Kneehigh Theatre are always assured a warm welcome in Leeds – the Cornish company have been regular visitors to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, building up a loyal audience over many years – and they are back in the city this week with their latest production, The Tin Drum.
Gunter Grass’s seminal 1959 novel, on which the show is based, tells the story of Oskar Matzerath who decides, in protest at what he sees around him, never to grow up. Exploring the rise of fascism through the eyes of a child, it was written in the reflective post-war period, is a key example of European magic realism and, frankly, is not the easiest of reads. Complex, surreal and demanding, it’s not the most obvious choice for a transfer to the stage, but Kneehigh’s founder and artistic director Mike Shepherd is not one to sidestep a challenge. “The novel is really impenetrable,” he says, laughing. “What’s been rather brilliant is that every time we have mentioned it, people have said that ‘you can’t do that’, but we have.”
A co-production between the Playhouse, Kneehigh and Liverpool Everyman, The Tin Drum opened at the Playhouse on Tuesday for an 11-day run and is an energetic musical satire presented in Kneehigh’s unique, magical storytelling style.
“We are always posing the question – why are we doing theatre and who are we doing it for?,” says Shepherd who directs the production.The themes of book and the production – the rise of an ugly and suffocating totalitarianism – certainly resonate with what is happening in the world today. “One of the issues for me is the demonisation of certain people that we have seen in recent times,” says Shepherd. “In the last two years I have been working in the Calais Jungle and I have met people who are just like you and me and they have become a ‘problem’. Refugees are a tiny percentage of the population of Europe, so rather than closing our borders, surely we could accommodate them.”
As a Cornishman he says he has been disappointed by the county’s recent voting record. “I have been so shocked – Cornwall voted for Ukip and for Brexit; as a Cornish company I feel we have to counter that.”
Over the summer Kneehigh artists writer Anna Maria Murphy and singer composer Dom Coyote have been ‘rambling’ in Leeds and Liverpool, talking to people and collecting stories connected with themes explored in the production – war, hope, migration and love. In Leeds they joined members of the Playhouse’s Young People, Older People and Theatre of Sanctuary (refugees and asylum seeker groups) in walks around Leeds. With the material they gathered the writers and groups have created songs, poems and postcards celebrating the city and will be giving special pre-show performances in the Playhouse bar area next weekend. When Grass was asked what the Tin Drum represented, he famously replied ‘you decide’. For Shepherd, and the company he founded in 1980, it is about sometimes asking the difficult questions and banging a protest drum when it is needed.
“The show is, depressingly, absolutely of now, but there is hope too and I am really proud of the production. There is a lot of pressure on theatre companies to create ‘product’ that is going to sell but we have taken another leap into the dark and taken a risk. I do think audiences want to discover something different.”
Music always plays a big part in Kneehigh productions and The Tin Drum is no exception – if anything, it is even more significant than usual. “The composer Charles Hazlewood, well... I know it is a term that is overused but he is definitely a genius,” says Shepherd. “When you work with him you are on a fantastic rollercoaster. What he has done is amazing – the show has been described by someone as ‘opera on steroids’”. Although the production does not shy away from the darker themes of Grass’s novel, and by extension the issues facing contemporary Western society and the wider world, it does present a glimmer of hope. “I think that Carl Grose the writer has done an interesting thing in that he has written something new but absolutely honouring the original,” says Shepherd.
“There is something beautifully poetic about it. I would describe it as a delicate poem to the whole world. As well as being a protest song it’s a plea for the world and the beauty of the world.”
At West Yorkshire Playhouse until October 28. Tickets on 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk