With Paul Hunter heading to the West Midlands, Terry Grimley talks to him about his theatre group’s plans.
Paul Hunter and his London-based company Told By an Idiot are going to be spending a lot of their time in the West Midlands over the next six months.
They have been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to put on a new production of The Comedy of Errors, which will start life touring schools in the Black Country in the spring before becoming part of the RSC’s Stratford repertoire in May and June.
Before that, they are taking up residence at Warwick Arts Centre to present this year’s Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast. It’s a slightly reworked version of the show which they presented last Christmas at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
An actor as well as director, Hunter set up the company with Hayley Carmichael in 1993. “At that stage, we were both working as actors and the company was very much about actors telling stories,” he explains.
“It’s just developed since then that it fluctuates between doing our productions and working as an actor, but the performing side of what I do completely informs the rest.
“We’ve evolved a particular style of work over the last 15 years. At the heart of what we do is that we don’t try to recreate life on stage, because film and television do that better.
“We’re interested in things that can only happen on stage and we try to make it a live experience that’s happening in the here and now
“That’s why we draw on stories like Beauty and the Beast – fairy stories where you have a real range of emotions and hopefully a rich vein of humour mixed with something else, so that it can be frightening or exciting.”
Hunter says he likes to “play fast and loose” with classic stories and one reviewer last year wrote that he and the writer Carl Grose wreaked “delightful havoc” with Beauty and the Beast. Another said the production had “bags of energy and invention”.
All this, Hunter points out, goes particularly well with the Christmas season, when British theatre is traditionally at its most extravagant and theatrical, with women dressing as men and vice-versa.
“It seems our style suits Christmas. We did this last year at the Lyric Hammersmith and we always knew it was going to be coming to Warwick Arts Centre because it was a three-way co-production between the Lyric, Warwick and ourselves,” he says.
“The nice thing is that we have been able to come back and revisit it. Ours is a particular take on the story. We’re very conscious in catering for a young audience that maybe their connection with Beauty and the Beast is the Disney cartoon. That’s great, but we’re trying to suggest to younger audiences that maybe Beauty isn’t what they imagine Beauty to be.
“When we first made the show last time, we made it with a particular actress in mind who is under 5ft tall. When she couldn’t do it again because of TV commitments, we thought it was pointless to try to find another small actress so we were looking for someone who would be good in the role but not necessarily what you would expect.
“We have ended up with an actress who has previously worked with Kneehigh Theatre who is the opposite of last year in that she is about 6ft tall. So what the show is about is being a outsider and these two outsiders coming together.”
With Beauty and the Beast and The Comedy of Errors, these are exciting times for Told By an Idiot. They have one more show, an adaptation of Michelle Faber’s The Fahrenheit Twins, planned for next autumn.
“The exciting thing about The Comedy of Errors is that we haven’t made shows for a particular age-range before, although we have done a lot of workshops in schools over the last 15 years,” says Hunter.
“We will be performing in schools to groups of 8-11 year-olds and if it’s genuinely funny and engaging I’m sure they won’t have a problem with it but when it moves to Stratford, it will be playing to the RSC’s regular audience. We are looking at that now with our designer, how we can make a show that goes into schools in the Black Country and into The Courtyard.
“Peter Brook has been taking a lot of his shows into schools before taking them into theatres, so I think it’s a brilliant way round to do it.”
* Beauty and the Beast is at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, until January 3 (weekends only until December 20; Box office: 024 7652 4524). It is suitable for children aged seven and above.
The Comedy of Errors will tour schools in the Black Country during May and have five performances at The Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon, between June 25 and August 15.