Run Riot interviews Suzy Willson

This blog was originally published by Run Riot on 1 April 2019.

With uncertainty and division raging in the country, CLOD ENSEMBLE’s new show is set to storm the national theatre scene. Known, over two decades, for creating visually strong, large-scale productions, co-Artistic Director’s of CLOD ENSEMBLE, Choreographer Suzy Willson and Composer Paul Clark have created a much-anticipated new work, On The High Road. With this work, CLOD ENSEMBLE demonstrates that it is a true ensemble; speaking on the micro and macro level to the human condition of plurality and our ability to find joy within difference. Suzy Willson talks to Run-Riot about the work.

Grace Nicol: You’re about to go on tour with your new production, On The High Road, can you tell us a bit more about it and where it can be seen?

Suzy Willson: It is a kind of moving sculpture, which shows a disparate group of people sheltering from a terrible storm. As the night draws in, they dream, pray, dance, party and fight – waiting for the dawn to come. All our work is concerned with how the spaces (or stages) we inhabit affect how we move, feel and relate to each other. In On The High Road, we are interested in how people move when there is limited space. This involves a continual process of negotiation, arrival, displacement and departure. It features a company of twelve performers; actors, dancers and three singers. On The High Road will premiere at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall from 24th -25th April, followed by a tour to CAST Doncaster, Oxford Playhouse and Portsmouth New Theatre Royal.

Grace: You have previously described On The High Road as a ‘gig experience,’ can you explain what you mean by that?

Suzy: On The High Road has plenty to offer people who enjoy music gigs but may rarely go to theatre or dance. It features three extraordinary singers – award-winning Irish folk singer Thomas McCarthy, acclaimed soprano Melanie Pappenheim and cult-cabaret icon George Heyworth (one half of Bourgeois & Maurice).

The music in all our productions is as important as choreography and develops simultaneously. The movement is driven by a brilliant musical score written by Paul Clark (co-Artistic Director of CLOD ENSEMBLE). There are two main forces at work, the sound of a storm and the sound of the human voice, so, it’s probably not like any gig you might have been to before. The music is so enveloping that we hope you will experience the same kind of buzz that comes from seeing a live band or singer at a gig.

Grace: Are there other interdisciplinary factors at play within the work?

Suzy: In the research and development of the piece we drew on many visual references – contemporary images and photographs as well as etchings by Goya and the paintings of Breughel and Bosch which offer multiple perspectives – a micro and macro view of the world simultaneously. Eventually, we decided to make the piece in black and white as we found that the starkness of monochrome offered a disorientating or even kaleidoscopic feel, warping time, creating an unsettling sense of urgency, stripping everything back.

Recently, I’ve also been leading a series of workshops and lectures about architecture and the ways that buildings affect people and vice versa both in terms of mood but also in terms of health and wellbeing. It’s been interesting to hear about the response of architects and planners to the current refugee crisis. Even though these themes are not explicit in On The High Road – they have definitely influenced the way I interpret the piece as it unfolds.

Grace: You have said that you have taken inspiration from Chekhov for this work, why Chekhov and what is the significance for you in choosing one of his lesser known plays?

Suzy: I’ve always been a fan of Russian literature – our first ever piece was based on a Pushkin short play and we once did a production of Gogol’s The Overcoat. We came across Chekov’s On the High Road by chance over ten years ago and were struck by the central mise en scène of a group of disparate people in an inn on the high road during a storm. We have taken this image (and the title) and created an original piece from it. Definitely don’t come to see On the High Road expecting a Chekov play. It is more influenced by the theatre of Meyerhold or Oscar Schlemmer (Bauhaus) in the way that it plays with movement, light and music – especially the second act which breaks out into a kind of Weimaresque cabaret.

Grace: With the current dispute on Brexit, the recent catastrophic events in New Zealand and Mozambique, it seems topical to be making work that is about how people live together in adverse times. How has the current political and global climate affected the making of this work? Do you feel it is significant to make this work now?

Suzy: It is extraordinary that we are presenting it in the midst of Brexit – as we have been slowly developing it over years. There is an image in it that we call Trump Tower that was created in an R&D week before Trump was elected. The themes in the piece have become increasingly urgent – in terms of climate change, sharing space, intolerance of difference and social cohesion and collapse. One minute our piece focuses on individual details and interaction, the next offering a bird’s eye perspective – as if watching a battlefield or a revolution. The personal becomes epic. In making the piece one of the main themes that seems to have emerged is how people respond when they are afraid and how even in the darkest hours people find ways to connect with each other – finding room for pleasure and even celebration and bliss. I hope the piece provides a space for people to process some of the turmoil and uncertainty that we find ourselves in.

Grace: It seems to me, from speaking with many performers who have worked with you, that your working practices encourage a sense of community and togetherness. How does this relate to the themes in On The High Road?

Suzy: The company is called CLOD ENSEMBLE as we are interested in ensemble playing which requires performers to work together in a sensitive and generous way. Theatre and performance is usually a collaborative activity manifested by a group of people – directors, performers, producers, designers, production managers etc. In my experience, people are more likely to take creative risk when they trust each other and so I try to build a framework to make this possible. I work well when people are treating each other with great respect and I don’t find stress particularly productive. Much of our education and participation work is also focused on how people work in groups or teams – how people might live and work together in fulfilling ways to create something transformative – rather than getting weighed down and oppressed by conflict. So, yes, On the High Road certainly touches on these themes. It seems important to try to have some congruence between what is happening on and off stage – otherwise it would be bullshit.


Photography by Hugo Glendinning
Video by Lisa Cazzato Vieyra