is organised chaos - productive chaos, I suppose. Giving the impression that you don't know what's going on and that everything is going wrong, and actually, I know exactly what is going to happen. I know where everything is - it's just playing with the audience's perceptions.
Why do you think physical theatre and clowning still has a place today?
I think clowning is about how we view our bodies. When you're little you're inherently physical, and everything about your body is exciting - not when we're adults. Now, it's all about speech and hands and how we communicate has become very political.
We allocate places specifically to dance, and it's as if we've quarantined that wildness. Everything is very efficient. The beautiful thing about being playful with clowning is that there is no efficiency.
How has your work developed over time?
I'm now far more interested in collaborating. Also, as you get older, meeting other freelance professionals and having the choice and the opportunity to say "Let's collaborate" is fantastic. it's been lovely to call up other actors and directors and ask to meet and create some ideas.
The news will also sometimes make a piece completely redundant, so you have to learn to change and improvise. I've become more and more interested in improvisation.
You've worked with Nuffield Southampton Theatres' Lab Associates to create your latest show, Medusa. How has that experience been?
We're such a nice ensemble, and everyone is lovely, Out of all the places I've toured and worked at, NST has a very strong family vibe.
Natalie Garces-Bovett, producer, Ian Nicholson, director, Jasmine Swan, designer, Jess Bernberg, lighting designer and Jim Whitche, sound designer and original composition - we've got a really strong connection. They're a fantastic team and I've been really lucky.
Medusa is one of the most exciting shows I've ever worked on. It's really fun and the fact that we've created it in the space of three weeks as well shows the spontaneity and beauty of performance. When you take away certain parameters like timing, a new idea will suddenly come to you a few days before the deadline. It's lovely to create, try, throw it away and then create something else.
Medusa is a work-in-progress. We are so absorbed in the show, we know exactly what to expect, we forget what the audience might expect! We hope to take it on tour in the future.
Why did you choose to focus on Medusa as a character?
When you look at the texts where Medusa is referenced, she tends to just be in one or two lines, normally as the evil gorgon who is decapitated by Perseus while she slept. Actually, when you look closer, there's so much that was written about Medusa's history prior to that. She was a priestess, who was raped by Poseidon and then turned into a gorgon. That's what I found fascinating last year when the idea began.
Is sharing Medusa's story particularly significant now, in light of #MeToo?
This show was imagined prior to the whole #MeToo movement. I was very adamant that we didn't create a #MeToo play. You don't want to undermine the subject, but also you don't want to turn the movement itself into a form of theatre.
I found at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year that a lot of plays were being marketed as part of the #MeToo movement, which I don't ever want to undermine. It's taking advantage of trauma.
What else do you think Medusa is about?
The show, at its heart, is about anger, and it's about how anger has been deemed as a masculine or ugly trait. Women get told they're hysterical, but we rarely get described as angry. The thing that's so amazing about the character of Medusa is that anger is what fuels her, but it's also the thing that gives her all this comedy and all this sexual power.
I think subconsciously it's about that rage that so many women have within us. As a performer myself, I feel like I can't let it out. But Medusa is the perfect example of someone embracing it. Yes, she's a monster, she doesn't deny that, but she is what she is, and you've got to admire her for it.
That's the angle we're going for. A lot of what she says and does in the play is disgusting; she's politically incorrect, she goes for the jugular and isn't afraid to cross the line, and we really like that about her.
What did you use as creative inspiration for the show?
We got obsessed with Courtney Love, and she ended up becoming a bit of an inspiration. We also read Carrie by Stephen King. Carrie as a character is an example of a beautiful, vulnerable creature who deals with so much cruelty. You read the whole book knowing she's going to turn and you feel sorry for her, and there's a beautiful switch where she chooses to be a monster - we used that as the inspiration for Medusa.
Are there any other female figures in history you'd like to explore in the same way that you have Medusa?
The story of Ariachne is fascinating, as well as the Gorgon sisters and the whole history of the Titans.
I'm from an Irish family, so I grew up reading about Celtic history, and it would be cool to do something about that. History is fascinating. I'd also kind of like to do a show about Angela Carter one day too, I think!
One I'm definitely going to make is a show about my favourite horses from history.
Why should people see Medusa?
It's provocative and off-the-wall, and I think quite rock 'n' roll. There's a lot of attitude and anger, and there's a lot of music and charm in it. What have you got to lose? It's badass.
Photo credit: Carla Gowlett