Over the years I have brought shows to Greenwich that are set in the most astonishing places or times – futuristic prisons, abandoned desert islands, mythological worlds.
However, as we embark on a new season of shows in our studio, a smaller theatre space where audiences can find themselves much closer to the action, we have unearthed two very different real-life stories, each unveiling the lives of real people in real situations, and both of which started life in Brighton.
First, Gail Louw’s new play The Mitfords tells the story of the Mitford sisters, one of the most fascinating families to have lived in 20th century Britain.
One a friend of Hitler, one a staunch communist, one a novelist and one a duchess, the sisters’ lives spanned many of the defining moments of the last century.
I spoke to Gail about bringing the lives of real people to the stage. “I was browsing Brighton Library’s biography section” she said, “and I came across a book about the Mitford sisters. I knew about them well enough and pounced on the idea.
“I tend to write about flawed characters; they excite me more than black and white heroes or villains. And all the sisters could certainly be described as people who were far from perfect.
“However, that was what made them so interesting.”
It might be hard to believe that siblings growing up with such different political views could retain any kind of family bond, but Gail’s research said something different.
“Unity and Jessica shared a bedroom and they divided that room into fascism versus communism: on the one side was the swastika and on the other side hung the hammer and sickle flag.
“It was always like that from a very young age, and yet there was an intense connection between the two sisters and a real love, in spite of their opposing principles.
“Their relationships are fascinating. All of the sisters gave up things for a man.
The men in their lives were terribly important and they all suffered – in their own distinctive ways – for love.”
If The Mitfords is a traditional play, albeit about a non-traditional family, the second show in the studio season is very different. HIP tells the story of writer/performer Jolie Booth’s search through the Brighton flat where she lived as a squatter, to piece together the life of the woman who lived there before her.
“One night we opened the cupboard under the stairs and found it was full of clothes, records and a box full of diaries” she told me.
“We got out the box and began to flick through them, discovering that the woman who’d lived there had been called Anne Clarke. I didn’t get around to reading through all the letters and diaries until 15 years later, when I decided to find out who Anne had actually been and why her stuff had been lift behind like that. This research is what then led to the show HIP.”
Jolie describes the performance as extra-live. “It means that the performer is aware that the audience is there” she said.
“And everyone in the room plays a part in the creation of the show. It’s not a scary audience participation thing, but more like a relaxed atmosphere where no one has to pay heed to the usual rules of theatre etiquette.
“It’s more like a party or informal discussion group. Bowls of Twiglets will be provided with cheese and pineapple sticks, plus a shot of tequila, or orange juice if you don’t drink.”
Whether famous, infamous or unknown, it seems the stories of real people offer just as much drama as the most elaborate fictions.
The Mitfords – January 12 to 14 and HIP – January 24 to 27.
Go to www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk
Call 020 8858 7755.
James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre