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Interview with Philip Wilson, Director of Twist of Gold at Polka Theatre

27 January 2012 | Tom Butler

London Calling's Tom Butler was lucky enough to catch up with Philip Wilson, director of the fast approaching opening of Twist of Gold at Polka Theatre. He tells us about the play and what it's been like adapting a book by an author most famous for War Horse...

Morpurgo fever sounds somewhat unhealthy, in some ways akin to a tropical disease. The real reason for this fever however is that the profile of author Michael Morpurgo has never been higher following the National Theatre’s smash west end success War Horse, it’s subsequent transfer to Broadway and now the release of the Steven Spielberg directed Hollywood film.
 
What better time then, to interview Philip Wilson, director of Twist Of Gold, an earlier Morpurgo work, taking place at the Polka Theatre from mid February, and sure to capture the imagination of the author’s fans both young and old.
 
London Calling: Firstly, lovely to meet you and can you give us a little synopsis of the play?

Philip Wilson: Sure, it's quite an early Michael Morpurgo, but as with all of his books it's a cracking story. It's two young children, Sean and Annie, in Ireland in the mid-19th century at the time of the potato famine. Their father has gone across to America to search for a better life and he's going to come back for them but hasn't returned yet.
 
Some of their siblings have been taken ill and have died, and their mother is ill. It's quite a grim world they're living in, and as is often the case with Michael Morpurgo, he doesn't shy away from the darker elements. But basically an English solider - maybe a surprising ally - takes them under his wing and takes them to Cork where they catch a boat across to America – they’re basically in search of their father. Then they cross America aided and abetted by various people along the way.
 
So the thumbnail sketch is that it’s maybe a kind of 19th century road movie except its two young people, and the music is very important and obviously that journey from Ireland across to America was a very common one. Musically we're looking at how we move from Irish folk. Sound is very important because Sean, the boy, while he's on the boat to America, is taught how to play the fiddle and Annie dances Irish step, so there will be live music within it and the title The Twist of Gold or the ‘Torc’, which is the old word, is this ancient necklace which the family have had in their hands for many, many generations, and without giving too much away they keep losing it then managing to get it back.
 
Along the way they meet people like the captain of the ship who may be a friend and may be not, and there's a bounty hunter and two old ladies in Boston who help them out, plus their slightly wayward brother who’s the Colonel. Then one of their servants, Luke, takes them under his wing. So there's kind of a daisy chain of people who look after them and all the way they keep losing the Torc and then they keep managing to get it back, and all of that as they cross America. So it's a wonderful story as always with Michael.
 
LC: This isn’t the first time you’ve worked on one of Michael’s books. Tell us about how you came to be involved this time around.
 
PW: What happened is that Jonathan Lloyd, the Artistic Director here, commissioned Simon Reade, who's adapted a number of Morpurgo’s works, pretty much all of them apart from the one that is ‘War Horse’, and he mentioned this in passing. I've known John for a little bit, he was looking at various directors and in the end he selected me. So initially it's a Morpurgo commission, which I'm just delighted to stage for the first time. It's quite tricky, because it does go to lots and lots of different places, so the designer, Max Jones and I have been looking at a world that enables us to keep changing location and the way that the play is structured is that Sean and Annie never really leave the stage. Then there are four other actors, so a cast of six and those four play a gallery of different parts as we go across the Atlantic to America and on to California.
 
LC: What is it that excites you about this play in particular? And tell us a little bit about the score for the production…
 
PW: Many young people and their parents will know the book from reading it at bedtime or otherwise. But as I said, one of the things I love about Michael is that it doesn't either look down at or patronise children but it doesn't exclude adults. I think even though here we are in Polka theatre for young people I think the adults can also come along and have a great time as well. But musically I'm working with this composer Ollie Fox who does a lot of work at the Globe and in the book Michael is able to say how Sean learns how to play the violin and the fiddle. And then when we stage it for the first time that becomes a very key sound. But we're looking at Irish sounds like the penny whistle, the tin whistle and the drum that I can never remember how to pronounce! The 'bodhran', I think it is, with apologies!
 
Then, because of this emigrant idea a lot of American fiddle and Bluegrass is actually from Irish tunes, but there's also the appellation sound and we've got this shaker hymn. So a lot of them will be played live; we've got a group of six performers who are all very able musicians so we're looking at fiddle violin, ukulele, banjo, possibly accordion. We haven't really resolved it as such, we just need to put it all together in one room. Then there's this gallery of different locations from Ireland to the ship, to Boston, to the mid-west California, changing as we go.
 
LC: Is there a particular element to Michael’s work that you feel lends itself to children?
 
