TOP DOG – An interview with Dead Dog in a Suitcase’s Mike Shepherd

Following rave reviews in Liverpool, and arriving in October, Kneehigh Theatre’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) is another hit for the high-spirited and much-loved Cornish outfit. We spoke to Director Mike Shepherd about the highs and lows of creating a new show…

We opened in Liverpool last month and thankfully, the reception so far has been absolutely brilliant – we had a full standing ovation each night. Dead Dog… is our radical new take on John Gay’s infamous Beggar’s Opera. Despite a few marketing departments telling us to the contrary, we wanted to make a statement by giving it a new name as our version is very much our own: it’s punk, it’s political, it’s hugely entertaining and very, very skilled. The audiences are really going for it and I’ve been hugely impressed at how intelligently politicised they are.

In Liverpool, you have a pint with a shipyard worker and his wife who’ve been to see the show and you can talk Tony Benn, Syria, Lebanon, what it would actually mean to exit Europe… it’s been extraordinary, and you get a real sense of passion and identity. Too many of us have become depoliticised in my opinion. Theatre has become very safe. Very risk-adverse, as I keep hearing. It’s become harder to exist and independent voices are becoming rarer. We’re all trapped in this very ridiculous, but sadly very real world of needing to get four stars to make a living.

For a company like Kneehigh, these days, we have to do an initial run of a new show, then try to book a tour a year after that. No-one’s taking any risks, especially on something unknown. Rolling out the classics and endless Shakespeare isn’t particularly healthy despite the fact that it’s proven, I think, that when people do new or different things, there is an audience out there hungry for it.

I suppose the The Beggar’s Opera is a classic of sorts and it is recognisable in our version. Gay wrote it as a furious rant against the world, government and class system of the time – a musical of the streets. Brecht famously remodelled it to rail against fascism in The Threepenny Opera and his quote then: “the world’s poor and man’s a shit” is so relevant now. Me, writer Carl Grose and composer Charles Hazelwood wanted to have our own rant about the world that taps into the deep levels of corruption that surround us today.

The plot of The Beggar’s Opera is actually fairly thin, dated and somewhat misogynistic and doesn’t really hang together as a narrative; our version begins with Macheath, a contract killer, who’s hired to kill the mayor and his dog whilst they’re out for their evening walkies. The women are powerful in our version, the ending’s very different, we have some new characters and plotlines and an amazing cast of 12 actor/musicians. And, of course, it’s full of Kneehigh’s typical brand of exuberance, energy, music and dance. Charles Hazelwood, who’s a genius, has added an inestimable amount, pushing everyone out of their comfort zones.

You’ll also recognise a few Kneehigh favourites in the cast including Giles King, Patrycja Kuwaska and Ian Ross. I think Kneehigh has been able to survive so long because we keep reinventing and are determined to keep learning. But our methods for survival are an increasing worry – we survive at the moment by working in Australia and America. I have no worries that we will survive in some shape or form, but we’ve gone from doing two shows a year to one every two years.We’re less likely to get co-productions with theatres, all of whom who don’t seem to have any money at the moment. Arts Council funding is on standstill, or a cut in real terms, so we have to, and this might not necessarily be a bad thing, step into the commercial world a bit more. This throws up all sorts of new pressures and questions around how one is creative, or how one makes work and how one protects oneself from the deep anxiety and neuroses surrounding work in a world that’s all about money. Perhaps we’ll just have to go more and more underground!

Under New Labour, I think it’s important to remember there was a bit of a bonanza time, and regional Arts Council officers were hugely helpful in building up audiences for us, but I do think the current investment into the arts is pathetic. It’s doesn’t make business sense. In America, where we’ve spent a lot of time, there isn’t the same culture of government subsidy, so places like the Guthrie or the Berkeley Rep in San Francisco operate very effectively through patronage and private donors. I’m certain this government would very much like to push the arts and probably health and education in that direction. There are so many incredibly rich people, certainly in America, where you know, if you have money, you’ll be supporting things like arts and education. Sadly, in this country, we haven’t got that culture. Yet. Our relationship with Bristol and Bristol Old Vic is important for us, we have an audience there and the potential for linking Cornwall and Bristol and developing the South West is huge. I’d like to develop it more.

During the company’s long history, for me, the shows we’ve had to fight most for are the ones that have stuck in my memory; there was a show called the The King of Prussia by Nick Darke that first introduced us to Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn and the National Theatre; The Red Shoes was one we opened and people thought “what the hell is this?” but that went on to tour the country and the world when the British Council were a genuinely powerful organisation and force for cultural exchange; Tristan & Yseult, which we’ve brought back has been extraordinary; Brief Encounter was our first foray into the commercial sector and has been another watershed moment for us; and The Wild Bride, which came from the times when Emma [Rice – Kneehigh’s Artistic Director] was exploring fairy tales was another great cast and really enjoyable piece of work. But I must admit, personally, I like some of the trickier, less palatable shows like The Bacchae and Don John – fantastic, flawed pieces. I have no interest in perfection. I think the more perfect and polished theatre becomes, the more likely I am to sleep through it. Perhaps that’s the secret. I love theatre with flaws!

We’re so excited to welcome Kneehigh back to our Theatre, so be sure to snap up your ticket to Dead Dog in a Suitcase… before it’s too late! Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) Bristol Old Vic Theatre 8-25 Oct 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Thu & Sat mat, not 9 Oct) £5-£25 (plus booking fee) Ages 14+

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