PREVIEW: Yours Truly (Basement Fest)

David Aston as Dr Gull - "a doctor with an unhealthy fascination with a woman’s mind"

Jack the Ripper finally comes to Auckland, and he’s got a knife… [by James Wenley]

Yours Truly
"The street in foggy London is rife with things lurking in the shadows."

When I met Anders Falstie-Jensen during his lunch break from rehearsals at the Basement, he was beaming and full of enthusiasm for his latest project. The play he is directing, Yours Truly sounds like a ripper. Jack the Ripper to be precise. Written by Albert Belz, the play promises to be one of the scariest and darkest thrillers from a New Zealand playwright.

But other than the subject matter, there is something else for Anders to be excited about – the play marks a significant milestone for Anders and his theatre company The Rebel Alliance (whose Fringe offering Standstill I really enjoyed). For the first time, thanks to a grant from Creative New Zealand, Anders can go to paid full time work, 9-5, as a theatre director…

Yours Truly has been a long time coming to the Auckland stage. It debuted at BATS Wellington in 2006 and won Best New Zealand Play at the Chapman Tripp awards, but save for a production in Whangarei it all but disappeared. Playmarket had first alerted Producer/Director Anders Faltsie-Jensen to the play in 2008, but due to busyness it lay unread on his desk for three months. “When I finally got around to reading it – as soon as I finished it”, Anders says, “I biked down to the office and said I really want to do this show.” Unfortunately, Anders was told that the rights were no longer available.

Surely kicking himself for not reading it sooner, Anders was presented with another opportunity when the rights went back up, but with a catch. A guy called Sam was also interested in the play…

Sam would turn out to be Actor/Producer Sam Snedden (audiences recently saw quite a lot of him in The Only Child), and the two met up together in a café to talk it out. After sizing each other up, they found they got a lot along and joining forces worked out great for the both of them. “Sam had a group of actors, but he didn’t have a director or producer, and I didn’t have a cast.”

Those familiar with Albert Belz’s work (Awhi Tapu and Raising the Titanics have both been presented in Auckland this year) may be surprised that he chose Jack the Ripper as the subject of one of his plays.

Anders reports that Albert told him he wrote it to try something completely different .

“He wanted to stay clear of the label of the Maori playwright. There’s no New Zealand connection at all – there’s no New Zealander in London coincidentally involved in the murders, there’s just nothing. I think there’s a lot of freedom in that because you can focus on just telling a great story. I think he’s always been fascinated by Jack the Ripper, and because he never got caught it leads to speculation, and there are so many theories about who it could have been, and some more out there than others.”

Albert has chosen to make it a really good story, so there are also Freemasons and lesbian lovers and Ouija boards and ghosts conjured up, so he kind of taps into the Victorian era when science was really breaking through but there’s still some mystery in the world. The street in foggy London is rife with things lurking in the shadows. It translates really well to the play.”

Belz’s take on the Jack the Ripper myth is primarily a gothic love story between two couples across class lines – with the men from upper class and the women from lower class, “with Jack the Ripper in the background coming closer and closer and closer. There’s a slight pulp feel to it, there are dirty prostitutes and men with big dark secrets and mad doctors and Victorian dungeons – he doesn’t shy away from embracing that element… and the language is phenomenal, it’s such a well-written play.”

David Aston as Dr Gull - "a doctor with an unhealthy fascination with a woman’s mind"

Anders and Snedden have assembled a great team to help bring Belz’s wicked play to life (and death). On set design is Jessica Verryt (Young & Hungry)  who Anders says “is one to watch I reckon”. Frequent collaborator Bonnie Burill is designing the lighting, and Sean Lynch the sound, after Anders was impressed his work in Flintlock Musket and how good he is at making “unnerving sounds”. Estelle MacDonald rounds out the design team on costumes.

For Anders it the first time working with his cast – Sophie Henderson, Andi Crown, Dena Kennedy, Sam Snedden, Todd Emmerson and David Aston – though he’d seen them all onstage before and thought “they’re pretty god damn cool.  David in particular is really experienced, I’ve seen lots of his work since I’ve been in Auckland, and so it’s really weird almost being in the same room as him. He plays Dr Gull who is a doctor with an unhealthy fascinations with a woman’s mind, he does it really well… it’s a sight to behold seeing him unleash his hate for women.”

Anders had hoped to present Yours Truly last year, but he hit one more roadblock – his application for Creative New Zealand funding was turned down. CNZ told him he should reapply next time, and gave areas to work on – “They wanted me to have a directing mentor and a longer season.”

