Madame Bovary: A note from Jon Nicholson, Adaptor

Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Peepolykus production of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! Directed by Gemma Bodinetz. Cast: Emma Fielding, John Nicholson, Javier Marzan, Jonathan Holmes

Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Peepolykus production of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! Directed by Gemma Bodinetz. Cast: Emma Fielding, John Nicholson, Javier Marzan, Jonathan Holmes

We’re so pleased to be returning to Bristol Old Vic with a co-production. We last performed at the theatre in 2004 (with a sold-out retrospective of our early comedies). Since then we’ve been co-producing larger shows with theatres up and down the country (including a West End transfer of our adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles).

Peepolykus have secured an international reputation for delivering a unique brand of entertainment.  Now in our 20th year, we are staging one of literature’s most controversial and tragic novels. Why Madame Bovary?

Because it wrestles with the human condition – the aspirations we have for ourselves, delusions, passions, loneliness, disappointments, our struggle for autonomy and happiness. And comedy, for us, must start from a place of honesty and truth. Emma Bovary, the protagonist, has flaws, like us. She isn’t always easy to sympathize with, like us. Flaubert’s original is a non-judgmental and alarmingly honest account of a woman determined to have some control over her life in 19th century France.

In our adaptation, we wanted Emma (played by the double Olivier nominated, Emma Fielding) to have a voice outside of the confines of the novel. We wanted to amplify her emotional journey. We wanted to be more faithful to the heart of the novel than many of the film versions have been. This resulted in a piece of theatre that swings full pelt between clown and tragedy. For some, both the endeavor and the outcome of this will jar. But for the vast majority of the 10,000 or so people who have already seen the production, it doesn’t.

The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary might be an untraditional theatrical offering but it has been immensely gratifying to see both school parties and coach parties of over 60’s by turns moved, by turns belly laughing at the unfolding story, and sometimes both at the same time. Most importantly, YOU DON’T NEED TO HAVE READ THE NOVEL!

We very much hope that you will come and see the results.


The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary plays at Bristol Old Vic from 27 May-11 Jun 2016. Find out more and book tickets here.

All That Fall: Persuading Beckett

One of Samuel Beckett’s most acclaimed and accessible plays, All That Fall is also one of his least known. The writer’s friend and biographer Jim Knowlson explains why – and why it is “too good, too funny and too moving” to be left on the shelf.

Michael Gambon and Eilenn Atkins in Trevor Nunn’s 2012 “radio-style” staging

When Beckett’s first radio play was broadcast in 1957, Roy Walker wrote in The Tribune that ‘All that Fall is, I insist, the most important and irresistible new play for radio since Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood three Januaries ago.’

Inspired by boyhood memories of his native village of Foxrock, County Dublin, it is certainly one of Beckett’s most accessible plays but it is not nearly as well known as his stage works. Radio plays are rarely re-recorded or indeed replayed, and because Beckett was firmly opposed to the live staging of his radio plays, it has only occasionally been performed in theatres.

His letters to friends reveal clearly why he did not want it to be staged. To his American publisher Barney Rosset, he wrote that the play was ‘a radio text, for voices, not bodies’, commenting ‘it is no more theatre thanEndgame is radio and to “act” it is to kill it.’ In fact, it depended, he added, on ‘coming out of the dark’ for any quality it had, saying ‘frankly the thought of All that Fall on a stage, however discreetly, is intolerable to me.’

In 1963 he refused the eminent Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman permission to stage it with another of his radio plays Embers. He refused his favored American director, Alan Schneider, writing in 1974 that the play ‘is really for radio only’.

He even held out against Laurence Olivier.

When he allowed his friend Deryk Mendel, to stage a production in Berlin in 1966, he thought what he was authorizing was a straightforward reading. Mendel once admitted to me privately that he was ‘praying to God that Sam wouldn’t see any photographs, as I rather cheated on it, you see’.

He agreed to a film because he understood it would be directed by Alain Resnais whose documentary about the Holocaust had thought “very fine”. But he bitterly regretted the ‘disastrous results’ of the eventual television version broadcast on ORTF in 1963, directed by Michel Mitrani.

However, he sometimes referred to the changes that would be required if it were to be staged, and so it may be that, given time and a director whose work he respected, he might just have relented, as he did in many other cases. If Alain Resnais had gone ahead and made a success of the transfer from radio to film, his attitude to a staging in the theatre might have altered. We shall never know.

