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INTERVIEW: Apathy in the 21st century - Steven Green on re-imagining Kafka

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After a successful stint at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, Fourth Monkey Theatre Company is back. This time they are taking over Trinity Buoy Wharf to stage an adaptation of Kafka’s The Penal Colony. Under the title Project Colony, this immersive piece takes the audience on the tour of two worlds - that of the old regime, slowly losing its rains, and that of the new one, slowly gathering momentum - before returning them to the relative safety of the real world.

Directed by Hamish MacDougall and James Yeatman, Project Colony is in many ways typical of the work Fourth Monkey is known for. This isn’t the first time they took on a literary classic and, in line with company’s own actor training programme, the cast is predominantly made out of industry newcomers. We talk to Steven Green, the company’s artistic director, about finding Kafka in 2013, offering original experiences to the audience and the joy of working with young actors. 


Run-Riot: Before we dive into the specifics of Project Colony, could you tell us more about how the production came about? Fourth Monkey’s work puts emphasis on social commentary - what leads your repertory choices in this regard? 

Steven Green: As a company we do try to make our work relevant in a contemporary way, and for a contemporary audience. I believe theatre should speak and engage people on more of a visceral level and although this in itself is by no means unique we like to produce work that excites and stimulates as well as cultivates a true belief in theatre as a vehicle for social comment, change and influence. Being brought up on a theatrical diet of ‘social speakers’ such as Pinter and Beckett, you can’t really expect anything else I suppose and the choices we make as a company are reflective of these influences as well as tending to be pieces that allow a degree of open interpretation and creative freedom. I like to think we are developing a performance language as a company that encompasses all of the above and hopefully a lot more too. 


Run-Riot: In The Penal Colony the old Commandant is replaced by a new one, which triggers a change in how old traditions are perceived. The narrator, a visitor to the colony, treats the horrific events he witnesses with little empathy or emotion. Do you think we’re finding ourselves in a similar situation in any way  - in amidst big changes and on autopilot? 

Steven Green: The parallels are clearly and very much present in society today - apathy rules in the 21st century it would appear! Does apathy rule in our Colony, however is a question you will have to answer for yourselves as audience members, more pertinently the sense of acceptance and inevitability does, something again that is very much present in our world today also. The production Hamish MacDougall and James Yeatman have devised with the cast and directed is one that honors and truthfully reflects Kafka’s novella, whilst also presenting a different question, a question very much borne out of the world we live in today. You could say it’s Kafka after Kafka in many ways. 


Run-Riot: Kafka’s story takes place in a penal colony; Project Colony is set in a ‘colonised holiday camp’, giving the impression the prisoners might have chosen to be where they are. How does this refocus the story? Do you think a holiday camp, with all it implies, resonates better with contemporary culture? 

Steven Green: I think the implied sense of a community somehow in a state of awkward and unfamiliar celebration as in Project Colony is a very interesting one. Parallels may well be drawn with an eastern European state at the fall of the iron curtain or perhaps children such as Peter and Wendy left in a Neverland, with all the trappings of the adult world at their disposal yet no knowledge of how to survive within it. The Project Colony world is a weird and wonderful one, and in fact there are two environments within it; the new regime, craving change and new ideas and the old established guard, holding on to the traditions of the past with all their might despite the inevitable and shifting sands enveloping them from the new world. 


Run-Riot: The performance is also set in the 1950’s - could you tell us more about the lure of this decade, and how it responds to both Kafka’s story and our decade?

Steven Green: The setting is not specific to the 50’s itself, more the nature and the values of those times, as opposed to the apparent lack of values today. The past in the Colony is somehow timeless, some may feel it more reminiscent of the 70’s, the ambiguity is intentional, yet what is unmistakable is that it isn’t now, although just like those ‘trendy’ pieces of 70’s furniture we’ve all of a certain generation been photographed as children surrounded by, wherever we are and whenever it is somehow it is trying too hard to be right! Like the kid with Nike Air when everyone’s moved on to the Adidas shell toe, the new regime aren’t quite getting it right. Kafka’s world sits quite beautifully and aptly amongst these contradictions and confusion. 


Run-Riot: You chose the Trinity Buoy Wharf as the setting for Project Colony. What do you think this location brings to the show?

Steven Green: Above all else it’s sense of profound isolation and other worldliness. It is genuinely a place like no other and it does very much feel, for the Londoner, adopted or native like somewhere that is totally not London, and for that purpose it is perfect. Not to mention the fact that is also absolutely stunning as a setting. 


