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Oliver Emanuel: Children’s theatre on the edge

By | Published on Tuesday 13 August 2013


In amongst the many and varied treats on offer in the Fringe’s children’s programme is the acclaimed one-man theatrical piece ‘Titus’, an English adaptation of a popular play for children originally conceived by Belgian actor, director and playwright Jan Sobrie.
Part of the Made In Scotland showcase, it’s “the story of a ten year-old boy on the edge – literally on the roof of his school”, and has been been adapted by Scottish playwright Oliver Emanuel with director Lu Kemp and actor Joe Arkleyon (pictured on the edge of the roof of his Summerhall venue).
We caught up with Emanuel to discuss the play, the process of adaptation, and Scottish playwriting at the Festival.

CC: For the uninitiated, tell us a little about the original script for ‘Titus’.
OE: ‘Titus’ is a big deal in continental Europe. It’s originally in Flemish but has been translated into German and French, winning awards all over the place. This is the first time it has been performed in English. It was a solo piece that Jan performed himself; he’s a very talented actor as well as writer.

CC: Where did the idea to adapt the play come from? How close is your version to the original?
OE: Lu Kemp, the director, approached me to do a new English version. We’ve worked a lot together on both stage and radio, most recently on the National Theatre Of Scotland’s ‘The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish’. We went over to Belgium to work with Jan, and he gave us pretty much free reign to do what we wanted. He was very generous. My version is a wee bit slimmer and I’ve drawn the story out a bit more. Jokes and details have been made more Scottish or British. Oh, and we don’t have a pig’s head!

CC: How closely did you work with director Lu Kemp and actor Joe Arkleyon bringing the piece to life?
We worked very closely together. I sat in on rehearsals and we developed the script as the performance grew. Both Lu and Joe are very collaborative, so it’s really been the three of us working together to make the piece as good as we can.

CC: The play isn’t, perhaps, of the classic mould for children’s theatre, but seems to really work. Why do you think that is?
OE: I wanted to challenge the audience a bit. And myself as a writer. I wanted to find the toughest way of telling the story – standing still on a desk – and see if we could keep the audience’s attention. ‘Titus’ is such a brilliant character that it really works.

CC: Ah yes, keeping the attention of a young audience for a full forty minutes. With just one actor that’s quite a challenge. But you seem to manage it with ‘Titus’.
OE: Yes. This play has a lot in it. It has an exciting premise, a complicated family relationship, a love story and a great joke about a pig. What more can you want? Joe is amazing at knowing how to hold his audience’s attention and we’ve never had a problem.

CC: How does adapting an existing work compare to writing a play from scratch?
OE: I won’t lie, it’s a lot easier adapting than writing an original play. You are using all the tools you would use on your own plays but you are trying to tune into someone else’s world rather than creating your own. I love writing both adaptations and originals. They are both part of being a playwright.

CC: And how did writing a children’s piece compare to writing theatre for adults?
OE: It’s the same as far as I’m concerned, I don’t treat them differently. Each play I write I think about what would be most interesting for the audience and how I can tell the story as clearly as possible.

CC: Last comparison question, promise! You’ve also written for radio, how does that compare to theatre pieces?
OE: That is different. For theatre, you’re thinking about pictures as well as the words. With radio, it’s all words and you have to use the words to give people pictures in their minds. So while I might visualise a scene as I write for theatre, I ‘listen-through’ a scene for radio.

CC: As a Scottish playwright, is it important to have work performed at the Edinburgh Fringe?
OE: Absolutely. Scotland is my home and I think we have a brilliant contemporary theatre scene. I make work for Scottish audiences but want my plays to be seen by as many people as possible. The Made In Scotland showcase has been a great way of bringing Scottish work to an international audience.

CC: Are there any other Scottish playwright’s whose work we should be looking out for at the Festival this year?
OE: There are the big Davids at the Traverse – Greig, Harrower and Leddy. Catrin Evans and Lewis Hetherington have done a massive and exciting piece for the EIF in ‘Leaving Planet Earth’. Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin’s ‘Chalk Farm’ challenges notions of the London Riots. Adura Onashalie’s ‘HeLa’ is a fab and important piece. And DC Jackson’s ‘Threesome’ should be wild.

‘Titus’ was performed at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

LINKS: www.macrobert.org

Photo: Rich Dyson