The National Youth Theatre (NYT) REP company is currently presenting a programme of three plays, a modern female-led adaptation of ‘Frankenstein’, which utilises virtual reality headsets and artificial intelligence, the London premiere of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’, and a production of Shakespearean comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I spoke to actress Ella Dacres about appearing in the season, the importance of gender-blind casting, and the significance of theatre companies like the NYT.
Ella begins by telling me about the shows in this season’s REP. “We are performing ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. ‘Frankenstein’ has been adapted and incorporates themes of AI (artificial intelligence) and technology along with the original ideas of responsibility and ambition. ‘Great Expectations’ is a real fun ensemble piece that takes you on the journey of Pip’s life narrated and recounted by him throughout. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is now set in a seaside town with fairgrounds, elections and fish and chips coinciding with the timeless plot of mixed-up love”.
The 2019 NYT REP season opened with the London premiere of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations at Southwark Playhouse. Mumba Dodwell (Diversity School Initiative, Black Ice at Theatre 503) directs a bold new version of the classic tale through a fusion of music and ensemble storytelling. This NYT production puts young people at the forefront of a Dickensian world in a coming of age tale about aspiration, love and class.
Ella plays Biddy is this bold adaptation, and tells me about the character. “Biddy is such a fun, cool character to play. She is Pip’s best friend in his Kent years as she has come to take care of the house he has grown up in. Though she is a teenager when we first meet her, she is incredibly intelligent and wise beyond her years and can read Pip like a book. She is a really lovely soul and it’s a joy to play her”.
An exciting fusion of music and ensemble storytelling, this version is different to previous versions of the Dickens’ classic. Ella explains, “I think what separates this adaptation from others is the staging and this version of the story being told. The stage itself is in traverse with a long catwalk going through the middle. I think this choice really makes the experience come alive for an audience member as they are so involved in the story through the intimacy of the staging. Additionally, I think the diversity of our 16-strong ensemble really takes the play to a new level. To see diverse faces portray such strong and complex characters (Miss Havisham) as well as funny (Mr Wopsle) and loving, soft and tender roles (Herbert Pocket) – especially in a period piece, it not only revitalises this classic but normalises the faces you expect to see in these eras”.
“to see diverse faces… not only revitalises this classic but normalises the faces you expect to see in these eras”
The production puts young people at the forefront of this Dickensian tale “by doing just that. We are a group of 16 people aged 18-26, so by the nature of our group we are young people at the heart of this production. Our director, Mumba Dodwell has been training alongside us from the beginning of the course so has brought her own unique, fresh ideas to this piece”.
A new adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place at the Criterion Theatre in December as the third and final production in the 2019 REP season. Shakespeare’s most popular comedy is inventively and playfully directed by former National Theatre New Works Resident Director Matt Harrison working in association with Kneehigh and abridged by Kate Kennedy and will transport audiences to a seaside amusement park. The production and also features gender blind casting including a female Bottom and male Helena.
Ella takes on the role of Puck in this gender-blind adaptation of the beloved Shakespeare comedy. Ella reflects upon what it is like to play the character. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favourite Shakespeare pieces so playing such an iconic character like Puck has been a joy. In our version you see a lot more of the relationship between Puck and Oberon, they are best friends and on the same level. Puck is quite chill and carefree which is a really fun dynamic to play”.
This version sees the play set in a seaside amusement park. Ella explains that “our director, Matt Harrison, took inspiration from Whitby where he grew up. So in our version, the fairies run a travelling funfair that has come to visit. The fairground is the place for people to have fun and acts as the ‘forest’ the lovers find themselves lost in. We also feature a fish and chip shop run by The Mechanicals as well as a coalition between local Thesus and outsider Hippolyta”.
Ella explores the importance of gender-blind casting in the theatre of today. “I don’t think it’s about being gender-blind but more so not letting someone’s gender stop them from having the opportunities that are out there. There is no reason why someone who is non-binary can’t play Macbeth or a man can’t play Yerma. I think it is an exciting time to be in theatre as the stories now being told, I feel, resonate and represent life and society more now than ever before”.
“it is an exciting time to be in theatre as the stories now being told, I feel, resonate and represent life and society more now than ever before”
The REP season continues at Southwark Playhouse in a gothic double-bill featuring an Artificial Intelligence-inspired production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapted by Carl Miller and directed by Emily Gray, Artistic Director of Trestle Theatre. With themes of science and technology running throughout, Frankenstein will also see all 250 audience members given virtual reality headsets during the performance to experience the world through the eyes of the Monster. The production features gender blind casting with the lead roles Victoria (Dr Frankenstein) and Shell (Frankenstein’s Monster) both to be played by women.
