An Interview with Mike Shepherd, founder of Kneehigh Theatre Company

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Mike Shepherd has an illustrious and varied career as a performer, director and as founder of the magnificent Kneehigh Theatre Company. Kneehigh are a staple part of our theatre diet at Bristol Old Vic, and we’ve welcomed them back this winter with Steptoe and Son. Directed by Emma Rice and based on the legendary scripts of Galton & Simpson, we were intrigued to ask Mike a little more about the production…

Let’s kick off with the utterly predictable but utterly key – why Steptoe?
Because they’re classic scripts and it was a fantastic opportunity to work with Galton & Simpson, who are probably the greatest comedy writers of recent times.

Secondly, we’re of a generation where, for our parents, the second world war was very close. The viewpoint of that post war generation – our parents – who were always looking to better themselves, really resonated with Emma [Rice, Director].

Also, the original scripts were written at the same time as Beckett was writing, and have the bleakness and beauty of Beckett: of two men trapped on an island of rising junk

But the primary reason is that it’s such fantastic writing

Have you drawn on the original scripts, or is it all new stuff?
Totally the original scripts – written by Galton & Simpson

Were you a fan of the series and if so, what was its appeal?
Not really, I sat and watched it and was fascinated by its bleakness. Fascinated, but I wasn’t a fan of it

What was your vision for the set and styling?
The script spoke to Emma and Neil [Murray, Designer] of the set: the interiors and the cart. The fact that Steptoe and Son are rag and bone men

What has been the feedback from Galton & Simpson – and was their approval important to you?
Galton and Simpson love it. And it’s always nice to have approval!

Was it hard to banish image of the original actors when originating the piece? How did you and Dean approach such iconic roles?
No, we were very clear that we weren’t going to do impersonations. We’re not ‘doing’ Wilfred Bramble and Harry H Corbett. We honour Galton & Simpson’s world: the script and story; but it’s a theatre piece that also reveals secret dreams desires and torments that aren’t in the scripts.

We were not interested in replicating s half hour sitcom with canned laughter – we’ve made a piece of theatre, rich in theatricality

We approached the roles as actors – as detectives. The starting point was the script, and with that came the discovery and definition of Galton & Simpson’s world

How do you see the relationship between Steptoe fils and Steptoe pere?
Come and see the play! They’re trapped with each other, they care for each other, they’re cruel to each other: they’re a family

Is the play a comedy, a tragedy, or a bit of both?
Definitely a bit of both

What innovations have Kneehigh brought to the show?
A heightened sense of theatricality, a brilliant soundtrack of music from the 60s and 70s [designed by Simon Baker], startling design, and, in a Dennis-Potter-singing-detective way, we step out of reality and tell story through song and dance at times

This strikes me as an unusually male-dominated production for Emma to direct – You’d better tell us a bit about ’the woman’…
It’s not male dominated; we like to place humanity on stage. It’s a human story of two men and several women

The figure of The Woman is Emma’s device to span the decades off the 60s and 70s. She is Albert’s wife who’s passed away; Harold’s girlfriend that he nearly had; a mother; and the woman who dances through the decades who Albert and Harold never notice. She represents time passing

Tell us a bit more about the kneehigh world – what’s up next?
The Wild Bride
returns to America to play in San Francisco & New York. We are bringing back Tristan & Yseult to selected UK venues including Bristol, and the show will go on to tour America; and Brief Encounter is going to Australia and America. Through this year we’re also developing two new shows, details to be announced later this year 

I’ve seen a number of productions recently that show a distinct kneehigh influence. Does that make you want to explore new avenues or styles?
We always explore new avenues and styles. We’re currently touring Steptoe and Son, The Wild Bride, Midnight’s Pumpkin and
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, which are all totally different pieces of work. It’s flattering if we’re influences other people, but there is no ‘one’ style

Kneehigh has gone from a small community theatre to an international force that has co-produced with some of the biggest companies in theatre. Are your Cornish roots/the local influence just as important as ever?
A sense of home and a sense of belonging is important. All projects are seeded at our barns, but we’ve always considered ourselves a global company
 

Taking Steptoe out of the picture, what Kneehigh production has been nearest to your heart?
I don’t know – I’m excited by all of them 

Other than a Kneehigh show, what’s the best thing you’ve ever seen on the stage?
Stomu Yamashta’s Hiroshima; Complicite’s The Street Of Crocodiles; and Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

Mike Shepherd is currently appearing in Steptoe and Son until the 9 Feb. He has also directed the upcoming production of A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, which runs from 5-16 Feb.

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