Arts

Interview with the directors of MTS’s ‘Into the Woods’

Graham Robertson speaks to Felix Clutson and Richard 'Trolly Robbins in the penultimate week of preparations forntheir hotly anticipated production of one of Sondheim's most loved works.

In a typically crowded Crosslands on a Friday towards the end of the day, I meet Felix Clutson and Richard ‘Trolly’ Robbins (because no one calls him Richard),  just before one of their last production meetings, preceding yet another rehearsal. They are the director and musical director respectively of this term’s Musical Theatre Society production of ‘Into the Woods’, by Stephen Sondheim, and they are very excited.

How’s the rehearsal period in the run up to the show?

Trolly: Knackering [they both laugh].
Felix: It’s been intense to say the least. For me personally, I thought that it would be. It’s a massive show, there are a lot of numbers, but I thought we’d get breaks. I thought there would be days, afternoons where I could get away from it but there aren’t. The phone goes off every fifteen minutes. You have to have your game face on 100%.
T: In terms of the cast it’s a delight. They’re so talented and unique, so astute and so able that it makes a rehearsal an absolute joy. The talent is there, it’s the utilising it and making sure that we put on a fantastic spectacle… which I think we will.
F: As people who know me will know, I’m not a musicals person. If I was directing a straight theatre show I could tell my actors how I want to do it as if I was in the show. It’s excellent, however, to have performers who produce things that I don’t think of and things that I didn’t think possible of people at Holloway. The sounds and the scenes that they’ve created in rehearsals are just brilliant.

So with the actors’ capabilities in mind and the fact that neither of you have a spare moment in the day, do you have particularly high hopes for the show?
F: Yes, definitely.
T: Which comes from our high standards. It’s fulfilling our own expectations if this pulls off.
F: We are under no circumstances prepared to put on a show that we don’t think is good because that reflects badly on us and the cast… and particularly on Sondheim. The reason that I say that is because the reason that we want to put on such a brilliant show is because it is a work of just sheer genius. I don’t think anyone that’s seen it and heard it can dispute that so we really want to honour it. We’ve got this opportunity to put on something special and it’s been given to us on a plate. As Trolly said, with the cast that we have, I think we can pull off something really special.
T: People overlook Into the Woods as just another part of Stephen Sondheim’s remit, but the questions that it raises about parenthood and about morality send you away questioning all sorts of things. That’s what theatre’s designed to do instead of just telling you what’s right and what’s wrong. In terms of the music, it’s extremely well written. It’s very clever, very crafty.

If someone is coming to one piece of theatre all term, why should they come to see this?

T: Into the Woods is not a musical in the usual sense of the word. It’s a piece of theatre, an astonishing piece of theatre, that uses music to enhance.
F: And I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s so unique and when Trolly says well-crafted, the amount of detail that’s gone into the words and the notes, it’s a special piece of theatre. We’re not sick of this play after rehearsing it night in, night out for weeks and weeks. We’re still utterly in love with it. It’s a testament to how the cast are doing it and also to the piece itself and I just think that an audience will have no difficulty in appreciating that.

So what made you two choose Into the Woods?

F: I find some musicals don’t mean an awful lot to me. They don’t make me think enough. I like Brecht personally and I like to be thinking as I’m watching, not just sitting there for entertainment. And Into the Woods instantly does that.
T: It’s not a passive show, it forces you to ask questions and forces you to think.
F: Particularly in the second half, it raises all sorts of moral questions; the consequences that each decision you make has on other people; and that was a really engaging thing for me.
T: We also looked at other shows. We wanted to put on a really good story because there are so many good pieces of theatre that aren’t good stories that you can really enjoy. And fairytales are just a perfect canvas for that but in this case they’re not fairytales in the traditional stock sense. You have got the traditional tales but within a new storyline in itself.
F: The beauty of Into the Woods is that there are all these touching moral issues. It’s completely intertwined with stories we all know already but its a reimagining of them in a way that you never thought possible. It lends itself really well to acting and singing because the characters are so well-crafted and there’s so much development. There are so many elements for the actors to work with.

Finally, what is it that you’ve enjoyed the most about putting on a show at Royal Holloway?

F: From day one, when Trolly and I conceived this idea on a drizzly day –
T: Just after Summer Ball wasn’t it?
F:  – on a bench outside Crosslands, until this moment, it’s been exciting. And it will carry on being exciting I think until even afterwards. Auditions, rehearsals everything. We talk about it afterwards and go giddy with excitement at the fact that one particular talent will be in our show.

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