Pan Pan theatre company sat its audience members in rocking chairs under light bulbs to listen to the play. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Since Beckett’s death, the literary executor and the Beckett Estate have continued to oppose the staging of All That Fall. One or two variants have been allowed. Trevor Nunn’s 2012 production at the 70 seat Jermyn Street Theatre simulated a radio production, with microphones and sound effects visible as if the audience were evesdropping on a recording. In 2011, the Irish theatre company Pan Pan sat its audience in rocking chairs, naked light bulbs above them like stars, but with most of the play taking place in the dark.

The most fully staged production was the late Bill Gaskill’s, with RADA students in 2008. In a thrilling production, no-one pretended that they were part of anything other than an imagined theatrical world. Mime, caricature and farce ruled and though there were young actors aged artificially by make-up, there was no insistence on making them look convincingly old. It was authorized as a ‘one-off’ and non-commercial production, and Gaskill himself was turned down when he wanted to restage it.

One can understand why Beckett did not want to ‘mix his media’: he had specifically chosen what he thought would work on the radio. In this light, Max Stafford-Clark’s idea of giving the spectators eye masks is a genial one. The audience remains free to imagine Mrs Rooney as, in her own words, ‘a big fat jelly’; and the various picturesque characters she encounters on her way to the railway station live in the mind’s eye as distinctive figures through their voices only.

Max’s other key idea is that the actors move around and among the spectators. This shift in the location and direction from which the voices come creates a fascinating aural landscape: Mrs Rooney can at one moment be quite distant from you, at another very close, perhaps even resting in a nearby vacant chair; blind Dan Rooney’s stick taps past you on the return journey from Boghill station once his train has delivered him there after its significant and ominous delay.

With a live audience present to respond collectively, the play emerges as even funnier than it did on the radio; yet its dark themes of death and dissolution still come through.

Does All that Fall have a future on stage? Opinions will vary on this and whether indeed it should, but approaches such as Max’s are to be welcomed as a way of introducing newcomers to areas of Beckett’s writing that are less well known than Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape or Happy Days.

The play is just too good, too funny and too moving to remain the sole preserve of the scholar.

Jim Knowlson is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Reading. He was a friend of Samuel Beckett for 19 years and is the author of many books on his theatre. He also wrote his biography, ‘Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett’ (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).

Experience All That Fall in the Paintshop of Bristol Old Vic from 8-12 March. Find out more and book tickets here.

The original blog can be viewed here:

The Dog and the Elephant: A multitude of sins – Jack Johns, Actor

The Dog and the Elephant - Shoot Stills - Credit Found Studio (2)

Hello Bristol! My name is Jack Johns and I am playing Bendigo Barlow in The Dog and The Elephant, which is coming back to Bristol Old Vic Studio this February. It’s a one man show about a Bare Knuckle Boxer in late Victorian England who suffers with Tourette’s syndrome – it focuses on his relationship with an Elephant that he meets in a Travelling Menagerie.

Both Matt Grinter (writer/director) and I are thrilled to be coming back to Bristol Old Vic as this is production very much started its life here – it’s home. The idea was born in Bristol, we rehearsed in Bristol and we had our first performance as part of Ferment Fortnight last year. Since then we’ve been to VAULT Festival, the Pleasance London, LATITUDE Festival and even recently shot a film version of the piece – now we’re back! Though I’m hoping this time round I won’t knock over the set, which shouldn’t be an issue given that the set is minimal, but somehow I’ve managed it before.

The show has grown a lot over the last year. Every time we have performed at a new venue, we’ve been sure to re-rehearse for a couple of days. There is always something new found in these rehearsals. I think its because there is often quite a chunk of time between them, so you tend to come at them with completely fresh eyes. I think this is a good thing for a one man show, as a normal rehearsal period is absolutely exhausting and you can very quickly loose sight of the overall objective, you often can’t see the wood for the trees. We are actually just re-rehearsing for our Bristol run, and we’ve allowed longer this time due to technical changes, and a few script developments.

We had an interesting development with the show when we were approached by FOUND Studio. They saw the show at VAULT and thought it would make an interesting short. Their background is in animation, high end commercials and music videos. When we saw their work we immediately agreed as we could see that it was going to be a quality product. We have spent the best part of the year developing it with them, firstly cutting down the script with Matt. This was quite a tricky process as, timing-wise, it needed to be cut in half, but it still needed to maintain the main narrative. Inevitably some characters and plot points had to go; this process went back and forth a bit but soon was settled.

