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Brief Encounter With ... Cafe Theatre Creators Metta Theatre

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Artistic directors Poppy Burton-Morgan and William Reynolds started Metta Theatre in 2005, joined in 2009 by producer Heather Doole. Burton-Morgan’s recent credits include the critically acclaimed Gotcha at the Riverside Studios. Past credits with Metta include Otieno, a Zimbabwean reworking of Othello at the Southwark Playhouse and an immersive production of Blood Wedding.

Luigi Pirandell was an Italian dramatist most famous for Six Characters in Search of an Author. His work, which was often preoccupied with the problem of identity have been seen as a forerunner to the Theatre of the Absurd and led to the writer receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.

A psychological vignette set in a café, it would be easy to dismiss Metta Theatre’s tour of Pirandello’s The Man With The Flower In His Mouth in cafes around England as gimmicky. It’s harder to do so after director Poppy Burton-Morgan talks you through the process involved “We quite substantially restage it to fit each space and we’ve had to restaged it while there were people sat there having their teas and coffees!” Sounds exhausting I posit “Well it certainly keeps me and the actors on our toes... it’s a two hander so there is a certain flexibility in the shape of it, a certain amount of stretch and give.”

Burton-Morgan is certainly no stranger to pushing the shape of establish texts, often adapting the plays she puts on so she can tell the stories she thinks need to be told. Whilst this may shock purists, her flexible approach has won rave reviews and gives her actors the opportunity to really play with each time being unique “Samuel Collings will do quite different things, he will respond to what’s in the space, in Oxford there’s lots of mirrors so we played with that, in London we slightly changed some of the text to accommodate the chandelier.”

But she maintains that Pirandello’s story is remarkably resilient. In cafes around Britain audiences will be watching the chance encounter of two strangers meeting, one a traveller with all the time she needs on her hands, the other a strange visionary who is counting the seconds down. “The adaptation is quite close to the original. At the heart of it it’s about two human trying to connect.”

Burton-Morgan’s move to change the traveller from male to female could simply be seen as a political move and she admits this is a consideration “As a company work quite a lot with equal male to female casting, female stories, female voices and female perspectives are important”. But she’s keen to stress it also comes from an artistic choice first and foremost “– for a contemporary audience it adds another layer to the story – for the first third you think is this a strange variation on a brief encounter…”

Encounters are at the heart of Metta Theatre’s ethos, as are connections “I’m interested in life and the theatre and in the way that people construct narratives in order to bridge the gap between humans and to make a connection.” The whimsical trailer on their website seems to point to a sweet fairytale story but Burton-Morgan says what’s most interesting about it is the darkness at the heart of this absurd comedic situation “Part of the tragedy of The Man with the Flower in his Mouth is when they almost make a connection and one of them misunderstands... it’s two people who really want to understand each other but there’s such a gulf between them.”

With a tour which takes in towns from Bristol to Exeter, from Bath to Barnstable anyone in a café during the month of May better watch out for a strange man with fascinating stories. Everyone secretly likes eavesdropping on their neighbours whilst enjoying a latte or pot of tea; for the rest of the month Metta Theatre are giving you the opportunity to do just that, with bells on.

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth runs at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds from 24 to 26 May as well as cafe dates in Honiton, Exeter and Barnstaple. The show comes to Dean & Hudson, 49 Archway Road, Highgate from 27 to 29 May 2011 with tickets available through Jackson's Lane Theatre www.jacksonslane.org.uk.

- Honour Bayes


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