French farce is not the sort of fare normally associated with The Crucible but they are currently staging Boeing Boeing. Nick Ahad spoke to director Jonathan Humphreys.
In recent years theatre has started to play tricks on us, doing the very unexpected.
Ian McKellen took the stage in pantomime.
Simon Russell Beale, finest actor of his generation, dragged up for Privates on Parade.
It seems theatre directors are looking at their stages and their actors and are, to borrow a term from the David (The Office) Brent book of management practice, thinking outside the box.
The folk at Sheffield Crucible have got in on the act now.
The Crucible is a famous stage, world famous indeed. It is famous in a sort of grand way, not in the way of a reality television star, but actually famous.
It has been graced by actors of rare talent.
Kenneth Branagh gave us a hunchback king on it.
Derek Jacobi was upright in a more regal way.
The grand reputation is the reason why it’s something of a surprise to see the stage playing host this season to a French farce.
There is nothing wrong with farce, obviously, it’s just that the Crucible tends to be associated with grand, opulent productions of things like Shakespeare, big musicals, or more serious plays.
Witness: before the plays shifted out and the snooker shifted in, the Crucible was hosting a magnificent production of Translations as part of the Brian Friel season.
And this week it’s a French farce.
“It might be unusual in the recent history of the theatre, but in the past there have been farces on the stage,” says director Jonathan Humphreys, the man who is bucking the recent trend.
Humphreys is responsible for bringing to the famous stage a new production of the French farce Boeing Boeing.
“It’s just that farce hasn’t found its way on to the programme, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a conscious thing.
“It’s a relatively new style of theatre to me, as a director, but it is incredibly enjoyable.”
Humphreys was resident director at Sheffield Theatres from 2010 to 2011 after being awarded a regional young theatre director bursary.
While at Sheffield he directed The Village Bike and Happy Days and clearly impressed, hence being invited back to take on a French farce.
So, the programming, while unusual, is perfectly legitimate.
The director has earned his stripes and is convinced it is a piece of work that belongs on the famous Sheffield stage.
There is another reason it still seems an unlikely choice for the Crucible: the mechanics of farce.
It might be thought a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype for a reason: it is often said that farce is about doors opening and closing at the right or wrong time. Boeing Boeing features a lot of doors.
The specific problem with that being played out on the stage of the Crucible?
A thrust stage with the audience on three sides, it isn’t, at first glance, the best design to feature lots of doors.
“We are having to reimagine it a little to actually make it work,” admits Humphreys.
“It’s obviously written for a proscenium arch, so it’s presented front on to the audience where they can all see all the entrances, so there’s a bit of a challenge there.”
How much of a challenge?
“Rehearsals aren’t a laugh a minute, is the truth,” laughs Humphreys.
“There are a lot of intricate mechanics we have to nail down. There are five doors and seven entrances so we are having to find a way for it to fit on to this stage.
“Having the audience on three sides and getting all the entrances right is actually all a bit mathematical really.
“The other thing is that this is a big stage so the actors have to time things just right so they get to the point they need to be at the right time.”
While it sounds like a lot of hard work, it sounds like the results are going to be well worth it.
A touring production of Boeing Boeing came to Sheffield Lyceum a few years ago and it is a breathtaking – often literally for the actors – piece of work.
Marc Camoletti’s farce was first performed in Paris in 1960 and the English translation arrived in London two years later.
It remains the writer’s biggest hit and understandably so. The lead role of Robert was played in London by Mark Rylance in 2008 to wide acclaim.
“When you are directing a drama you might spend a long time talking about where everyone is emotionally,” says director Humphreys.
“A farce, while technically very different, is also very plot driven, so until you’ve worked out the technical structure you can’t start to explore all of that.
“What’s really interesting is that directing something like this isn’t dissimilar to directing Brecht in that Camoletti gives you a whole, very well thought out universe in which the play exists.
“What that does is allow you to allow the story to be told and let the audience laugh at the situation they are being presented with.
“The great thing about this story in particular is that it is a real leveller.
“It’s about the fact that it’s okay to be a stupid human sometimes and that’s something we can all relate to. It’s a farce about making mistakes and being human.”
It is also a very funny piece of work. Putting it on the stage of the Crucible, it seems, will add to the sense of fun that makes this such a brilliant piece of work.
Perhaps thinking outside the box will work for the theatre.