Professor Dan Rebellato, Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance has recently had his new adaptation of Alfred de Musset's 1834 play Lorenzaccio broadcasted on BBC Radio 3. We recently caught up with Dan to find out more about his inspiration for choosing to produce this adaptation, and to learn more about his role within the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance?
I’ve been at Royal Holloway a scarily long time – this is my 26th year. When I got my job here I was still doing my PhD (with Prof Jacky Bratton) and I guess I’ve just stuck around. The things I generally teach are contemporary British theatre, Naturalist theatre, playwriting, and, sometimes, musical theatre. I set up the Creative Writing degrees almost 15 years ago and more recently contributed to the establishment of Philosophy degrees at Royal Holloway. Is it really 26 years? Wow. I deserve a medal. In fact, where’s my medal?
2. We understand that your new adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s 1834 play Lorenzaccio was recently broadcast on BBC Radio 3. What was your inspiration for choosing to produce an adaptation of this play?
I came across the play 30 years ago as an undergraduate and I’ve always been surprised at how little known the play is (in the UK, that is; in France, it’s recognised as one of the masterpieces of the theatrical canon). Partly I suspect the reason why it’s not so celebrated here is that it comes from a period when French theatre briefly turned away from classical Greece and towards Shakespeare as a source of inspiration for playwriting. There may be a slightly Brexity feeling around that ‘we don’t need French copies of Shakespeare when we have the real thing’. But actually there’s much more to the play than that – it’s a play about how a good person struggles to maintain their integrity and ideals in a time of corruption and compromise, which you might think speaks to our contemporary situation. I couldn’t possibly comment.
3. Are you able to give us any details on your current book project, Naturalist Theatre: A New Cultural History?
Naturalism in the theatre is the project of trying to represent the world on stage in an authentic, lifelike, scientifically accurate way: to be fearless in showing the world as it is, warts and all, not how we might wish it to be. It was a small-scale, experimental theatre movement of the 1870s and 1880s but it caught on and spread around the world, influencing acting, theatre design, playwriting, a new attitude to the audience; it invented the role of the director; it spread quickly into the new form of cinema and from there to television. It has a claim to be the most influential western theatre movement since the Renaissance, maybe since the Greeks. But there’s never been a proper full-length cross-disciplinary academic study – maybe because it’s so influential that people assume they know what it was. But placed back in its historical period, I think it emerges as stranger, more contingent in the forms it took, more complicated and neurotic, bound up with convulsive changes in nineteenth century Europe. The book is going to be an attempt to capture some of that.
4. Do you have a favourite theatre production?
Oh man, that’s hard. I was figuring it out recently and I think I’ve probably seen something approaching 3000 theatre shows. Some productions disappear almost immediately; others have stayed with me for decades. I saw a production of the Irish playwright Tom Murphy’s play Whistle in the Dark at the Royal Court in 1989 that I can still visualise vividly – and I can still feel the effect of its shattering ending. Around the turn of the century I saw Complicite’s extraordinary Mnemonic which was so complex and layered and smart and haunting I think it changed me permanently. More recently, I went to see a play called Pomona by a fairly new writer, Alistair McDowall, at the Orange Tree in Richmond and it felt like that legendary moment when Jon Landau went to a gig and came out saying something like ‘I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen’. I’d seen the future of drama and its name was Pomona.
5. What is the most intriguing/inspiring production you have seen?
One of the shows that was most transformative of my sense of what theatre and drama could do was a play by Howard Barker produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988 called The Bite of the Night. The play was about 4½ hours long with dozens of characters, numerous subplots, even two prologues. The notional story is a classics professor meeting his student just as the University explodes throwing them back through time to Ancient Troy and much of the play involves them living through the various periods of the city in the way Schliemann described it, though absurdly fantasised (Dancing Troy where everyone dances continually; Mum’s Troy where everyone perpetually has babies...). The scale of the play, the ambition, the humour, the richness of Barker’s language and the density of the thought was utterly revolutionary to me. I went to see it three times, which means I’ve spent 13½ hours of my life watching The Bite of the Night. And the richness of the play meant that it was a quite different experience each time I saw it. Barker wrote various pieces at the time theorising a kind of theatre experience that sought to divide the audience, embrace difficulty, refuse collective experiences, and urged drama to seek out the most taboo and occult areas as a kind of politics that would exceed and displace the more conventional representational strategies of conventional political theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever quite fully recovered from seeing that play.
6. What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Partly I want to say I don’t understand the question (‘outside of work’? I always thought that was a myth...) but outside theatre and writing, there’s always politics, wine, Twitter, Netflix and reading the odd novel. I’ve just finished Francis Plug: Writer in Residence by Paul Ewen which is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Most importantly, our son, Ethan Blue, is 2½ years old and he is adorably magical to spend time with.
7. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway and within the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance?
Two things, really: the staff and the students. My colleagues have always been smart, generous, funny, committed, collaborative and creative. And the students are the same: among other things, I’ve taught a course this year on late-nineteenth-century Naturalist theatre and another on the Broadway musical: two very different kinds of theatre, but always I’m impressed by the students’ engagement, whether we’re talking about Brigadoon or Rosmersholm, their commitment to thinking through the oddity of these theatre forms, making the familiar unfamiliar in an intellectually enriching way. It’s something I’ve never got tired of – even after twenty-six years.