In a new production commissioned by the Finborough Theatre to mark the 150th anniversary of T. W. Robertson’s 1867 comedy – and the first UK production in over 20 years – Directed by Charlotte Peters, Caste plays at the Finborough Theatre for nine Sunday and Monday evenings and Tuesday matinees from Sunday, 2nd April 2017.
Director Charlotte Peters recently took time out to chat about the production.
Q: An anniversary is a fair reason for a new production – but why this one and why now?
Charlotte: Very few Victorian dramas and comedies survived the test of time. Despite Robertson being one of the founders of naturalism in theatre and one of the first ‘directors’ in terms of how we perceive the role today, his plays seemed to get lost over the years. Being such a fan of the play, it’s rather surprising to me that this is the first London production of Caste for decades. The 150th anniversary seemed a great reason for reviving this forgotten classic, but more than that, this seems the perfect time to bring to life a piece that at its essence is about reminding its audience that we’re all the same. The play may use class as its subject, but it feels rather apt that such a message should be celebrated just at the moment. Besides, with everything that’s been happening in the world of late, we could probably all do with a giggle and Robertson certainly knows his comedy!
Q: As the Director, what challenges do you face to make this production feel fresh?
Charlotte: The brilliant thing about comedy is that it’s timeless so we’re fortunate that most of Robertson’s wonderful observations about people still exist today. That said, if one was reading the play they may find the language dated so we’ve been keen to introduce the style early on and slightly contemporise its meaning in places, and also to use the language to add to the comedy of the production. Whilst we have stayed very true to Robertson’s stage directions (he was certainly specific!), we’ve given the production a fresh edge by setting it within a Victorian photographer’s studio. In the mid to late 19th century, photography was starting to grow in popularity, and in an age where how you are perceived was vital, it felt interesting and rather fun to explore what would happen if every vulnerable moment was caught on camera.
Q: How do you ensure that the piece is seen to be authentic?
Charlotte: Caste was first performed in 1867, but it is set in 1856, a year before the Indian Rebellion as two of
our characters go off to defend the Empire. Despite many of the themes within Caste being timeless, it is set within an age that focused on morality, where the class system was starting to change to make room for the middle classes rising up from the Industrial Revolution, and where romanticism was spreading throughout Europe. We’ve wanted to keep hold of that setting as it’s crucial for the stakes of the play and so all costumes and props sit very much within the period. The language too, assists in the authenticity of the piece, paying homage to Old England, whilst remaining clear for a contemporary audience.
Q: What can you tell us about rehearsals and working with the cast?
Charlotte: I feel like the last few weeks have mainly been spent laughing although I’m sure we got some work
done too! It has been an absolute joy to share ideas and direct such a wonderful bunch of actors whilst re-discovering a brilliant comedy. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with such a brilliant cast who between them have worked for some of the most prolific theatre companies in the UK and brilliant television and film. It means Caste’s creation has truly been a collaboration of minds, greatly helped too by a fantastic creative, stage management and production team.
Q: Do you have a favourite character? (and/or a favourite line)
Charlotte: My favourite character seems to change every rehearsal as they’re all so full of heart! I have started using “Confound it!” in daily life wherever possible as it’s such a brilliant exclamation – I hope to bring it back to 21st-Century vocabulary so spread the word!
Q: What is at the heart of the production?
Charlotte: There’s a brilliant line in Caste: “Nobody’s a mistake. He don’t exist. Nobody’s nobody. Everybody’s somebody.” and I think that just about sums up the play. Hidden within this comedy of class prejudices is the idea that actually, we’re all the same. Caste celebrates that we may think there are fundamental differences between us and those who grew up in a completely different way to us, but fundamentally, we all want to love and to be loved. It may be a Victorian comedy, but it seems to me that never has such a simple idea seemed more important to remind ourselves of, than right now.
Q: What emotions do you go through on Opening Nights?
