Colin Blumenau on Restoring the Repertoire & The London Merchant

How does this play fit into your Restoring the Repertoire series?

We have already worked with some of the repertoire’s comedies and shorter companion pieces and felt that it was time to look at the tragedies of the era. This play is one of the most significant plays of the long 18th century and has provoked much debate over the years. It fulfils our ambitions for the repertoire by bringing back into public awareness a text that has lain in obscurity for many years and which we think has real resonance for contemporary audiences.

What are its particular merits?
Its language is fantastic – complex and provocative. It is also a play which deals with huge human and metaphysical themes. Humanity is tested and found wanting. It is then up to the characters of the play to explore issues of faith, conscience, guilt, virtue, vice and shame and work out for themselves to what extent they have the luxury of self-determination and self-reliance. The best thing, however, is the central character of Millwood. An 18th century courtesan provokes the establishment – outside which she is placed – by asserting that “Whatever religion is in itself, as practised by mankind it has caused the evils you say it was designed to cure”. The establishment is forced to admit that “Truth is truth, though from an enemy, and spoke in malice. You bloody, blind, and superstitious bigots, how will you answer this?”

Why has it become neglected?
Perhaps time and fashion moved on. Perhaps it suffered from the same fate as so many other 18th century pieces. Tastes changed and they were left behind already half-obscured. As we know, unless you are brave on their behalf, theatre audiences are conservative. We have the great fortune to have one of the most loyal and daring audiences I have ever had the pleasure to work for. With their help we have already revived six Georgian texts. I really hope this one works for them as well.

What impact has Restoring the Repertoire had both for the Bury audience and a wider one?
Most of Bury St Edmunds seems to be delighted that we are reviving some long-forgotten work. Audience numbers have been very good in the past and critical acclaim has followed nearly all of the productions. There is a pride engendered by the work in that everyone can see its uniqueness and that is something to celebrate. The wider catchment area is also now growing, with people from some of the bigger theatrical and academic centres sitting up and taking note of the work which we are doing. As the Globe is a resource for Elizabethan-inspired work, so we are developing a burgeoning reputation for producing work and opportunity inspired by the dramatic output of the long 18th century.

Is this the sort of initiative which other theatres should pursue? If so, why?
I would never presume to tell other theatres what to put in their programmes. I can only say that it has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my own working life being able to work with this material in this very special building. I feel it is our responsibility to do this work and re-establish the reputation of some truly great plays. If other theatres feel motivated to join the endeavour, I would be completely delighted. We work and have worked closely with a number of theatres – including the Globe – and hope soon to be working with more. If we can all work together to preserve and display the particular jewel that is English dramatic writing I believe it would be a significant achievement.

How has the current economic climate affected the Theatre Royal?
It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The nervousness has affected us and we have seen a drop off in audience numbers for some productions. Worse however is the continued insecurity which surrounds the funding picture. We have been warned of times of austerity to come. The most expensive things we do are producing plays and employing people to do that work. You can draw your own conclusions.