Phil Willmott takes up arms against a sea of troubles

Let’s start by establishing your background. You completed ten years as an Associate Artistic Director at the Battersea Arts Centre and were also Associate Director of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford and Co-Director of the UK's leading degree course in Musical Theatre at Arts Educational School London, a role you combined with being Head of Acting. Before that, you were the founding Artistic Director of The Steam Industry that went on to incorporate the Finborough Theatre, Earl’s Court,where you were Artistic Director from 1994 to 1999.

There were four of us. We had just left college and we had no connections, so we all put some money into a pot and we took turns putting on a play with it and that’s how everyone launched their careers. Stuart Worden’s now principal of the BRIT School, Pete Lawson is a story editor on Eastenders, Jenny Darnell directs both Eastenders and Coronation Street. We became resident at the Man in the Moon in the King’s Road and then we were offered the Finborough as a base so we took that over.

You went on to create Gods and Monsters, the company that presents the annual London Free Theatre Festival, which is a summer season of out-door classical and family shows, and then, with the aim of taking theatre beyond central London, you established Free Theatre UK.

Yes. The idea there was to engage people who feel excluded from attending conventional theatre for economic, social or other reasons, and to create vibrant productions based on the great stories and children's literature of the world. So everything we present is free to watch.

Aside from your free productions you also present the annual Essential Classics season at the Union Theatre, Southwark.

Yes. It’s a winter season in which works from some of the greatest writers of the past are staged because their message seems particularly relevant to the times in which we live. So in 2019, with Donald Trump dominating the political landscape we put on Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. A new production of Offenbach’s Can-Can provided contrast and took a look at the highs and lows of life for struggling performers; and that was before anyone had heard of COVID-19, which has made it even more relevant. Then there was a production of Othello set in the context of the Amritsar Massacre to commemorate its one-hundredth anniversary and highlight the issues facing minorities confronted with an oppressor.

This year we commemorated the 75th anniversary of V.E. Day with three productions looking at WW2 from the perspective of Britain’s wartime upper class (An adaptation of Tom Brown’s School Days set amongst the generation of young men who’d lead the Battle of Britain) the working class (Lionel Bart’s musical Blitz!) and the middle class (Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time.)

It’s interesting how your varied aims are focused through the separate companies you’ve set up. Would you like to highlight perhaps one production or achievement that stands out for you or of which you are particularly proud?

Yes. I think my favourite thing, because it felt so audacious, was when we were based at The Scoop amphitheatre and we did a dramatisation of Wagner’s Ring cycle libretto. It was a massive undertaking that took about five hours to perform, but people loved it and followed it right through, all evening. And it was really lovely to get people thinking about Wagner, who’d perhaps never heard his words before. The story structure is the basis of so many things, from Star Wars through to Lord of the Rings, so I think people really liked it for that and they could see where the similarities were.

But I fall in love with whatever I’m doing at the time and then get excited about whatever is coming up next.

And what you’re currently doing, with Free Theatre UK, is a production called Hamlet on the Beach, which was designed to be performed mid-evening at low tide on the banks of the Thames at Rotherhithe. What led you to choose one of Shakespeare’s biggest plays, with a large cast, ideally suited to a grand castle, knowing you could have none of those?

Normally, I wouldn’t choose Shakespeare, and I’ve spoken quite strongly about this in the past. It feels a bit like cultural imperialism; It’s like we’re saying - we, the intelligentsia, think this is good, so therefore you must all watch it! But this year, because it was a new site and a slightly weird project, I needed a title that people would immediately go, “I kind of know what that is”. Even if all they know is a man holding a skull, most people have some kind of point of reference. Now, if I was able to continue making theatre on that site in the way that we did with the Scoop, I’d move into things that people don’t know, because what you do over the years is building up an audience's trust so that they will come anyway, whatever the title. But it’s early days on this site and so I went for something that would be really pop.

So how is low tide at Rotherhithe working out?

This is absolutely guerrilla theatre-making. I can’t believe I’m doing it at the age of 55. We got this group of actors together and we looked at the enormity of the challenges and we thought, “Let’s just do it”. We need to do this; people need to see some live theatre, so we started off on the beach, as planned, and then the harbour mistress tracked me down and said, "You cannot do that.” And so, I restaged it with the audience on the wall overlooking the actors on the beach below and then they said, “No, you can’t do that; you’re not allowed to have your actors down there either.”

