Rachel West Interview

February 9, 2010

Two years after the success of Splendor, RAW theatre company and it’s artistic director Rachel West are back in town with OFF PLAN, a modern adaptation of The Oresteia by Simon Doyle. Specifically referring to the Ireland we live in today, it preserves the main characters and dilemmas, while exploring the eternal themes of power and morality, justice and revenge and questioning identity, both on the home front and the international stage.

Starting life as a series of workshops three years ago West gathered a video artist, a dancer, a writer, some actors and a lecturer from Trinity College together to see how different people from different mediums approached the text. They reconvened every six months until Doyle came up with a very rough draft, which was sent to the Arts Council with a request for funding.

It’s still in three parts, although the third, which deals with the establishment of the legal system, is rarely performed. I ask West why she resisted the urge to cut it from her version, which opens at the Project Arts Centre this Thursday. “I get really exited to think that that was literally the foundation of the democracy we go by to day,” she says. “That they created a jury of citizens and said you can’t continue to blame or ask the gods for everything. You have to start taking responsibility.”

They’ve scaled it right back and were unmerciful in chopping and changing stuff so that it would be quite a succinct play. The first part, although contemporary and modern, is still set in Argos, though it could be Killybegs or the Hinterland. It sounds a little bit more archaic than the second, which is more like a family drama. “We’ve really used the character of Electra, which would be more in tune with the Euripides version. We’ve really messed around with the classics, which is sure to piss of any real scholars.”

It’s not just the scholars that West may irk with her irreverence to the classics. When presenting his own production of The Bacchae last month director Andy Hinds spoke of his distaste for productions that put a contemporary gloss on the classics burying the issues at their heart, which were the very reason for their survival. What does West think of such sentiment given her companies aim to put on contemporary re-interpretations?

“ Everyone who writes a version of a classic, it’s his or her interpretation. Everything you do with the classics is an interpretation. Every version, whether its Kenneth McLeish or Brian Friel or whatever version you take, is some one else’s reading of it.

“People put on what they call a ‘classical production’… yet it sounds like it’s from the Victorian era, the 18th century, not ancient Greece. That was a time when a great interest in ancient Greece sprung up. They injected the classics with their values and now that’s what is perceived as being faithful to the text.”

She believes the stories and the dilemmas become a framework upon which the writer can hang relevant questions.” I keep saying to the actors, once you enter the world of these mad plays you start getting a bit nerdy about ‘well this writer says this and that writer says that’. They all changed each other’s versions. A license was used to take the epic stories of the classics and turn them into plays that were useful to that writer. “

As a theatre practioner in both Berlin and Dublin West feels caught between two stools. In Germany there have been a lot of developments because theatre is still a very important medium there and funded hugely. “The idea that theatre has to be saying something about now, quite clearly and firmly and the funding that goes into has meant that when styles, such as dance and multimedia, started to appear, they had time and effort to look into them. And resources and continuity.

“Which we don’t have. Which makes it difficult for companies like Pan Pan to bring out something that is aesthetically quite challenging. If you have continuity and your audience sees something like that quite regularly they want to move on and they take on Orestia’s that are being done by ten different directors, who all try and work out and speak about how we live today through the voice of a Greek play. You get better at it and your audience grows with you.”

The system needs to be reassembled and reorganized here so as to help companies build up an audience. “It’s really hard for an audience to rely on theatre in Ireland. The standard of the work is sometimes so bad we fall down and loose people and the next company has to fight to get them back again. Then you might have a success and people only find out its a success on the last night of the run because your only there for two weeks. “

With to many companies trying to do the same thing West things the Arts Council needs to look at adopting the Dutch model with more production hubs catering to the less artistic side of a show. “That way you won’t have so many badly produced plays and so many directors or writers worrying about financial things, which is not their job. They’re forced to become small time business people which keeps a lot of companies doing the same thing and everything stays at the same level.”


8PM, 10 – 27 FEB 2010, Theatre Space Upstairs, Tickets €22/18


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