For young theatre directors, a job in repertory theatre is the traditional career path but, for Max Lewendel, ignorance was bliss when he founded Icarus Theatre Collective.
“I’ll call it youthful naiveté,” the 33-year-old recalled over the phone from his office in central London.
“I came from a small town in Illinois, where there’s nothing around, and coming to the metropolis of London – different country, completely different way of life, and having no contacts, no conception of what the culture was really like – I thought, ‘alright, let’s start a theatre.’”
Ten years on, Icarus brings productions of William Shakespeare’s Othello and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn from Monday to Thursday, with director Lewendel enthusiastic about his treatment of a play described by Icarus in its publicity as “Shakespeare’s most tragic tale.”
“In terms of tragedy, this one is just so close to everything being OK at the end, and then, just by such a small margin, it goes so horribly wrong and, to me, that’s the height of tragedy. A man kills his wife, who he loves, he still loves her when he’s doing that, and that is so difficult and horrible to watch,” he said.
The story of how the Moor of Venice is manipulated by his ensign, Iago, is compelling, with Iago’s evil actions fuelled by, amongst other things, jealousy. Lewendel sees this theme as a link between Othello and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s tale of how a young Norwegian woman attempts to manipulate and control all around her.
“Both plays have very strong themes of jealousy and envy, and that want for something. Her isolation and her desire for something else resonate with Othello’s, and even Iago’s, isolation and their want for something else,” he said.
In this production of Othello, Lewendel has picked up on a familiar theme running through Shakespeare.
“All Shakespeare is musical, to some degree, but [in Othello] we decided to really go for it, having these instruments be part of the characters, not something they’d play like a musician does, but something they can use to communicate. The text is the number one thing but, while Iago is talking to Othello and manipulating him, he’s playing his violin at the same time, and using that to show what’s going on emotionally,” he explained.
Lewendel acknowledges that this slightly offbeat approach to drama is a key part of the Icarus philosophy.
“What we specialise in at Icarus is doing traditional Shakespeare, but with a contemporary twist, so we make the world a bit less of a patriarchy, we make Desdemona a stronger character, we change the gender of some of the other characters, so that there’s more of an equality in it, yet still respecting the world that Shakespeare wrote in, and not doing anything that jars dramatically with the storyline. But we make it more acceptable for the audience in that way,” he explained.
Lewendel’s company takes its name from Icarus, the young man from Greek mythology who took to the sky with wings made from feathers and wax, until they melted when he flew too high, causing him to fall into the sea and drown.
The story has been an inspiration for the American.
“The idea is that it’s more about the journey than it is about the result. It may have cost Icarus his life flying that close to the sun but, man, what a view!,” he said.
Othello runs on February 10 and 11 and Hedda Gabler on February 12 and 13 at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury.