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“I’ll alwaYs be disappointed in the work we do.” Joseph Alford, artistic director of Theatre O, fixes me with a serious look. “Because if the ambition of what you want to do is big enough, you’re never going to achieve it.”
Alford, 40, has a habit of saying the sort of thing to which no interviewee would normally admit – only to qualify it with something inarguably sensible. “I don’t like theatre,” he announces over coffee at Avalanche, an independent record shop on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. “A lot of theatre I see doesn’t engage me – and I’m not sure of the motivation for making it. It should be driven by passion.”
Alford has collaborated with some of the most prominent figures on the British theatre scene, working as movement director on Katie Mitchell’s productions since 2009. He established his own company, Theatre O, with his partner Carolina Valdés 13 years ago. Success came early, with their first show 3 Dark Tales bursting on to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000 to rave reviews. They spent the next few years taking 3 Dark Tales around the world. “Vivid and enlightening, inventive and compelling theatre,” said the New York Times; others drew parallels with the more established experimental company Complicite.
But Alford has always seen himself as an outsider. Theatre O is hardly prolific, with just five plays to its name. Its work is rooted in an expressionistic, non-naturalistic tradition, too – more European than British. Alford spent four years living in communist Poland from the age of 12, which shaped his attitude profoundly. “Theatre was expressing things people weren’t allowed to express normally, so they had to find abstract ways to do it. You felt a real need for the work from the audience.”
When his family moved back to the UK, Alford found his experience of theatre stultifying. “It was all comfy chairs and things that didn’t seem to involve me. Having seen both kinds of theatre, I know which one excited me more. That’s why we want to have a really active relationship with the audience.”
That relationship is something Alford’s latest piece The Secret Agent seeks to foster. It is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, which was in turn based on the true story of French anarchist Martial Bourdin, who died in 1894 when the bomb with which he intended to blow up London’s Greenwich Observatory detonated prematurely. It was London’s first case of international terrorism, and although published in 1907, the novel is “packed full of the things we read about in the newspapers,” Alford enthuses.
Having just finished its run at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, The Secret Agent transfers to London’s Young Vic next week, and then tours the country.
It was not just the novel’s prescience but Conrad’s outsider status that attracted Alford. Born in what is now Ukraine, Conrad was not fluent in English until his twenties and his prose has an experimental, distanced quality. “What he does with language is what we would aspire to do with theatrical language. He’s writing in his third language, so the way he uses words is very striking,” Alford says. “We wanted the solidity of something pre-existing but that we could play with. I’m not interested in putting a book on stage – it’s about putting it through the filter of you.”
Such “filters” tend to divide audiences. When a classic play is reinterpreted or a novel adapted for the stage, there are always those who bemoan the inferiority of the new version, the arrogance of those who dared meddle with the old. But Alford isn’t much concerned with that. Having trained at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris, known for its emphasis on physical theatre, his approach to direction is to ask, “What is the best language for that particular moment? Is it actually something that can be more clearly articulated through movement – or is it something where you’ve got to have the words?”
He explains: “I’m not a choreographer. It’s just that I’m interested in how we can express things physically.” Some of the most powerful moments in The Secret Agent are wordless: when a tragic accident drives a wedge between the agent and his wife, her body expresses pain more eloquently than any words, her limbs like a tight coil, hands clamped over her face.
It’s now more fashionable to use movement than when Theatre O began. But Alford tries not to get caught up in trends: “What’s important is that when we feel it’s the moment to try something new, to move on, we’re brave enough to do it.”
These are busy times for Theatre O, with The Secret Agent about to open in London and two new plays in development – a children’s show and a piece inspired by Mexico’s young female police chiefs. And while Alford is no slave to fashion, he is using the vogue for physical theatre as a chance to do bold things.
‘The Secret Agent’, Young Vic, London, September 4-21. www.youngvic.org