And next time, the grant came through – the first time that his company Rebel Alliance had been successful after five years of applications. The grant means a lot to Anders:

“It means that I for the first time can work full time as a director, so I can say I go to work Mondays to Friday 9-5, and I get paid to do it, which I haven’t done for the last 5 shows I’ve done. It’s always been Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday  6-9. And also that we can actually pay the cast – everyone can get paid to do their work which is really exciting, and we can have production values and stuff like that. It’s mainly though that we can actually work full time on a show, rather than working around other work. I’ve never rehearsed full time so I thought ‘what do you actually do with all those hours? How do you fill up 40 hours a week?’… It proved pretty easy to fill up, there are heaps to do. It gives it also the stamp of credibility in a way, that CNZ believes in the work we have done so far”

The grant comes at the right time for Anders.

“I think there’s only so long you can do it for, also when you start having kids. I guess it reached the point where it really has to work this time otherwise I’ll have to do something else, because it’s so time consuming to work on a show and only get paid $200 at the end.

But that’s par for everybody, and you work with what you’ve got and you make the most out of it.”

As part of his re-application, Anders scored ATC Artist Director Colin McColl to assist as his Directing mentor. Anders has been able to come to Colin with his thoughts and worries, and McColl would in turn ask him some hard questions like – ‘how is this going to work in real life?’. For their first run through, both McColl and Belz were in attendance. “It was sort of unnerving having the main director in town going ‘right, I’ve got my little notebook here, show me what you’ve got’.”

Because it’s such a well written show, Anders says as director he doesn’t need to come up with too much of a conceptual take on the show (“lets do Jack the Ripper… but in Nelson”). “It really plays itself. It’s a matter of working with the team and finding the best design, and for the cast finding the right tone for each scene that fits into the whole. It’s a mix of really practical advice and problem solving, and finding the groove of the play.”

He’s been trying to keep blackouts to a minimum and to keep up the pace – or as Anders puts it, “the drive towards the inevitable horror of someone dying”. The staging has a thrust with audience on three sides, the only set piece a bed. Which turns out to be quite significant:

“There is this very famous picture of Marie Kelly, who was the last victim, and you see her cut up and it’s a really horrific picture of her lying in her bed – that’s the only set piece mentioned in the script. And then also because they are all really horny people, there’s a lot of repressed desire. All the men are upper class and slightly misogynist, but they fall for either lower class prostitutes or shop girls – they know that they really shouldn’t but they are just too lusty, they’re trying to repress their desires but inevitably lust wins over the code of conduct of society. Jack the Ripper, he doesn’t repress anything, he lives out his disturbing ideas and fantasy. There’s this whole thing bubbling under the surface – people fuck in beds and die in beds so it’s pretty carnal in that sense.”

As Anders produces as well as directs, I asked him what he enjoys most. 

“I do enjoy both. Previously I thought it would be cool to be a full time director. But if you direct shows back to back year in year out I think I’d burn out really fast. It does take over. I do really enjoy producing shows as well, especially if it is a new show as well, where you see it from a very early draft to the final product. If I had to choose I probably would choose to direct, it is very fun, but stressful as well.”

Anders hopes to tour his play Standstill next year, and this is something he’d like Rebel Alliance to do more of, as well as creating new work. “In an ideal world it would be great to tour a few works and present a couple of new works each year. It does make sense to tour work because you’ve put so much time into making them, it seems such a shame for doing them just once and that’s it. Shows tend to get better once you’ve done them a couple of times.”

But for now, Anders full attention is on Yours Truly. He thinks audiences will come out of the play relieved, and in need of a drink. “I think people will enjoy the scares and the creepiness and the unease of the whole thing. It is quite an unnerving show because there is such a strong undercurrent of violence and you just know where it’s going to head, but you’re not quite sure how it’s going to play out or who is going to be unfortunate, there’s a lot of tension and excitement there. “

And will there be blood?

“There will be a little bit of blood. I can reveal that. We had a lot of talk about how much. There’s a danger with blood that if there’s too much it can becomes really funny, and it will be a shame… there’s this quite gruesome killing, it would be horrible if people laugh. We’ve found a good way of doing it, which is quite unnerving I think…”

Yours Truly is presented by The Rebel Alliance and plays as part of the Basement Fest 29 September – 22 October 2011. More information at The Basement.

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