Here’s another interview I did for the New Theatre production of Sweeney Todd, this time with the director Giles Gartrell-Mills. This was a pretty exciting as Giles has actually worked on London’s West End for most of his career, as both cast and crew, so it was interesting to hear his thoughts on the different theatre-circuits.
The interview was originally posted on Arts on the AU.
Sweeney Todd is the compelling musical retelling of the murderous ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’, and is all at once shocking, intensely moving and brutally funny. The New Theatre’s recent production demonstrates a perfect grasp of Sondheim’s ability to portray a deeply human story and draw the perfect balance of shock, emotion and laughter from their audience.
At the helm of the production is Director Giles Gartrell-Mills, who chatted with The AU Review about his concept for the production, comparisons between the London stage and Sydney stage, and the immense power of the human story.
What is your main vision or concept for this production of Sweeney Todd as director?
The main visual concept was to use the space that was there. I think the New Theatre is such a fantastic space, it’s really huge. I remember when I first saw it, I thought I’d like to see this space used without any real particular set, just use the full area. I wanted it to be the space where the story was.
How strictly is it adhering to the original production?
We’ve been inventive with a few things, but we’ve done a pretty complete script, we haven’t cut anything except for one tiny bit that we cut, that is pretty much cut from every single production. We used all the lines and we didn’t change anything, it was very faithful to that, and we just made it work within our parameters. In terms of the original production, obviously that was a huge budget but they don’t really give a vast amount in terms of exact specific directions in the text.
Sweeney Todd is described as being ‘all at once shocking, intensely moving and brutally funny.’ How do you try and manage all these chaotic varied emotions on stage?
I don’t think its something that I was particularly conscious of going through, it’s all just there. There’s nothing you need to do to balance it out, you need to just play the text as it’s written and try to get out of it’s way. That’s why we chose to musically do it as simply as possible as well. It’s one of those pieces where in terms of the emotion that it comes with, that’s something for the audience to pull out of the story themselves. As a director, I just try to stay out of the way.
What is the most important part of the musical to portray to you?
I think it’s making sure that the human story is there, that was the most important thing to me. So many productions are done with huge technical apparatus and things like that, but I think that’s theres nothing more powerful to put in front of an audience than a human story. The audience will very quickly buy into what you have – they believe that a barber shop will happen in the space of that tiny space because the actors are up there really giving it themselves. That was the most important thing for me.
And what is your favourite piece from Sweeney Todd?
My favourite song is “Pretty Women” (when the Judge and Sweeney sing it together), and I think the reason I love that song so much is that it gives you the perfect duality of what’s going on – which is you’ve got one man looking back and one man looking forward, but they’re singing in a beautiful harmony. One is feeling the pain and the loss that goes along with losing a dear loved one, and the other one is looking forward to all of those things. It’s amazing Sondheim was able to use exactly the same melody.
Sweeney Todd is one of those stories that has been recreated on so many different mediums- stage play, film, musical theatre… Have you taken inspiration from any of these representations at all for your production?
Yeah, definitely you can pick little bits here and there when you like the way they do certain things. I’ve always been a massive Tim Burton fan, but I don’t think this production is anything particularly like the film. I actually stopped watching and listening to other versions of Sweeney Todd about six months ago. I wanted to not be affected by someone else’s version of it.
How does working on a London stage differ to one in Sydney?
This is only my first show in Australia so it is quite hard to say, what I would say is that I have a lot of people ask me “Oh, you were in London, why would you bother coming here?”, and I think from my experience I’ve had a really enjoyable and fulfilling first year and a half in Australia. I think it’s got everything you could possibly want from a cultural point of view. The theatre community here is fantastic – very dedicated and very professional.
You mentioned that you have a great affinity with the London environs that you were hoping to explore in this production? Can you expand on this a little more?
I did do a fair bit of that early on in rehersals I talked about the characters and some archetypes and the feelings that there are in London, the weather and the air is and things like that. I did talk about it a fair bit, but this is why I like the New Theatre, it has a bit of that feeling about it especially when you strip it back and you’ve got those bare brick walls.
What should audiences expect from Sweeney Todd (if they’ve never seen the production before)?
A really fun dark comedy.
And finally, if you could work on any musical or stage piece what would it be?
My favourite plays are all Shakespeare’s history plays, and I would love at some stage of my career to be able to direct all eight of the histories in a canon in order and produce them as one. So from all the way through from Richard II to Richard III, and all the Henrys in between. The Royal Shakespeare Company did it about five years ago, and it was absolutely fantastic, so I’d love to do that.