Last week I met Alexandra Spencer-Jones, theatre director and artistic director of Action to the Word company which is resident at the Broadway Theatre in Catford, South East London.
I first came across Action to the Word at exactly this time last year, purely as a parent accompanying a school trip with my daughter’s year 6 group. We were going to see a version of Macbeth and it was brilliantly told, just enough gruesome for the age group and memorably shocking even for me when Macduff’s baby is killed in one violent stamp.
At the time I noticed that Macbeth was part of a festival (brilliantly) called Catford-upon-Avon, timed like many other activities last year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The word play appealed to me greatly, as well as the fact that there was a Shakespeare festival in an area I’d not linked with the bard before. At the same time I was disappointed that none of my friends seemed to know about it.
This year it became clear that Catford-upon-Avon was happening again, but this year in May. When I got in touch with Action to the Word, Alexandra kindly invited me in to catch a bit of their rehearsal for their current show which opens today, Tuesday 14th February. In fact this show, Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, has been around in this format for a few years, first playing at Proud Galleries in Camden, then having a highly-acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe. When West End producers Glynis Henderson Productions took on the show, it sold out at Soho Theatre and subsequently went on tour to Australia, Hong Kong, Norway, Singapore as well as UK. Last week the show sold out its two previews at the Broadway Theatre itself and it opens today at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.
A scalding hot ticket, from what I could see at rehearsals. This looks to be a powerful, energetic piece full of very physical movement and acting from a group of toned, young men. Some of them have been in their roles before, some are new to it, and it’s clear that Spencer-Jones feels very strongly about the show and about the cast. Having read English and Drama at Cambridge, she knows Burgess’s work inside out and explains that, like the book, the play questions gender and that, despite appearances, this is actually a feminist work.
Spencer-Jones is even more passionate about Shakespeare, evident not just in the festival she created and curated, but in much of the work she has done before (Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus etc) and in the way she speaks about Shakespeare: “It’s in us, it’s everywhere, it’s in all the people we meet”. She is also interested in ‘pre-conception’ Shakespeare, which is a form of starting again when looking at a work with totally fresh eyes. She also led the Brush up your Shakespeare workshops for arts charity Ideas Tap. Her aim there was to demystify Shakespeare for the younger audience, to allow people the freedom to admit they did not understand what words meant or what was happening in a plot. Spencer-Jones is also on the selection panel for the National Student Drama Festival, which again demonstrates her belief in promoting the young performers and emerging companies of the future.
This year’s Catford upon Avon is later this year, beginning on 22nd May. Last year’s inaugural festival was made up of 25 events over one week, throughout all the spaces in the theatre, and Spencer-Jones promises more of the same from some more cutting-edge theatre companies this year. Catford-upon-Avon is very much about Catford and, judging on last year’s stats, apparently they were successful at reaching the local community.
Put the date into your calendar now as, to use their hashtag, Shakespeare will be very much #aliveandwill around the Broadway Theatre at that time. If you are keen to see Action to the Word before then, you ought to move quickly as tickets for A Clockwork Orange are selling fast, with two previews already sold out. After that, you might need to get up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is where Spencer-Jones plans to take their new show The Lost Boy, which premiered at the Broadway Theatre over Christmas.
For more details about Spencer-Jones, Action to the Word and Catford-upon-Avon festival, see Action to the Word website. To book tickets for A Clockwork Orange, see the Park Theatre website. It plays until 18th March 2017.