With this came new challenges. The new script was an absolute nightmare to learn, as I’m now so familiar with the stage text. Thought it’s essentially the same words – they were now in a different order, lines that didn’t finish in the same way, things jumping all over the place. Hell. It was harder than starting from scratch. We got new tattoos drawn up for my character – they play an integral part in the piece, and the in film version some these will come to life through animation. I had to hit the gym, which I hate, because as they say ‘the camera never lies’, you can hide a multitude of sins on stage.

We shot the whole thing in one day a couple of weeks ago. It was the hardest days work I think I’ve ever done, 10 hours doing a monologue on repeat. Bare Knuckle Boxers with Tourette’s syndrome are fairly high energy characters to play. Needless to say, at the end of the shoot I was on my knees, quite literally. Post Production is now underway and in a couple of months we get to see the finished product which we’re pretty excited about.

The Dog and the Elephant - Shoot Stills - Credit Found Studio (8).jpg

This has been an amazing and sometimes quite intense journey for both Matt and I. Being a one man show – it’s just me as an actor, whilst the show is written and directed by Matt – so it’s a small team of us two. In terms intensity, this is about as distilled and potentially claustrophobic as it gets. There’s no cast to bounce off, no Writer/Director discussions. Just two people in a room. For a long time. A very long time. Luckily, we are close friends and have worked together many times before. It did definitely feel like the most creatively exposing process either of us have ever been through – there was no one else to take the blame if it went wrong, just us. There have been highs and lows in bringing this production to the stage, but all said and done, we had a fine old time. We’re working on other projects together, and I was still invited to Matt’s wedding, so it can’t have been that bad!

Now I’m sitting with the script in front of me desperately trying to unlearn the film script ready for rehearsals, and the show next week. So I should probably get on with that…

Would be lovely to see you at the show.


The Dog and the Elephant returns to Bristol Old Vic Studio from 3 – 6 Feb 2016. Find out more and book tickets here.

Bristol Old Vic’s Best Of 2015

It’s been a pretty spectacular year here at Bristol Old Vic made amazing by every single one of our 112,000 customers who bought a ticket to one of our 595 performances! Thank you to all of you who came and supported us. Here are a few of 2015’s top moments from the staff at Bristol Old Vic.

Life Raft at Bristol Old Vic

Life Raft – photo by Jack Offord

“One crazy September night, I ran headlong from a Bristol Old Vic standing ovation at the end of Melly Still’s thrilling production Life Raft to Arcadia’s Spider Show in Queens Square. None of us had seen or heard anything like it!

Both of these events were part of Bristol’s European Green Capital programme and they showed in different ways why the Bristol 2015 arts programme was so important. Artists of this quality see new possibilities in the world and inspire the rest of us to do the same.”
Tom Morris – Bristol Old Vic Artistic Director

“Absolutely nailing Bristol Proms in it’s biggest and most ambitious year! But watching the first run through of Pink Mist in rehearsals was a huge high for me.”
Hannah Maun – Ticketing and Audience Insight Manager

Nightjars_credit Jack Sain_1000px (4)

And Then Come the Nightjars – photo by Jack Sain

“A top moment of mine was And Then Come the Nightjars in the Studio. Absolutely stunning set, beautifully moving story. I was very touched by this piece.”
Rachel Wilson – Programming and Producing Administrator

“My highlight would definitely be launching our 250th anniversary programme. From initial whispers in the office, to sculpting a season, to frantically decking the Paintshop out for the announcement during our Christmas press day – being surrounded by staff, friends and supporters, I can’t think of a better way to kick off the most exciting year.

It’s a massive privilege to work in a building steeped in so much history, and actually a bit mind blowing when you look ahead and see the world class creatives we’re working with in 2016. I’m looking forward to walking our corridors over the next year and being able to wonder what the next 250 have in store for this beautiful theatre!
Charlie Coombes – Press Assistant

“My highlight has to be the opportunity for Bristol Old Vic Young Company to come together with our pals Travelling Light and Bristol Museums and Galleries to perform A Thousand Seasons Past in Museum Square in a specially built auditorium– no mean feat and a triumph of team work and Bristol working together!”
Sian Eustace – Young Company and Participation Producer

Jack Russell

Bad Body Double: Jack Russell

“The moment when our new and old Graphic Designers Jack Archer and Russell Hancock met, in exactly the same clothes and, you guessed it, made Jack Russell!!”
Karen Palmer – Marketing Manager

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre cast and creative team with Bristol Old Vic team at the National Theatre press night. 