On playing Victoria Frankenstein in this gender-blind adaptation of Mary Shelly’s classic gothic novel, Ella says, “Victoria has been a gift of a role. She is incredibly nuanced and complicated. We first see her going from a controlled, genius scientist who has managed to do the impossible to then crumble into a completely weak, obsessive, tragic woman. We see her navigating through the idea of responsibility; her rejection of the concept, her trying to control it and ending on her absolute obsession to destroy her creation fuelled by it”.
Ella goes on to explore the relationship between Victoria and her creation, in this case, Shell. “One thing that is different from this adaptation and the original is that Victoria does not run away from her monster immediately as it gains life. Victoria’s goal is to create a machine that can feel, so she teaches Shell, she nurtures her – as well as Shell being her life’s work she is also her best friend (whether she knows that or not). It is when things start to breach that line between scientist and subject into something more familial that Victoria leaves. Their relationship is extremely dynamic, complex and painful”.
In this very human tale, famously written by a woman, Ella discusses whether the dynamic and feel of the production is different to previous adaptations, as a result of having the two lead characters played by women. Ella says, “I really like this aspect of the adaptation. Not just the fact that the two leads are women but black women. It shows that we can be a whole host of things – complex, deplorable, powerful, geniuses, villains, anti-heroes. We also focus on the idea of motherhood. We see Victoria disgusted by the idea of being a ‘mother’ to Shell, Shell dealing with parental rejection as well as Victoria’s relationship with her own mother. I think having female leads and these themes has really added and modernised this piece in the same valuable way as the technology, AI and VR has”.
“having female leads and these themes has really added and modernised this piece in the same valuable way as the technology”
With themes of science and technology running throughout, the play is inspired by Artificial Intelligence, and will give audience members the chance to see the world through the eyes of the monster using virtual reality headsets. Ella explains that “every night each audience member will be given a VR headset. The audience get to see a multitude of different things – everything from Professor Walton’s expedition and Victoria’s Arctic rescue to Shell’s brain and her experiences with life and humans post-abandonment. It is another version of storytelling that provides a richer and deeper insight into these characters and this story”.
This REP season sees the most number of performances in an NYT season in the company’s seven year history. I asked Ella what this has been like to be a part of. “It has honestly been the greatest experience of my life. As someone new to this industry and theatre, it has been an amazing training ground to understand the feel of what a real run is like. You gain an understanding of the differences in audiences, different ways of playing the character and a real endurance and unwavering investment in the story”.
The 2019 NYT REP programme will include relaxed performances as part of the NYT’s wider Inclusion Programme which aims to make the charity accessible to young people, artists and audiences with disabilities. Ella discusses the importance of relaxed performances, and why there is a constant need for inclusivity in theatre. “Relaxed performances are so important and I’m very happy that they have been included in our run. Theatre is for everyone therefore it should be inclusive, meaning all audience members should feel safe, comfortable and be able to experience theatre. I think relaxed performances are incredibly important and I love that we are seeing more of them”.
“theatre is for everyone”
The NYT aims to provide creative opportunities for young people from social, cultural and economic backgrounds underrepresented in the arts and creative industries. The NYT REP is a free initiative inspired by the traditional repertory theatre model and was set up by Paul Roseby in 2012 to provide a much-needed, alternative to expensive formal training whilst embracing young talent to work with leading institutions culminating in three productions in London theatres. With over 40% of the company being actors of colour, the NYT continues to demonstrate its commitment to discovering Britain’s best diverse young talent. In addition to the the course being free, REP members receive bursaries to support their living costs and are assigned an industry mentor to support their creative and personal development.
Ella explains the significance of the NYT and of companies like it, that champion the support, encouragement and promotion of young people in the arts. “NYT has changed my life. Charities like NYT continually nurture, guide and care for young people in the arts. They are so needed as they provide countless and limitless opportunities for all. Without NYT, I not only think I wouldn’t be where I am now but the person I am now too”.
Ella Dacres performs in the National Youth Theatre 2019 REP season in Great Expectations and Frankenstein at Southwark Playhouse from 18 Oct – 30 Nov, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Criterion Theatre from 6 Dec – 17 Jan 2020. www.nyt.org.uk