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An interview with theatremaker Hannah Ringham

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London Calling spoke to the pioneering theatremaker about her new project at the Gate Theatre

Hannah Ringham is a theatre maker with a rich background in creating some of the most groundbreaking devised theatre of the last decade. One of the founding members of Shunt - a collaborative theatre collective who pioneered explorations into the role of the audience and 'immersive' theatre - Ringham is currently due to appear in the Gate Theatre's newest show, The Unknown Island, and she spoke to London Calling about the devising process.

José Saramago, Nobel Prize-winning author, is a writer whose novels explore deep questions about humanity and society. His writing is rich in metaphor and grounded in story, but perhaps not the most obvious choice for a dramatic adaptation. Hannah Ringham, however, couldn’t be happier to delve into the world of The Unknown Island. “José has a tremendous imagination, and an ability to set up situations and stories that allow questions of civilisation to appear. The Tale of the Unknown Island begins with a story we all know: the classic fairy tale of going on an adventure. Before long, the story starts to take itself apart, and becomes another story, then another. It has a very strong narrative, but there are narratives within that.”

The Unknown Island artwork. Courtesy of Gate Theatre

It’s clear from talking to Ringham that there’s a lot going on underneath the surface of the novel. Is that down to Saramago’s writing itself? “He was a very political man - an active communist - who had strong, left-leaning ideas about civilisation and he questioned how we should live in society. At the same time, he was brilliant at writing simple, imaginative stories. In The Unknown Island, he plays with the traditional fairy tale and stealthily draws out parallels with the world we live in, and how we understand it historically. Those parallels aren’t overt, but they’re present and there are definite questions in there.”

Is this level of subtext a factor that Ringham looks for when adapting a text? Does it help the devising process? “For me, there always have to be questions in the room. There needs to be a sense of what’s being asked. There are four people in this show, and we are all quite different in ourselves. So there are ideas of difference, how we each go into the unknown, and what it means to not know something. The whole concept is a paradox. Going in search of ‘an unknown island’ - how do you search for something you don’t know?”

Hannah Ringham

Searching for something unknown has parallels with the act of devising itself. A company come together in a blank space, and create openly, not knowing exactly where they will end up, or what exactly it is they are looking to create. Does the process itself bleed into the performance? “Everybody is involved, and the questions are palpable; present in the room; in the air. These are real questions - not that anybody has to come up with answers; it’s not about ‘getting’ something - but that we’re all in this together, trying to understand it.

“We also consider the audience a part of the show, and that this is a live act. That’s the fundamental thing about theatre for me. How is the integrity of the audience part of what we’re doing? We’re interrogating this idea of the unknown, with the audience there, and all our differences in the room.”

Rehearsal for The Unknown Island

With a process as tricky as this, a good director is paramount. Ellen McDougall, newly appointed Artistic Director of Gate Theatre, absolutely fits the bill. Her track record of re-inventing classics, and her European sensibilities when it comes to creating theatre, all make her the ideal person to have at the helm of this project. “She’s fantastic; a great director. Her starting point is so interesting - she asks whether we can change. Can we change in relation to what is happening in the world at the moment? The story that we are all involved in - all the shit that’s happening everywhere, and the horrors we see around us - can we change that? The many things that we know, and hear on the news each day - can we change them? It’s a fundamental question to ask.

“Ellen’s way of directing is very vigorous in terms of interrogating José’s text. She opens up those questions, as well as the people in the room. She is a generous, open and rigorous director who is interested in the idea of this event, this live show, being somewhere where we explore big questions of change and acts of imagination. It’s a very exciting place to play in.”

Hannah Ringham stars in The Unknown Island at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, until 7 October. Tickets are £10.