Run-Riot: The audience won’t have the option of sitting comfortably in their seats, and instead they are given the role of colony inspectors. Would you hope, expect, invite or welcome the audience to take part actively, or accept a collective responsibility for the colony? 

Steven Green: We are not actively looking for the audience to run freely off of their leash as visitors to the colony, they are invited guests after all; however we are very much hoping they will soak up the culture of our world and very much take part in it. We fundamentally present two worlds to the audience, one they’ll maybe enjoy more than the other and feel more relaxed within, and we very much welcome that, however the colony does have its rules and we all should abide by them…don’t forget the machine. Never forget the machine. 


Run-Riot: Large scale immersive productions keep getting more and more popular, with both audiences and theatre companies. What do you think makes them so attractive? Does this ‘genre’ entail a different kind of devising process or offer different possibilities for the makers?

Steven Green: The main appeal of immersive work on a large scale is I think that it is different and the overwhelming indifference of theatregoers to a majority of work produced in the commercial West End leaves audiences reaching out for new and original experiences. As theatregoers, a diet of the Royal Court and the Barbican, no matter how diverse and brilliant their programming, still need freshening up every now and then with different flavours and the opportunities, and experiences offered by work in non-traditional theatre spaces presents a refreshing change to the status quo and the work is often bolder and braver by the sheer nature of its setting. The devising process for work of this nature is as such no different than producing work for a traditional space, however the possibilities are of course infinitely more exciting and far reaching, yet challenging in equal measure!


Run-Riot: Project Colony is one of two current, site specific, immersive explorations of Kafka  - the other one being Retz’s The Trial. What makes Kafka so interesting for theatre makers in the present socio-political circumstances? Why do you think immersive theatre fits so well with his work?

Steven Green: I personally think that great writing is always great writing and great writing is also always ripe for interpretation and adaptation. This is the true gift of writers such as Kafka. Their work is timeless, open to creative interpretation and resonant with so many themes to make it as applicable today as it has ever been. It is also true that the times in which we live sit very well alongside both the history associated with Kafka himself and our pre-disposed interpretations of what he was writing about, not to mention the conflicts within his own life that are so evident in his writing. These personal conflicts often in themselves social, political or theological by definition, lend themselves to the theatrical exploration of the things that have and will always concern the human mind and imagination, namely the whys and hows and wheres of the world. Questions that are posed and so deftly challenged by Kafka’s writing that we will probably never put him down and surely that can only be a good thing. We love to get immersed in the subjects and issues he explores, thus lending itself perfectly to the world of immersive theatre, whatever that world may be. 


Run-Riot: This isn’t the first time Fourth Monkey has approached a literary classic: your previous productions include Lord of the Flies, Clockwork Orange and Nights at the Circus. How do you (as a company) approach the adaptation process? Do you find the devising in any way challenged by any previous film and theatre incarnations?

Steven Green: As a company we believe that classics are there to be reimagined and when we can reimagine them in a way that both respects and surprises the fan of the original we feel we are achieving our goal. I think it is important to see the novel as an original piece of writing, something that you are picking up for the first time and this is something all who work with us attempt to do in their approach to the work. Re-producing a film for the stage is neither challenging nor remotely creative, let alone fun and in our opinion isn’t worth doing. What is worth doing however is finding a new angle and stretching the elastic band of that new angle to the point where it cracks…but hopefully never snaps! 


Run-Riot: Your company is known for putting great emphasis on working with ‘new, undiscovered talent’, and offering those new to the industry a chance to become part of a creative community. Do you think working with ‘fresh’ faces and minds brings an additional layer to your productions?

Steven Green: Quite simply, yes-give me an actor who says yes over one who tells you, through experience, age, apathy or routine no, any day of the week! Working with actors at the outset of their careers enables openness and freshness you often find hard to discover with more seasoned and experienced actors, those who have allowed the cynicism of the industry to seep into their approach to work in the rehearsal room. Yes they may get it ‘right’ quicker, but you only find truly magical work by getting it wrong a lot first and this is something older, more established actors have often grown tired of exploring. That eagerness and abandon of youth is an inspiration to surround yourself with in the rehearsal room and the ability to pick up and go again is something that keeps fresh life breathing throughout the room. You simply cannot buy that as a director and you should cherish it when you have the privilege of working with it. Sadly too few are prepared to take that leap of faith, which is why in my humble opinion we see so much safe theatre today. Too many safe actors and directors unwilling to get it wrong, which is a profound shame, the rehearsal room is a playground and we are merely adult children blessed with a sense of play, we forget this at our peril. 


Project Colony

2-27 April

Trinity Buoy Wharf

Tickets and Info: Fourth Monkey