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Soho’s Artistic Director offers you “The cigarette of comedy to the hard-core heroin of opera”

Thu 21 July 2011

Soho Theatre is a new Olivier winner, has a new artistic director and starts a new season in May. Simon Tait from arts industry talked to Steve Marmion about its new optimism.

Soho Theatre is on a high, with its first ever Olivier figuratively nestling on the artistic director’s mantlepiece, new spaces being created in its precincts and its 2011 season about to take off.  

At 33 Steve Marmion is the youngest artistic director of a building in London, he says proudly. He is the third head of Soho Theatre since it opened 11 years ago as “the theatre for new writing”, and he is changing it by giving the main stage a make-over and adding a new venue – the bar.

“It’s a very important creative space” he says. “You only have to look at the history of this street alone and the great debauchery-fuelled art that was created” he adds, gesturing out towards Dean Street, the heart of Soho. “And in a time of post-war recession, what thrives? Bars seem to keep going, cabaret thrives, so does entertainment.”

So the bar, undergoing a £500,000 remake in partnership with the leaseholder, is to become a cabaret venue for – whatever seems right. “I don’t believe mindless entertainment even exists, so it all seems to make sense” Marmion says. “Looking across artforms is where we are at our strongest, and where we can find the overlaps and fusion points is where we’ll bring a new audience. Having a comedy programme here is the easiest way of bringing a new audience in.”

But we need to backtrack. The theatre’s first ever Olivier last month was not for a play but for Best New Opera Production over the remarkable collaboration with OperaUpClose for the La Bohème that had been born in the tiny King’s Head pub theatre. Opera, even classical opera, can be intimately modern.

“Historically, Soho Theatre has always been a venue where exciting Fringe companies have been able to bring their work” he says. “It’s where theatre’s at its most exciting because you are working with artists who aren’t necessarily aware of the fuller scene so therefore don’t know what restrictions there are, which leads to the likes of that incredible La Bohème.”

What Soho Theatre has become is a crucible. “The most exciting thing we can do is fuse together different artforms and offer them nourishment – the way pantomime was invented. Commedia players were drinking in same bars as the variety scene which led to panto, nobody could have invented it from a blank sheet of paper, and I reckon it’s going to last”. By having a bar in the heart of the building he has an intrinsic space “where mates can get together and create theatre and where it can cross over”. 

Like opera, and he is excited at the idea of “cabaropera”. He saw a burlesque “greatest hits of opera” in Edinburgh, “but it was 200 very drunk Scottish people all singing One Cornetto. Quite a treat”.

For the theatre ecology has changed since 2000, when the urgency was to find and promote new writing, and the association of subsidised and commercial theatre is much closer. A more aware audience is looking for new writing, and the mission for Soho Theatre is different now. 
Soho is subsidised, allowing Marmion to be brave, take risks and not be a slave to the box office, but has a 17.6% cut over the next three years so that he has to be even more inventive if he is to continue to be attractive to new audiences.

The first play in the new season is from the young Little Bulb Theatre, a company of five who got together as undergraduates with Operation Greenfield, about a Christian pop group, the members of which, in the middle of preparing for a Battle of the Bands competition, discover they prefer sex. 

Next come two plays, both directed by Marmion: the English premiere of Realism by the established playwright and director Anthony Nielson, and Mongrel Island by a new talent, Ed Harris. 

It will be the same cast for both, a pragmatic solution to an economic problem, the most expensive item in the operation being the most essential, the actor. This way he has the cast of two plays on a single contract, with the added bonus of being able to develop more of a relationship with the actors.  
The fourth production will be Soho’s own, modern, take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, another attempt to adapt the familiar to an unsuspecting new audience. 

Marmion has had a full career already, working at the RSC, the Royal Court and the National Theatre and as a freelance director, but has always wanted to have his own building. In a theatre you can establish a relationship with an audience, perhaps to a a new Mozart or Puccini, which you can’t as a freelance. And Soho should be a venue where opera and stand-up comedy can happen in the same space without any incongruity. “I’ve always been fascinated by the audience that is the hardest to sell tickets to” he says, “the audience that doesn’t come to the theatre from leaving school to the early thirties. We are their gateway, we are the cigarette of comedy to the hardcore heroin that opera is eventually”.  

Marmion had been Anthony Nielson’s assistant director on the RSC’s production of Nielson’s own play God in Ruins. “He has a hard philosophy of theatre that has one commandment, Thou shall not bore, and I would add another one, Thou shalt not leave thy audience feeling stupid” he says. “If my work can achieve those two things I’m not doing badly.”

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