ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Theatre ED2016 Week1 Edition

Robert Shaw: Inside intelligence on the Fringe’s new play thriller

By | Published on Tuesday 9 August 2016


Inside Intelligence is a company that has been pushing boundaries with new theatre for over two decades.
This Fringe it presents ‘Poena 5X1’, a new political thriller from playwright Abbie Spallen exploring “sex, politics and the power of love”.
The play was commissioned by Inside Intelligence’s Robert Shaw, who also directs the show. We caught up with him to find out more.

CC: Tell us about the premise of ‘Poena 5X1’.
RS: It’s a dystopian, Scandi noir thriller about sex, politics and the power of love. An idealistic government scientist has developed a new drug – a ‘humane form of chemical punishment’ – as a solution to the global problem of prison over-crowding. But what happens when the decision is taken to exploit the new drug for profit?

CC: What themes are being explored?
RS: I guess the main themes are love, sex, politics, justice and retribution vs rehabilitation. At its heart, it’s about the tension between love and justice and what happens when the process of exacting justice is subjected to free market forces.

CC: You commissioned Abbie Spallen to write the piece. How did come to work with her?
RS: I’ve known her for a number of years and liked her work, especially her plays ‘Pumpgirl’, which was a hit at the Traverse in 2006, and ‘Lally The Scut’, which is a scabrous, satirical play about Northern Irish politics that was a hit in Belfast in 2015. It was a natural step for me to ask to her write a play for us and I’m delighted she agreed to my commission.

CC: Did you commission something very specific, or simply a new play? How does the commission process work, both at the outset, and as the play is being written?
RS: It depends. Sometimes you have a very specific idea and then look for a writer to develop it with. But in this case, I asked Abbie what she was interested in writing about and she came up with this story, which grabbed me straightaway. She delivered a first draft, which we talked about and I had some notes for her. I also found the subtitle – ‘Or How I Came To Agree With Right Wing Thinking’ – very interesting and provocative and it gave me some thoughts for how the plot might develop, which we talked about and she incorporated them into the final draft.

CC: Has the script evolved further as the show went into production?
RS: There’s an inevitable process of refining the text for performance which takes place at the start of rehearsals. Edinburgh also presents its own challenges, with the slot being a very defined length. That helps to concentrate the mind – “have we said this already?”, “could we say this better or more concisely?” – that sort of thing. We’re intent always on respecting and honouring the play and at least we can feel happy that this is what we’ve done.

CC: Tarik O’Regan has provided an original score for the piece. How did that tie-up come about?
RS: I was lucky enough to direct the European premiere of Tarik’s opera ‘The Wanton Sublime’ last year. Tarik is very open to new ways of working. He mentioned that he was interested in getting involved with writing music for theatre. He’s also getting into electro-acoustic music and this fitted really well with the kind of soundscapes I was looking for to accompany the Scandi noir feel of this production. All in all, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask him to get involved. And he said yes!

CC: Tell us more about Inside Intelligence, your work and objectives.
RS: I founded Inside Intelligence 21 years ago. We started life as a confused child and then became an unruly teenager. It’s bit worrying to think we’re starting to grow up! I may have to do something about that. I’ve always been interested in the connection between theatre and music. This production felt like the perfect way to explore that interaction. Of all the things we’ve done since 1995, ‘Poena 5X1’ is in many ways the show I’m most proud of. How lucky am I to be able to say that after 21 years! I guess the objective is to continue being excited by the work and the process of developing it and presenting it, however hesitantly, to audiences.

CC: You have often focused on producing new writing. What draws you to new works, and what are the challenges in bringing them to life?
RS: It’s the feeling that no one’s been there before or, if they have, that you’re coming along with a fresh approach. Our production of Mark Ravenhill’s play ‘Product’ in 2014 was a good example of that. Mark premiered the play himself at the Traverse in 2005. We brought it back in 2014, this time performed by a female actor, the incredible Olivia Poulet, whose killer performance was one of the most extraordinary acts I’ve ever witnessed on a stage. It’s the constant surprises and new adventures that continue to keep it fresh and exciting. That’s what draws me back all the time. The challenges never change – raising the money, getting the team excited about the next project. Luckily I currently have a team I’ve worked with pretty consistently since 2013. Their response to the ideas is one of the best guides I have to whether or not we’re going the right way with something.

CC: The Edinburgh Fringe has a solid reputation as a place to premiere new theatre. Is it still a good place to present new plays?
RS: Yes, it is. It’s really scary. But that’s good. It means you’ve fully invested in the work; that you’re putting yourself out there for everyone to see. It’s the risk that makes it worthwhile. Edinburgh is still, I think, one of the best places in the world to take those risks. The possibilities in Edinburgh always seems so much greater than elsewhere.

CC: What are the future plans for ‘Poena 5X1’?
RS: Right now, getting to the end of the Fringe intact is all I can think about. Making plans can be dangerous. Hopes are always present. London would be nice. We’re interested in touring. The show’s future hangs in the balance – how will Edinburgh respond to what we’ve done?

‘Poena 5X1’ was performed at Underbelly Med Quad at Edinburgh Festival 2016.