After that I moved it to a garden right next to the beach, where it's currently being performed, and we will wait to see if we get chased off that!

So, at the moment it’s Hamlet in the Garden.

Well, we’re thinking of it as Hamlet by the Beach!. There are always lots of metaphorical fires to put out, but it was so boring doing nothing during lockdown that it’s quite fun to run with the punches. For instance, yesterday, somebody stole all our props and costumes, so that’s what I’m working on this morning, replacing them. Every day there’s some challenge but it’s all based on the premise that if I seat a socially distanced audience in a circle and get a group of great actors performing a great play in their midst then magic will happen. And do you know what? It does!

We all volunteered to do it because we believe that London needed some Shakespeare. Audiences have been very generous with donations and some nights we get more in our collecting bucket then if we had charged normal ticket prices.

The Government’s rules for outdoor performances and public gatherings are clearly restrictive and present a major challenge, but have they in any way provided a stimulus?

When we started you were only allowed to form a bubble of six people so I decided to rework Hamlet around six select characters. Once I had the rationale for those choices, key issues came into focus. I was able to pare down the text to fit the permitted time slot of around seventy-five minutes, without losing the spirit and integrity of the original, whilst injecting more pace between the key scenes. So, it’s highly accessible and in these circumstances it’s genuinely a play for today.

But we’re taking the Covid thing very seriously: the evening starts with track and trace, which everyone has to do, and we have new socially distanced seating whereby we can give each social bubble of one to six a bench and then each bench is separated one metre from the other benches and that works very well.

Do you think that what you are doing with this free open-air production is in any way getting back to a form of theatre more akin to the age of Shakespeare and away from some of the elitism with which modern theatre has perhaps become associated?

This production is equally aimed at both regular theatre goers and those who have never been to the theatre before. It’s at the end of their road and people are coming along just to have a look and finding they’re completely engaged by this very old play and that’s been lovely. As has the joy and the warmth from the audience when they finally hear live voices again and see something that’s not on the screen and hear the fantastic language. The actual performing of it has been a pleasure but the logistics have been quite taxing sometimes.

This is very much me saying, “This is what I think the blueprint is going to be for the next few years. There will be people at the top of the tree who will be fine at the National and in the commercial West End but for the lower strata of actors there are not going to be venues open to us that are cost-effective and where audiences are going to feel safe. It’s going to be our job to go out there and find new ways of presenting theatre in unusual places. In a way it’s quite an exciting challenge; it’s all to play for really.

It’s obviously a difficult time for anyone involved in theatre, but for those who graduated this year, or were just finding work and trying to establish a career, it’s clearly been a huge setback and delay. Do you have any words of advice for them and others currently struggling to find work.

I think there are going to be fewer and fewer producers wanting to risk money on stuff and I think it’s going to be increasingly hard to find employers, so somehow you’re going to have to do it yourself.

This Hamlet is self-produced; we’re all taking group responsibility for it, there is no producer as such, so there is no boss. We decide things together and it’s in an unusual space. We’ve got no budget, so we’ve had to learn to market entirely by social media, run our own box office and do all the things that would be taken for granted in normal theatre where there is an infrastructure. When you’re talking about just a patch of sand on the beach there is nothing; you somehow have to reinvent what you would normally do, but for free and on the run, so it is quite challenging.

What’s the plan for the future? Do you have any more projects up your sleeve?

I’ve fortunately got a proper money job next, writing the libretto for a musical with some quite important pop stars, so that should keep the wolf from the door. And I’ll then use that money to finance working again for free to get something else going in the community. I’m very aware that most people won’t be able to go to the pantomime this year which makes me very sad, so I’m trying to work out some way of doing that somewhere unusual where it can also be free.

But it clearly won’t be on the beach or in a park at that time of year.

Yeah, there are only so many months of the year when you can do open-air theatre, but there are so many empty shop premises and empty factories and workspaces around it might be possible to work something out in somewhere like that.

Phil Willmott, many thanks and we wish you all the very best with your plans and whatever comes along next.

Related Listings

Hamlet On The Beach

Hamlet On The Beach

In a lonely spot by the river Hamlet is challenged by his father’s ghost to avenge his death. 

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