“As well as a year full of absolutely killer productions (my favourites include Pink Mist and the hilarious Orpheus by Little Bulb Theatre) it was such an amazing experience to travel to the National Theatre en-mass to see our production of Jane Eyre in the Lyttleton theatre.”
Duncan Smith – Marketing Officer

“The absolute high after our first meeting with someone who agreed to buy a Bristol Old Vic silver ticket! And seeing Associate Director George Mann’s crystal clear influence on our work across our programme (Pink Mist, The Crucible, Sleeping Beauty) and admiring his talent and enthusiasm.
Sarah Watts – Capital Campaign Coordinator

“It has to be the Bristol Old Vic ‘Enchanted Forest’ themed Christmas party where our Made In Bristol company all came as magic elves. They even made their sparkling beards themselves…” [photos embargoed]
Cameron Cheek – Operations Coordinator


Pink Mist – photo by Mark Douet

“I will never forget the opening night of Pink Mist. The audience were utterly silent throughout the performance until the moment it ended, when they all gave the cast the most monumental (and fairly emotional!) standing ovation. Ridiculously well-deserved for one of the best plays of last year.”
Jonathan Harper – Marketing Director

Thank you to everyone who supported us in 2015! We hope to see you again in 2016 for our 250th anniversary year, it’s going to be a big one.
Happy New Year!

Sleeping Beauty – Rehearsal Diary: Week 5

by Ewan Black

So here we are in the final week of rehearsals, and it’s all gone very fast. Through week five we continued to work on the second part of act two. It became apparent that this wouldn’t be so easy as we have to create a satisfying ending. What I mean by “satisfying ending” is that we want the audience to feel like all the problems of the story are resolved or left in a way that is pleasing – we ended up creating a chase scene, making sure the play flows well and, as I was saying, create that fulfilling ending.

The chase scene took a while to go through because there was a lot of movement involved. The chase is married with a fantastic heavy rockish song which makes it all a lot more exciting. Doing the chase scene without the sound and lighting effects was still good but I’m sure when we have all of it together it will vamp up the effect and create a fantastic bit of theatre… again I don’t want to go into too much detail about it – you’ll have to come and see it!

The ending has proven quite hard to crack for us. We have already had four different variations and I have a feeling that as we go into tech next week we will have at least another one, or at least a slight alteration. As I said this is because we are trying to find the ending that satisfies, that finishes our characters stories and that provides a great message for the audience to go away with and think about. Part of our problem is that we have taken two stories and put them together to make one. We have the story of Sleeping Beauty and the welsh folk tale of The Leaves that Hung but Never Grew. We need to make sure both stories are completed by the end, and that they are combined well.

On Friday we did a run of act two and some problems arose. Sally realised that the act didn’t quite flow right and that we had lost the “heart of the story”, which in our case is the relationship between Prince Percy and Deilen – and of course, their individual stories. We had lots of funny bits and larger than life sections that in reality aren’t part of what I like to call ‘the core story’. When I first look at a play I like to find the core. So for me, that would be picking out the key components of what actually happens in the story and putting aside the things that aren’t essential. This helps you to keep on track of what is, as Sally said, “the heart of the story.” So on Saturday, Sally and dramaturg Adam Peck thought about where they could implement more scenes that would show the developing relationship between our two main characters. We also cut down some of the other scenes that weren’t crucial. Sally and Adam also decided to swap some scenes around to make the show flow better. Then finally we changed the ending to answer the questions that the welsh folk tale asks and create that all important satisfying ending.

On Saturday afternoon we did our first full run through of the show. It went well, we also saw that the work we had done in the morning really helped shape the story. Sally and Adam took notes of what they thought worked, and what they thought didn’t work, and I’m sure we will do some more editing on Monday before we go into the theatre to start tech.

The show is in a great place and I’m excited to add costumes, lighting, sound and, of course, the stage to what we have done! Into tech week we go!

Ewan recently graduated from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and is a Peter O’Toole Prize winner, generously supported by Bristol Grammar School

Photography by Steve Tanner

Sleeping Beauty plays in Bristol Old Vic Theatre from 27 Nov 2015 – 17 Jan 2016. Find out more and book tickets here