I've seen a few shows at the Bunker Theatre over the past few years so when I got the opportunity to interview David Hewson, the composer and musical director of a new show 'Electra' at the Bunker I was very excited! Here's what he had to say about Electra, music, and everything in between!
David: With all our shows the music is played live by a cast of actor-musicians. It means there is an element of devising that needs to take place within rehearsal - the who/why/where/how that needs to be answered collectively as an ensemble. My favourite part of the process is always on day one of rehearsals, when you hold a piece of text in your hands and start asking the actors, “OK, how are we actually going to make this a living, breathing thing!? And where does music come into that?”. It is terrifying in a way but extremely exciting and hugely rewarding if you pull it off; a puzzle that you have solved and helped bring to life.
Em: What is your favourite thing about being a musical director in general?
David: Music has an extraordinary ability to take you to different worlds. It connects with our imaginations in an immediate way which means it is a very powerful tool when used in theatre and thus needs to be handled with great care. The fact that the music is being played live in front of you as part of the dramatic narrative means there is the potential for a small piece of magic to occur. My favourite thing is when I see an audience fall under its spell. It never fails to surprise me, how something so simple can be so powerful. And it never fails to surprise me how something so simple can be the hardest thing to pull off - as of course most magic tricks are!
Em: The music in Electra is intended as a ‘psychological exploration’ of particular characters - can you tell us more about this?
David: The wonderful thing about doing a Greek play is that there can be an ever-present chorus and no one questions it too much - neither the audience or the characters on stage. It is something that often has to be cleverly architected by a writer if they want to utilise it as a device in a modern piece of theatre - they almost have to gain permission. Where as it is a universal given in a Greek play. A chorus often don’t have any agenda as such, their role being more as observers to the unfolding events and poetic purveyors of the dread and often nightmarish situations they are witnessing. Therefore if you then put instruments into the hands of the chorus a whole range of interesting possibilities presents itself. In our version of Electra the chorus have the ability to not only musically channel the spirit of revolution - the ‘outer’ world of the play - but they are also able to tap into the psychological states of the protagonists - the ‘inner’ worlds of the play - and present this musically as well.
Em: Why should people support smaller, Off West End venues like the Bunker Theatre?
David: In America they have a thriving ‘Off Broadway’ scene that is well respected and often is the place that new work is given a chance to breathe, and even occasionally picked up and taken to Broadway. In short, Broadway is often fed by this pool of nurtured new talent. It seems to me that this has been lacking in our theatre scene when it comes to new musical/music theatre work - a gap which I think venues like the Bunker have the potential to fill. It has definitely been heartening to see steps being taken in the last decade to support new work (MMD’s BEAM showcases, showings of new work at The Other Palace). Some of the most interesting and varied work I have seen over the past few years has been at Off West End venues like the Finborough and The Kings Head by writers who are striving to pay their casts and make enough money to continue writing. So to put it more simply - often you’re more likely to see something much more interesting and creative in Off West End venues like the Bunker, made by people who are really striving to make something original against all the odds!
Em: I understand the score of the show has several influences - rock, alternative, punk, world music. Which of these would you say is your favourite?
David: As a writer I don’t think you can ever really get away from the early influences you had growing up. Having listened obsessively to bands like Radiohead and Talking Heads and songwriters like Tom Waits and Neil Young their specters always seem to haunt the music I write and I’m sure have fed into the score for this show as well.
The real catalyst of the idea for this show though was to draw out the punky nature of the story - the spirit of anarchism - and somehow present this musically on stage. It has been less about listening to those original punk bands of the seventies (whose punk-ethos was that they didn’t need to be musically proficient) and more about tuning into the sophistication of modern punk bands still railing against Western elitism - bands like Rage Against the Machine and Refused. It is not a genre I’m well versed in but have enjoyed John’s (the Director) enthusiasm in turning me on to it. The term ‘World music’ of course encompasses almost everything that isn’t intrinsically Western music and therefore unimaginably vast. For this show though we are using it as a label to encompass aspects of Arabic music (inspired by events around the Arab Spring) as well as Ancient Greek music. The job has been to try and thread these different sounds together - to make it sound both modern and ancient at the same time.
Em: What is your favourite quote from a show you've been MD for?
David: A stage direction from the script for Electra: “DRUMS, MOVEMENT, UNREST”. What more could an MD want from a script than that!?
Em: If you could be musical director for ANY show, what would you choose?
David: One full of music written by one of my song-writing heroes like Neil Hannon or Rufus Wainwright so we could become best friends for life. Or at least have a cup of tea together occasionally...
Em: Why should people come and see Electra?
David: We are presenting it in a way that’s not been done before. It is much more action-packed and driven - less static - but adheres to the original styles of these texts: rich poetic verse language interwoven with dynamic live music. Again it feels both modern but ancient and epic, and hopefully enjoyable too!
Em: What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians and musical directors?
David: For musicians - keep expanding the field of music you listen to. It’s something I have to keep reminding myself to do as it is inevitably what makes you a better performer and writer. For musical directors - be as prepared as possible and go into rehearsals with strong ideas. Then be prepared for all those ideas to be scrapped or remoulded if they aren’t serving the dramatic narrative. The music has to serve not get in the way - the play's the thing!
Em: Lastly, is there anything else you would like to tell my readers about Electra?
David: One of our reasons for making this show is that we were bored with the dry, dusty versions of Greek tragedies we’d seen over the last few years. So if you’re still wavering about whether to come or not I can give you my (only slightly biased) guarantee that this is a version of Electra you won’t want to miss!!!
Thanks so much to David for this interview - be sure to head down (literally!) to the Bunker Theatre between the 27th February and the 24th March to catch what sounds to be a brilliant new show!