PW: I've done another one of his, which Simon had also adapted, called Toro! Toro! Which is about a boy in the Spanish Civil War, and again we used quite a lot of music from the time. But what I love about Michael’s work is obviously Polka is celebrated as a theatre for young people and I've never seen anything like that here, but some children's theatre is kind of "Hello children!" and that's quite patronising. So what Michael does is not shy away from the dark aspects, there is this sense of 'who are your friends' and actually people who seem friendly who may not be friendly - without becoming a warning there is a sense that people who may appear nice may not be and some of the people who feel quite tough and bluff may actually be the ones who look after you. And at the heart of it, it's always children in this case not animals, as opposed to some of the other ones like ‘War Horse’ etc. But these two young children, Sean and Annie, are looking after each other as they go on a journey. So it's a big road movie, a big epic journey.
 
LC: This is the first time you’ve worked on a production at the Polka. How are you finding it?
 
PW: It's a lovely stage here, it's quite wide and it's quite deep and what we've done, without giving too much away, is to have islands quite near the front and it just keeps revealing and then it becomes a bit like a Pandora's box, little things arrive and change and we change the aspect of how we're presenting each scene. Also, at one point, we change the scale completely, everyone’s going to leave the stage and there's a little wagon trail, so it's a bit like one of those 1950s tecnicoloured Wild West movies - suddenly it will be as if you're watching a big cinema screen, then the curtain will go across and the humans will come back in. So it's about changing depth, changing perspective and looking at different ways of doing it, and obviously with that many locations we can't literally show too much, so we've gone for this quite deliberately plain, quite a rundown wooden arena with lots of earth and peat and dirt, and then this huge sky, and then these kind of wooden wars come in and costume will really anchor it. But certainly with that Irish sound and the American sound I had a very long meeting with the designer, the lighting designer and we've got a sound designer as well, about how each department will be helping us set the scene, creaking timbers in a ship, the sails flapping and in the big openness of the Wild West etc, etc.
 
LC: How much have you had to change your style directing for children?
PW: I haven't really, but maybe I should. My job is to try to tell the story in the best way that I can. Michael's writing is very rich so we want to make sure that it's very strong and visual, but also in the book and in the play the children's imagination will complete it. I think my main thing is to give enough to set the scene, but to also allow an audience space to think and that I think is true for adults also. I remember when we did Toro! Toro! which was set in the Spanish Civil War, as I said, we had one moment off stage where people were shot, so we had the shocking scene and the sound of the guns, but what we didn't do is have human screams after it. So it was sort of naturalistic and that was it, and there was one tiny bit in the book that was about a child who was covered in blood and it was going to be spoken about rather than seen, and in the end we just lifted that out.
 
So I suppose it was really only the two bits. So I don't know in terms of Twist of Gold, I certainly haven't thought of tempering what I'm doing for children. I think children can be very harsh critics, so if they don't believe it, or they're not interested then they will get very restless very quickly, whereas adults perhaps are maybe more polite, which is not to say children are impolite, but on the other hand I think if children are gripped they're almost the best audience because if you can see out into the auditorium you can see how wrapped they are.
 
So I think, as I said, my first intention is to just tell the story as best I can, and Simon has adapted it really rather beautifully. It's closely modelled on the book, but as with adaptations there have been shifts of tone and focus and we haven't been able to show all the parts or have all of the people, but just this idea that there are these various episodes and a gallery of characters. I think in the end we worked out there are 38 people played by six, and there are emigrants and sailors and all of that. So we just want to hold the audience's hand and take them on this extraordinary journey from Southern Ireland, across the sea and across America in search of this man.
 
LC: Have you met Michael? Did you feel under any added pressure adapting his work?

PW: I've met him a couple of times and I have to say he's not the man to apply pressure. He's been very involved with the drafting of the adaptations with Simon and a little bit with me. He came to see Toro! Toro! and he was buzzing about that. I think because he knows both of us, I hope I don't spoil this, but he trusts that we will tell the story in the best possible way. So with the ‘War Horse’ movie coming out he is enormously high profile, but I guess I just feel honoured to be able to tackle another story by him.
 
Whichever writer I work with I want to make sure that I show their work in the best possible way. I haven't really thought of it as pressure, just an extra aspect, and Twist of Gold is an earlier book and I've been canvassing young people and their parents. Some people know it and some people don't so it's also a chance to see a story that they might not know. A lot of people know War Horse, but Simon has also adapted Private Peaceful, which they've just made a movie about, that is coming out later this year. So I think Polka is going to be in the news quite a lot, so I don't think its pressure, more like excitement.
 
Rehearsals started this week, and we have three very busy weeks. Then we have a tech week, so we open on the 16th of February. Then it goes through until the 21st of April, so quite a nice long run and what's so great here is that there are school performances and then public ones. So there's a chance to connect to all the schools around the area, so it should be great.
 
Twist of Gold is on at The Polka Theatre, Wimbledon from the 16th February to the 20th April. Tickets are available online via their webiste or via the box office on 020 8543 4888
 
 

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