The story of how Alexia Kirk, director of Dear Brutus, found the play is “one which no one ever believes. I was in a charity bookshop in Jericho about a year and a half ago and I saw this 1934 edition of Dear Brutus. I already loved J. M. Barrie, I started reading…it’s one of those things where you read the first page and absolutely fall in love with it.”
When we meet in Dear Brutus’ current rehearsal space in Trinity College, a room of wall-to-wall books with costumes and chairs strewn in every available space, she handles every question I throw at her in the same way: articulate, considered, slightly reticent. Rebekah King, the assistant director, is quieter, but when she does speak she’s equally polished and sound bite-worthy.
Barrie’s Dear Brutus, Kirk begins, is “about this really seductive idea: what happens when you have a second chance at life. It’s an ensemble cast of 11, and it’s set on Midsummer’s Eve 1917. The host invites a group of guests to his house for a party, none of whom know each other very well or why they’ve been invited, and all of these characters have the rug pulled out from underneath them: relationships are broken up, new relationships are started. It’s barely been performed since it was published, so we don’t have the pressure of measuring up to famous versions. But we do have the pressure of a revival.”
“If there was an English classic which you’d never heard of but you’d want to know, this is it.”
Is the production staying faithful to Barrie’s text, or pushing it in new directions? “The setting is so potent that we didn’t want to change that, it’s a series of interlocking storylines as you would expect in an ensemble cast. We’re doing period costumes, period physicality, without it becoming caricatured and over-the-top. We’ve been doing a lot of voice work, movement work…not only do I want it to look era-appropriate, but I want the actors to feel comfortable as well. I trained in the US last summer at the Yale School of Drama, and they are very physical in that they want the character to become second nature to you, so you play the part without even thinking about it, and I’ve brought quite a lot of that back here. We’ve been pushing them hard, asking them to do warm-ups in corsets: challenging, but worth it because it makes such a difference.
Is this limiting at all, to follow Barrie’s directions so closely? “Oh no, not at all! Because his stage directions are never straightforward, he will never describe an emotion. And it’s not an easy script, every line is beautifully written but has about five layers of subtext.” Kirk flips rapidly through the script, searching for an example. “He writes the most beautiful and extensive stage directions that completely contradict each other. He will say something like “the light smiles upon the flowers menacingly” – how do you render that on stage? It probably would have been more difficult to interpret the stage directions if I wasn’t already as familiar with Barrie’s writing, but I am. They’re so well written that you can take it in so many different directions.”
What’s the hardest thing about this production? “This is a play where every new act is supposed to have a new set, and with our practical limitations, we have to represent a lot of that through lighting and costume changes.” On the subject of set, what can we expect from Brutus? King explains: “We’re going very pre-Raphaelite. We want the audience to realise that there’s something a bit different, it’s not your typical early 20th century play. It’s still very naturalistic but it’s got abstract touches in a very Art Nouveau way.”
If she could describe the play in three words, what would they be? “Tragedy, comedy, melancholy.”
When I ask why we should come and see the play, I get two answers. From Kirk: “Because it’s magisterially well-crafted. There’s never a foot wrong.” From King: “If there was an English classic which you’d never heard of but you’d want to know, this is it.”
Clearly, this directorial duo is prepared for any question. The real challenge, however, will come next week, on the O’Reilly stage. We will have to wait and see if this confident direction translates to an accomplished performance.
Dear Brutus is on at the Keble O’Reilly in First Week.