Exchange Theatre artistic director David Furlong chatted to Love London Love Culture’s Emma Clarendon about his production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Flies. His tenth-anniversary revival of the Exchange’s first production runs at London’s Bunker Theatre from 11 June to 6 July 2019.
Could you tell me a bit more about what The Flies is about?
In The Flies, one of the most famous French philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, provides his take on the Greek myth of the Oresteia: Orestes returns to his birthplace to find his sister Electra reduced to be a servant, and his mother ruling the land along with her lover Aegisthus, a dictator. Sartre tells of the guilt imposed on a whole people through misinformation and ignorance. The flies, hovering around the stench of the city, symbolise the fear maintained through remorse and manipulation. In our version, it’s a thrilling dystopia fusing vigorous theatre with the energy of a live rock band.
What attracted you to directing Sartre’s 1943 play?
The Flies is a play of rebellion, written by a young Jean-Paul Sartre against Nazi Occupation in France, and this ode to freedom still rings today like a wake-up call. Eighty years later, far right populists are rising again promoting fear of the other, of any differences. Sartre’s play is so relevant. Also, The Flies is the show which put Exchange Theatre on the British theatre map ten years ago. Before this show, we were barely surviving through guerrilla theatre-making on the Fringe.
This is the show that brought us a three-year creative residency at the French Institute, and subsequently our own studio space in London Bridge, where we are still based. We passed our ten-year anniversary two years ago, just when the Brexit vote happened, and when we got our first of three Offies nominations. It was a very polarised moment. It’s like being told both you’re welcome and you’re not in the same week. Now that we’re a more recognised company, and have also become a charitable organisation, it seemed logical to revive this landmark show to celebrate our first decade, but also to take a stance on the current political climate.
How did the concept for the production come about?
The Flies contains everything Exchange Theatre is about: it is a rare and major foreign play brought to the English audience, it’s multi-disciplinary mixing video artists, live musicians and theatre, and its cast represent numerous nationalities and minorities on stage. It’s all about the exchange at the core of the company. When we first produced the play ten years ago, it was right after our first experiment with a live guitarist incorporated in, but the idea was to use his music not just as transitions or score but playing like a character simultaneously with the actors.
The guitarist and I immediately thought we could do it with his full band, A Riot in Heaven.The Flies seemed the best project, as it needed a permanent buzz, and also a supernatural element in Act 2, with a booming bass. The music itself and even all the required cables also happened to be a great set to enter into our post-apocalyptic world, built on the electrical debris of our society. Music triggers the audience’s imagination and creates our world.
Why would you say the play is relevant in 2019?
Our set is made of piles of TV sets, on which publicity and propaganda is broadcast, representing the fake news deployed to keep the citizens of Argos in ignorance and fear. This Orwellian world is never very far from ours. In 1939,
The Nazis and the French collaborationists spread their ideology like this. In 2009, the lies were about the weapons of mass destruction, and in 2019, it’s about promoting isolation and closing borders in the name of the people. The mediums have changed but the propaganda and the struggle against it are both the same. Sartre’s existential philosophy is universal and timeless as it always questions the status quo, and it asks the eternal question of what it is to be free.
What can audiences expect from this production?
Our primary objective is to refresh Sartre’s play so that it is rediscovered for 21st-century eyes and ears. The direction, the scenery, and every musical or visual invention make the show an immersive sensorial experience. The immediacy of the guitars make the audience feel the performances deeply. Someone wrote about the show after its first creation that it was ‘total theatre’ and The Scotsman that it was “amazingly intense”, which we were quite proud of. And it’s also quite a fun and enthralling evening with surprising rock songs made with Sartre’s lines!
What are you most looking forward to about bringing this production to the Bunker?
Some of the most interesting questions have recently been raised in public debates: how do we represent diversity, gender-parity, equality or equity, and disability on stage? All of these questions are at the centre of our practice and suddenly we’re facing almost all of them in the creative process of The Flies. It’s an amazing challenge to look at them with more maturity and responsibility.
We’re excited to work with The Bunker: Chris Sonnex, the artistic director, and David Ralf make it one of the most exciting and daring venues to be working with, and to tackle all these subjects with. The most exciting thing for us is to be making the show for you !
The Flies runs from 11 June to 6 July 2019 at the Bunker Theatre, 53A Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are priced £10-16. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!