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Exciting new theatre company Goblin Baby talk to Tom Wicker about challenging audience expectations with their first full-length play THE DEVIL AND STEPASHKA

Russian landowner, Zhenya, sows wild oats with one of his peasant girls, Stepashka, but puts it all behind him when he marries – or so he believes.

Inspired by a short story by Tolstoy, The Devil & Stepashka follows Zhenya’s obsession and its murderous consequence, as he finds himself driven mad with desire for Stepashka. His desperation to end his guilty liaison and safeguard his marriage ends in a trial for murder. But can there be true justice in an unjust society

Written by playwright and poet Clare Booker, this is the first full-length play to be staged by Goblin Baby Theatre Co., which was founded last year. Goblin Baby focuses on creating theatre that gives a voice to people and stories which are unknown, forgotten, repressed or ignored.

Goblin Baby’s first project, UNHEARD – a new writing festival exploring themes around sexual abuse and violence – premiered in June 2013. This was followed at the start of 2014 with RETOLD, which presented new, darkly comic and socio-critical takes on three traditional fairy-tales. In March, the company staged a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues.

The Devil & Stepashka is at The Space from 10 to 20 June, before moving to Ye Olde Rose Rose & Crown Theatre on 19 and 20 July. Two weeks before opening night, I met with the play’s director, Leigh-Anne Abela, and Goblin Baby’s artistic director, Tessa Hart, to discuss the value of timelessness in theatre, challenging tradition and opening up The Devil & Stepashka to the most diverse audience possible.

Why did you choose The Devil & Stepashka as Goblin Baby’s first, full-length play, Tessa?

Tessa Hart: We have associate writers of the company, one of whom is Clare Booker. I looked at the work she had done. Goblin Baby always has the aim of working on something that has meaning, something that is thought-provoking and unusual – that you don’t see elsewhere. This one seemed very suitable for that.

In what way?

Leigh-Anne Abela: Tessa sent me the script and it jumped out of the page for me –particularly the topics of justice and truth. These are things that really fascinate me. We talk about truth but when you hear it from so many different people you ask yourself: what is the ultimate truth? And when we portray it in a justice system, if it’s being analysed by different people who are hearing all these different ‘truths’, how do you come to a conclusion? How does that work?

Did that feel particularly relevant right now?

TH: What we both found – and this was why I picked it – is that it’s such a topical thing but also such a timeless thing. It’s so elemental to human nature. It’s about using the justice system to twist the truth in the way that we want it. So, while we did want to make it highly relevant to nowadays, it goes beyond that – if you look at the history of humanity, you have these issues all the time.

LA: It’s got to do with money, as well, and power. Somehow, they place you somewhere; they give you some kind of social status. In our play we have peasants and people who have a higher standing. So if we are reporting a truth or a part of the truth, why do we see peasants in one light, and someone with a higher status in a different light? What gives them weight? Is it the money?

Tolstoy turned a spotlight on Russian peasants, who hadn’t previously been represented artistically because they weren’t considered important socially. Does this factor into Clare’s play?

TH: That’s the fascinating thing about this play. It’s a contemporary playwright taking a Russian classic and turning it into something modern but keeping the Russian-drama style. I think this adds to the element of timelessness. I wouldn’t want to speak for Clare, but she was inspired by the short story to ask more questions. What she really delves into is something that the story doesn’t: the trial itself. She’s taken that starting point and developed it into a world of her own.

Is the play set in a specific period?

LA: It was originally set in Russia, in the 1860s; but where I’m coming from, I love Pinter and Beckett and that feeling of absurdness. And, most importantly, I wanted that timelessness Tessa is talking about. I don’t want the play to be ‘about’ Russia. I don’t want audiences to be able to come away from it saying, ‘Well, of course, it’s like that in Russia.’ The topics we explore are relevant everywhere. So we spoke with Clare and we challenged her a little bit.

TH: But she liked it, I think!

LA: She’s very open to things. She was very excited that we were going to take it somewhere else, by the idea that people would be in the moment, absorbed by the absurdity and what we are giving them: the acting, the sounds. You know, being taken away by this place – we call it ‘theatre’ – and just focusing on the themes. They can make up whatever they want. We don’t want to give answers; we just want to provoke questions.

‘Goblin Baby’ has fairy-tale connotations – of upsetting the proverbial apple cart. Is that a fair description of what the company is aiming to do in relation to theatre?

TH: That’s exactly the idea: not to follow pre-set limits, but to delve into a world of our own and discover by ourselves. We want to challenge boundaries and not be afraid to try completely new things – while being a little cheeky about it!

Does your experience of theatre abroad play into that?

TH: Definitely. I’ve lived in the UK for four and a half years now. I grew up abroad and I’ve partially trained in different countries. Eventually, I trained here – at East 15 – but before, and since, I’ve had influences from across the world. I’ve experienced many types of theatre. Goblin Baby is very international in terms of our backgrounds. There’s definitely this element of us going, ‘Let’s do something very different to the standard theatre you tend to see here.’

Does that reflect your aims as a director, Leigh-Anne?

LA: Yes, because that’s where I’m coming from too. I’ve mostly worked in Europe and we happen to have a very international cast for this play. And we live in London – and, for me, London is not England. It’s a place with so many different backgrounds. That’s why we wanted a timeless frame. We wanted to instil that multiculturalism in the play, because the audience is going to be diverse. We don’t know who’s going to come and we want people to come from anywhere. We want them to feel part of the journey.

When you travel a lot, and work with so many different people, you just naturally think that way. When you have a script in your hands, you think, ‘OK, how do I play it?’ You can’t place it to absolutely everyone, but it’s about asking: ‘How do I extend it as much as I can?’ That’s always been my starting point.

TH: Once you’ve got that international background – and I’ve done work in Brussels, Berlin, Bali and Russia – once you’ve got that, you can’t actually go, ‘I’m just going do this play in the standard way.’ There’s a universe of different approaches. So why not go and find your own in the middle of that?

To blend international theatrical techniques with traditional British theatre, which tends to be more script-driven?

LA: For me, a mix of both is the trick, because you don’t want to put the text in the garbage.

TH: Exactly. You don’t want something where the audience can’t grasp what’s going on any more, because it’s so abstract.

LA: Some people have a visual memory, and others don’t. So you need to touch each and every one in different ways. You need to provide all the elements.

Going forward, is that Goblin Baby’s aim?

TH: Definitely – it’s about opening up a dialogue. We actually have two performances of Stepashka with a Q&A [11 and 18 June]. And then we’re having special matinees on 14 June and 20 July where the audience actually votes for the ending they want to see. There will be two alternative endings.

LA: It’s about keeping the show fresh and alive.

TH: It's about testing new ideas, challenging people and seeing how they react. With the Verdict is Yours performances, for instance, everyone coming will know beforehand, of course. So how many people will dare to turn up? For Goblin Baby, that’s the way we want to go ahead – to explore new issues, topics and approaches.

For more information on The Devil & Stepashka, and to buy tickets, go to: http://www.goblinbaby.com/stepashka






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