Suzy Hawes talks to the cast and crew of Raving Mask’s upcoming production of ‘The Bald Prima Donna’.
‘Have you heard about the Bald Prima Donna? She always wears her hair the same way’.
“The clock strikes thirteen. It is nine o’clock. The Smiths, a typically English couple, sit in their typically English living room, on typically English chairs, drinking English tea, and awaiting their equally English guests, the typically English couple Mr and Mrs Martin. What follows is a hilariously maniacal assault on the banality of language and light conversation culminating in a crescendo of non-sequiturs. Raving Mask Theatre presents Ionesco’s pioneering absurdist masterpiece this June for two nights only.”
How did you come across ‘The Bald Prima Donna’ and why did you want to put it on?
Tyler Rainford (Director): I have a little penchant for absurdist drama. It’s my vibe. I really like Ionesco’s style of writing and I think that he’s a key member of the theatre of the absurd and I don’t really think he’s done enough, especially in Durham. It can give people in Durham a taste of what theatre of the absurd can offer other than Beckett and Pinter and that jazz.
What is the tone of the play like?
Corinna Harrison (Mrs Smith): Oh, the tone…
Samuel Arrowsmith (Mr Smith): It’s less comedic, more scary.
TR: It’s very difficult to set a tone because it will create different reactions. If I can give audience members nightmares, that’s ideal.
Steph Young (Mary): It’s quite uncomfortable.
Do you think that anyone can enjoy it, or does it require quite a specific taste?
SA: I wouldn’t say it requires specific taste but I think you’ve got to be willing to form your own quite strong interpretation of the play.
CH: People have to come in with an open mind.
SY: You need to have a certain level of focus as well.
TR: You can’t just sit back and relax.
Is it hard to portray characters in such an absurd way?
SA: I think it relates to the tone in that there are some scenes where it is actually quite a standard scene that you could see in any TV soap, but you’ve just got to remember not to be too comfortable about it. You’ve always got to keep that element of weird.
CH: There’s constant tension. Strange things happen which wouldn’t actually happen if you were playing a character in any other play. You do things that you wouldn’t do as your character, which means it is difficult to keep a character. You have certain mannerisms that you keep throughout, but what you are doing doesn’t necessarily relate to that.
SA: For example, Corinna kisses another cast member and I don’t pay any attention to it.
CH: And he’s my husband.
SY: Tyler might direct me one minute to say something like “I’m high” and then the next minute I have to be frighteningly vicious, within a couple of lines.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
TR: Time. We’ve been very pushed for time.
John Halstead (Fire Chief): I’ve got a speech that is just a page of solid meaninglessness. It’s taking the piss of people’s anecdotes about their distant relatives. He just never stops talking about how his father’s mother’s brother in law who once knew a guy who was a wine grower who had a son who married someone. It just goes on. It’s just ridiculous.
TR: Auditions were very difficult because there were many people who were brilliant actors and actresses but were just not right for this style of theatre. It requires something very different from the actors. But thankfully the right people auditioned.
Andrew White (Mr Martin): Some of the lines are so crazy and random and weird that you don’t know how to interpret them. They almost seem meaningless. They’re nothing like you’ve seen before.
SA: Sometimes you don’t even know who the lines are directed towards.
Has it been fun to work on?
CH: It’s been really fun because it is just so wacky.
AW: So you can just completely lose yourself and forget who you are because you’re not actually impersonating any real human. These guys are completely bonkers.
CH: We had gone ever so mildly insane just after the callback.
JH: There’s a great bit where we were rehearsing in the corridor. We were doing a part where we’re basically just screaming at each other and the porter came in and the expression on his face just said “what hath man wrought?”. He just could not comprehend what was happening in front of him.
SY: Let’s go slap Ulysses.
JH: Gibberty flippet flip my slapper.
CH: What a pissing. What a pissing. What a pissing…
JH: The pope’s eloped, the pope’s no soap, soap is dope.
Why should people come and see it?
TR: It’s quite short. It’s in an ideal location. It’s going to be performed on a traverse stage which isn’t done very often.
AW: For the same reason that people go to see the circus. You’ll see humanity in another light and it will scare you.
JH: To stare in to the bleak existential void that exists in all of our hearts, come out the other side and realise there is nothing.
‘The Bald Prima Donna’ is at Hatfield College Chapel from Thu 11 Jun to Fri 12 Jun.
Photographs: Isabelle Culkin