BETWEEN The Devil and The Magic Flute, Susan Mansfield charts the incredible rise of 1927
It was the kind of success story every Fringe performer dreams of: a debut show by an unknown company which becomes a word-of-mouth hit; a little backstreet venue where tickets are like gold dust; the invitations flocking in from international promoters and festivals all over the world.
So it was in 2007, with a show called Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. The Fringe debut by a London-based company called 1927, it blended spoken word, performance and animation with a dark sense of humour and a 1920s silent-film aesthetic.
Performed to live music, the actors interacted with hand-drawn animation on screen. In its first week, it was selling out its 40-seater space at Underbelly. By the end of the Fringe, it had won almost every award going (including a Fringe First) and had secured global bookings.
Those who expected 1927 to come back the following year to build on their Edinburgh success with a new show were disappointed. Having made two further multi-award-winnings shows which have toured all over the world, they return to the city this year for the first time in eight years with a very different project – co-directing Berlin-based Komische Oper’s production of The Magic Flute for the International Festival.
But this is opera, 1927-style. Precisely choreographed movement interacts with hand-drawn animation in a funny, inventive spin on Mozart which has attracted rave reviews from Berlin to Los Angeles.
So what happened after Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea? How did 1927 – the founders of which freely admit they’d never been to the opera – come to work with one of the world’s most prestigious opera companies?
I met the driving forces behind 1927, writer, director and performer Suzanne Andrade, and illustrator/film-maker Paul Barritt at Andrade’s house in London’s Hackney to hear the remarkable story.
Andrade and Barritt were in their early twenties when they started working together. Barritt had just finished a degree in illustration at Middlesex University. Andrade had trained in acting at Breton Hall, near Leeds, but didn’t really want to act and was beginning to write and perform spoken word on the performance poetry circuit. Barritt made contact after hearing some of Andrade’s work played on Radio 3’s now defunct show Mixing It, and they began to make short cabaret pieces which combined Andrade’s words and performance with Barritt’s animation.
They made their Edinburgh debut in 2006 as part of a “literary cabaret” Invisible Ink, at Edinburgh College of Art. “And it was invisible in terms of profile,” says Andrade. “One day no-one came.” “It was hard enough just to find the venue,” adds Barritt, “God almighty, we worked hard to get an audience. But we met some great people we still know and it was an amazing year for being inspired and learning the lay of the land. We knew we were coming back the next year with our own show. We’re both pretty driven and ambitious and you need to have someone punch your ambition down for you to really want it. That year was invaluable.”
The company as we know it formed over the months that followed. Andrade and Barritt were joined by performer Esme Appleton, who trained with Andrade at Breton Hall, and composer and musician Lilian Henley. At clubs in early 2007, they were beginning to try out short sections of the show which would become part of Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
By the time they opened at the Underbelly, they had a notion they were on to something but the response quickly exceeded their expectations. “It was giddy,” says Barritt. “It was the talk of the Fringe. Everybody was phoning us up trying to get tickets. We had Esme on the front of The Scotsman, it was like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing it’.”
On the back of their Fringe success, the company spent a year touring Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in New York, Australia and South Korea. It was at a festival in Oldenberg, Germany, that they met Barrie Kosky, the new director of Komische Oper, who immediately invited them to come and make The Magic Flute.
“I think we just agreed to it on the spot, before we really thought about what it would entail.” says Andrade. “It was quite nice to be suddenly asked to make this bizarre, massive project.
It was a bit like a safety net in some ways. We were feeling the difficult second album syndrome. We didn’t really know what to make a show about. Every idea wasn’t quite good enough and we were very worried about trying to please everyone.”
Working with Komische Oper to develop The Magic Flute was like stepping into a different world. Suddenly, from being a DIY theatre company operating on a shoestring, they had the might of a major opera house at their disposal. “€200 of patent leather shoes for each Papageno,” says Andrade. “And you hardly even see them.” Barrit, who ran the animation for Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea on a single portable DVD player, suddenly had a £25,000 media server to work with.
By the time The Magic Flute opened in Berlin in 2012, they had conquered the “difficult second album”. The Animals and Children Took To The Streets opened at Sydney Opera House, a sparkling, subversive show which took the 1927 aesthetic to another level and was loved by critics and audiences. In the next three years it played in 27 countries, including two seasons at the National Theatre in London.
It was followed in 2014 by Golem, their unique take on the myth of the clay man, which used their signature inventive style to touch on issues of consumerism, technology and contemporary culture. It is currently touring in China.
“The Animals and Golem are more heavily political,” Andrade said. “They have quite a strong message about the rich/poor divide. And don’t put children on Ritalin. Turn your mobile phone off. Consumerism is killing the world.”
The company takes more than a year to make each new show, because they are creating not only a live performance but a film and a score. When they talk about their influences, they rarely mention theatre, quoting a panoply of writers (J G Ballard, Borges, Alasdair Gray) filmmakers (Joseph Losey, Fellini, Buster Keaton), music (Brecht, Weill, Pierre Bastien) and art.
Since the success of The Magic Flute, they have had invitations from opera companies all over the world, but have turned them all down. However, they are planning to return to Komische Oper to make a double-bill of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Ravel’s L’Enfant, and are commissioned by the Royal Opera House to make a new opera with composer Richard Ayres, loosely based on a Kafka short story.
“We wrote to them and said: we don’t want to do the work of dead composers, we want to make our own work,” says Andrade, “and if we were going to make an opera we’d want to write our own, thinking they’d say ‘Well, good luck with that’. Instead they said: ‘Why don’t you write one with us and we’ll put you in touch with a composer?’
“We don’t want to become a company that just does opera commissions. That world is interesting to dip into but this constant churning out of the same pieces, with variations on style, to an audience of very wealthy, generally white people … there’s enough of that in theatre, but it’s shocking in opera. We don’t want to make shows just for that demographic, it’s really important to us not to do that.”
Barritt adds: “That’s one of the things the Flute has been good for: people who would never normally go and see opera would go to see it. It sells out, and it’s not the old stuffy Wagnerites, it’s a interesting crowd who know it’s going to be funny and a good laugh.”
• The Magic Flute is at the Festival Theatre until 30 August. Tonight 7:15pm.