Founded in 2013 by Benjamin Blyth and Claire Dunlop, fringe theatre company The Malachites are based in Shoreditch, a hipster neighbourhood in East London. When Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580s or early 1590s, there were two theatres in Shoreditch, which was outside London’s city walls: The Curtain and The Theatre. Shakespeare lived in the area and spent his early career associated with these theatres before The Theatre was torn down and re-built south of the Thames as The Globe. His experiences of this neighbourhood shaped his early work as he found his feet as a playwright.
The Malachites seek to “reconnect Shakespeare with Shoreditch through the presentation of the Shoreditch 19,” by bringing home what they estimate to be the plays Shakespeare wrote whilst he was living and working in Shoreditch. So far, they have produced Titus Andronicus, Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice in the area, and other productions elsewhere in London and on tour. I spoke to Benjamin about his work with The Malachites in Shoreditch what’s so special about working in the area.
TSS: What are you hoping to bring to Shoreditch audiences?
Benjamin Blyth: Our enduring aim is to reconnect this proud borough with some of its most enduring works. Stratford has its RST and Southwark his its Globe, but Shoreditch remains largely forgotten in the modern pantheon of Shakespeare production and scholarship.
These are the audiences on which Shakespeare first cut his literary teeth, and where James Burbage built his first great Theatre. We hope to revive some of that early, enterprising spirit of the Chamberlain’s Men; sharing stories that were written in Shoreditch [and] for Shoreditch [audiences], with the world.
This body of work is what we call the “Shoreditch 19”; the early works of William Shakespeare written before the Chamberlain’s Men snuck their way over London Bridge to the site of the Globe.
TSS: What, if any, differences do you find between producing in Shoreditch and working elsewhere?
BB: Certainly the buzz, the noise, is irrepressible. Shoreditch has been this way for hundreds of years. It seeps from the buildings and into the streets. Its energy is undeniable. There is sadness also, and nostalgia. Take a tour of the sites of The Curtain and The Theatre, and you’ll have a sense of what I mean. As its buildings soar increasingly skywards an incredible and rich history lies forgotten behind a Foxtons [estate agent] or, as in the case of St Leonard’s Church [where we have performed] crumbling right before us, hidden from the modern world in plain sight. I’ll always remember locking up the great doors of St Leonard’s Church on a Saturday night having just left the incense-filled world of Richard II, to be confronted by the sirens of the Kingsland Road and the carnage caused by city workers let off their collective leash.
TSS: What obstacles or disconnect do you find producing old works for a modern world?
BB: I find that very often a director will approach a classical text thinking about how they can speak to the work, rather than listening to what the work has to say to them. The same is true for actors. Many times in audition and performance I see an actor concerned with playing “their Hamlet” or delivering “their speech”; rather than daring to get out of the way of the text and trusting Shakespeare to do the work for us.
The greatest disconnection is not between the text and the audience, but the actor and the audience. If we rediscover the art of how to tell these stories, the text will be allowed to live its own life.
TSS: How do you choose to marry original practice with modern performance conventions?
BB: By ignoring as many of the modern performance conventions as possible and hoping the production learns to walk by itself. We very rarely use recorded sound, for example. We’re blessed with some phenomenal musical artists [with whom] we have developed a fantastic working relationship devising classical themes with a modern edge. We’ve been working increasingly towards live sound scoring too – I’m in the market for a massive sheet of metal that we can hit with sticks. That sort of thing. Anything that will help us to create a genuine live experience.
TSS: What projects do you have in the pipeline?
BB: We’ve got a production in the pipeline with our very good friends at the Rose Playhouse so watch this space!