Charlotte: I think I probably go through every emotion! Opening Night is about relinquishing control of something you’ve held very dear and looked after for weeks or months and so whilst it’s a very freeing experience, it can be nerve wracking too! Mostly it’s a chance to see the cast bring to life the ideas thrown about in a rehearsal room and that can be exhilarating and rather magical.
Q: Why should everyone get along to see Caste?
Charlotte: If you feel that you’ve not had much to celebrate of late in terms the ever more depressing daily news that we wake up to, Caste promises to provide 90 minutes of comedic light relief whilst being full of truth. It’s an opportunity to see a wonderful collection of actors revive a brilliant piece that certainly deserves to be enjoyed by audiences for many generations to come.
Director Charlotte Peters is currently Resident Director on An Inspector Calls in the West End, and will shortly be Resident Director on the National Tour of War Horse (National Theatre). Direction includes By My Strength, Jog
On (Frederick’s Place Theatre), Constellations (Bread and Roses Theatre), Dram (Old Red Lion Theatre), Bark (53two), How To Make Money From Art (Phoenix Artist Club), Fame (Tallink Silja, Scandinavia), Interval (Camden People’s Theatre), And The Little One Said… (Cock Tavern) and Art and What The Butler Saw (Edinburgh Festival). Charlotte has worked as Assistant Director with Steve Marmion on Only The Brave (Soho Theatre Press Information and Wales Millennium Centre) and I’m Not Here Right Now (Soho Theatre and Edinburgh Festival), and for Steven Blakeley on Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk (Theatre Royal Windsor). As Associate Director, she has worked with Alastair Whatley on Birdsong and The Private Ear / The Public Eye (National Tour) and Iqbal Khan on The Importance of Being Earnest – The Musical (Theatre Royal Windsor).
“My dear fellow, nobody’s a mistake.
He don’t exist.
1867. George D’Alroy is a soldier and the son of French nobility. Esther Eccles is a beautiful ballet dancer from a poor family. When the two fall in love, two very different families are brought together.
After George leaves to serve in India, Esther must deal with a drunken father, a sister with a fierce temper and a terrifying mother in law. Not knowing whether she will ever see her love again, Esther must confront the class prejudices of Victorian England, whilst coping with the chaos created by her increasingly exasperating family members…
Widely considered both as T. W. Robertson’s masterpiece and a ground-breaking milestone in British theatre, Caste was described by George Bernard Shaw as “epoch-making”, whilst W. S. Gilbert said it “pointed the way for a whole new movement”, and when William Archer and Harley Granville Barker planned the programme for their proposed National Theatre, they were agreed that the mid-Victorian period should be “inevitably represented by its one masterpiece, Caste.”
Playwright T.W. Robertson (1829-1871) was a theatrical revolutionary. His works include Society (1865), Ours (1866) which was revived at the Finborough Theatre in 2007 for the first time in over a century, Play (1868), Progress (1869), School (1869), Birth (1870), M.P. (1870) and War (1871). Robertson was the first playwright to treat contemporary British subjects in realistic settings, and also directed his own work. Many of his most successful works were produced for the management team of Squire Bancroft and his wife Marie – buried just minutes from the Finborough Theatre in Brompton Cemetery – who were instrumental in creating the West End theatre that we know today with their innovations in the fields of stage design, theatre decoration, ensemble acting and long runs of single plays, with matinee performances.
Robertson was a huge influence on later theatre makers including Arthur Pinero, who based the character of Tom Wrench in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ on Robertson; and W.S. Gilbert, who said that “I look upon stage management [i.e. theatre direction], as now understood, as having been absolutely invented by him.”
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Victorian classic
by T. W. Robertson
Directed by Charlotte Peters. Designed by Georgia de Grey. Lighting by Robbie Butler. Original music and sound design by Theo Holloway. Presented by Project One Theatre Company in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Cast: Paul Bradley. Neil Chinneck. Rebecca Collingwood. Isabella Marshall. Duncan Moore. Susan Penhaligon. Ben Starr.
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED