Ravenhill reaches out with opera in the pub

Mark Ravenhill was all set to direct theatre until he struggled to find the kind of plays he wanted to put on.

So in 1995 he sat down and wrote Shopping And F***ing, which caused a stir for its explicit depiction of gay sex, violence and consumerism, and launched his writing career.

The Camden Town writer went on to have plays staged at the Donmar Warehouse, National Theatre and beyond. But between studying drama at university and becoming a playwright, Ravenhill spent 18 months working front of house at the Coliseum.

The experience instilled in him a love of opera that has never gone away. Now as associate director of “London’s Little Opera House” at Islington’s King’s Head, he is directing Monteverdi’s The Coronation Of Poppea.

“I had never seen an opera, then suddenly every night I was watching the ENO. They would have amazing essays in the programme and there would always be someone who would leave one under their seat which I would read on the tube on the way home. I felt I did an 18-month evening class in opera.”

The experience inspired Ravenhill to direct opera, assisting on several small-scale productions while simultaneously directing new plays on London’s fringe: “None of them were quite what I wanted to direct so I decided to have a go myself and started writing the play that became Shopping And F***ing. When the writing took off, directing opera fell by the wayside.”

Then last year, Ravenhill saw Opera Up Close’s award-winning production of La Boheme at The Cock Tavern in Kilburn. He met artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and was keen to get involved with his scheme to create a small scale opera house in Islington.

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“I thought it was exciting. I could bring back together these two bits of my life that got separated 16 years ago and put into practice everything I learned about opera,” says the 44-year-old, who loves the scale, emotion and theatrical ambition of opera.

“I left university with exciting ideas about what theatre could be, but most new plays I saw were small-scale naturalistic dramas about three people in a council flat. This vision of theatre I had didn’t exist but, at the Coliseum, the ENO was an exciting powerhouse putting on work which was properly theatrical in a way that theatre didn’t seem to be.”

He adds: “People have a prejudice about opera, they think it’s scary, fat people standing around yelling at each other. But some of the most imaginative lighting, choreography and design is being done in opera and one of my favourite contemporary operas, Nixon In China, shows it can embrace the theatricality and ritual of politics in everyday life with passion and high emotion.

“At the King’s Head, we say, ‘It doesn’t cost a lot, you can get a drink and watch, and they don’t seem to have the same fear about it. You can reach a new audience who I hope will go on and have the same brilliant experiences I had at the ENO.”

Anyone who has enjoyed Ravenhill’s work will know he can handle large-scale pieces, whether a panto at the Barbican or a musical in the Olivier. He argues for greater ambition among fellow writers to produce work for big stages.

“The rise of the studio theatre was a mixed blessing. It allowed more writers to get their work on but it stopped people being as ambitious. Most actors and directors say they would rather be in a 100-seat theatre – why, when you could be with 1,000 people in a massive space? I like big spaces, big auditorium and big audiences. Anything like panto or opera, where you bring together a big group of people and tell them a big story using all the resources of theatre and see the full richness of human beings operating at their height.”

Ravenhill is nothing less than ambitious in his own career, directing and adapting Monteverdi’s opera despite no background in reading music.

He taught himself to follow a score by repeatedly listening to the recording, and plugged away at an English libretto, although he found it brain-achingly difficult.

“It’s incredibly hard to write a sentence of 14 syllables with the stress on the right one or it will be unsingable and, at the same time, build in character, narrative and psychology – it’s like doing an impossible crossword. At first, I was weeping with exhaustion and frustration but I thought, ‘I’m going to make myself do this.’ It’s been exciting to learn a totally new skill.”

Written in 1642, Monteverdi’s early opera was among the first to deal with historic rather than mythic events. It details the triumph of greed and adultery over virtue as Roman Emperor Nero’s mistress Poppea succeeds in her ambition to be crowned Empress.

The production, updated to the 1980s with Dynasty-style shoulder pads and big hair, features Alex Silverman’s jazz-influenced arrangements for four instruments.

Ravenhill says: “It’s unusual because of the lack of conventional morality: the two cruellest people get the happy ending and sing a beautiful closing duet. I’ve cut the piece back to seven principal characters and the complex web of love, lust, cross-dressing and murder which binds them together.”

He adds: “All Monteverdi wrote was a baseline and a vocal line. His musicians then took that as a guideline and kind of improvised within those rules – it was really close to jazz so our score is quite authentic.”

Anyone familiar with work like Mother Clapps’ Molly House and Handbag or Ravenhill’s pantomime will know he relishes playing with conventions of cross-dressing. Poppea follows this gender-bending tradition with a maidservant played by a tenor in drag singing at the top of their range and Nero played by a woman. The central affair culminates in a love duet between sopranos.

So far, the decision to present new and challenging operas in a fringe venue is paying off, he adds.

“As well as getting in new audiences we are attracting hardcore opera goers.

“They are as fanatical as football fans, shabby genteel Hampstead people who arrive with three carrier bags and listen to Radio 3 all day long, they will go anywhere and try anything.”

He adds: “What I found with La Boheme is when music is that close, your body vibrates with it. It should be on the NHS, it’s like having a massage. Opera singers have to access emotion in their whole body, their voices are so powerful and that’s very exciting in a small space.”

As for Ravenhill, his next project is a song cycle about the Great Plague sung by Marc Almond of Soft Cell fame. He laughs that his career path is “idiosyncratic – but at least it’s mine”.

“After Shopping And F***ing, people thought I must be a homeless junkie rent boy but I was never that person. I have oddly diverse tastes and I will do the things I want and see where that leads me.

One of the great things about theatre is that it isn’t for anything. It’s an excess activity, you can’t put it on a list of things that are vital for society, but oddly a healthy society needs stuff that speaks to them, makes them think, relax and laugh. It’s a bit like sex, most of it is unnecessary for the function of procreating but what a miserable f***ing life it would be if you only did it a dozen times.”

o The Coronation Of Poppea runs in repertory at The King’s Head from April 5 until May 19.