Spotlight on Springboard - Noctium Theatre Company
Russian Master Mikhail Bulgakov gets a 21st Century makeover in Noctium’s highly original new production of The Country Doctor this July…
Originally performed as part of the 2014 ‘New Ventures In Theatre Making’ showcase, a collaboration between the Belgrade Theatre and Coventry University School of Media and Performing Arts – recently judged the No.1 Modern University for Drama, Dance and Cinematics in the UK – The Country Doctor takes its inspiration from the medical diaries of esteemed Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov who originally began life as a medical student.
Running in the Belgrade’s B2 auditorium from Wed 20 – Fri 22 July, this deliciously dark yet surprisingly humorous production tells the story of a young man fleeing the shame of his failure at medical school in Moscow and is brought to life through a thrilling combination of physical storytelling, mask, puppetry, original music and song.
Fast-paced, physical and effortlessly original, this highly acclaimed show is a must-see for fans of theatrical innovation and the perfect introduction to the work of this promising young company.
With backing from Coventry University, the European Regional Development Fund, the Belgrade Theatre and Arts Council England, Noctium has worked tirelessly in developing its company, its shows and the skills of its collaborators. Most recently, Noctium joined the Belgrade Theatre as one of four, new Springboard companies, a pilot scheme which aims to support emerging theatre-makers and performance artists from across the Midlands region through training opportunities, office space and assistance in developing professional productions for the stage.
Ahead of the show’s debut, we caught up with company Co-Artistic Director Conor Nolan to find out more about Noctium’s long-standing links to the city, the challenges of setting up a professional theatre company today and some of the exciting opportunities which have opened up for artists through the announcement of Coventry’s bid to be named UK City of Culture 2021.
How did the idea for ‘Noctium’ first come about?
As individuals, we’re all residents of Coventry and studied Theatre and Professional Practice at Coventry University. Along the way, the three of us – Jessica, Charles and I – discovered that we shared a mutual appreciation for the Expressionist style. As part of our final year assessment, we had to devise a new piece of work for the stage.. We were looking around for a piece of text to devise from and I just got reminded of Mikhail Bulgakov. Having read Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’, I was already a fan of his writing. Then, one night, driving back from university with Radio 4 on, they mentioned ‘The Country Doctor’s Notebook’ in a programme about the author which inspired me to go on and read it. ‘The Country Doctor’s Notebook’ is interesting actually as it’s one of the few works written by the author that is entirely naturalistic in its presentation. It’s essentially a set of diary entries which he had published in a medical journal when he was practising as a doctor before he went into writing full time. As theatre practitioners, we were particularly taken with his style of writing which was so detailed and very gory and gruesome in places too. We thought there was something really theatrical about it which really fitted in with our love of the expressionist style and had a lot of potential for the stage.
The piece was originally performed at the Belgrade Theatre a couple of year’s ago as part of ‘New Ventures in Theatre Making’ – a collaboration between Coventry University and the Belgrade Theatre which showcased three new pieces of work to come out of the ‘Theatre and Professional Practice’ BA. After we graduated, we decided that we still like working together so we thought, let’s try and do that professionally and here we are!
How would you describe Noctium’s unique performance style?
The style itself is very much a mish-mash of genres. We like to think of it as our own, particular version of expressionism. As such, the style draws heavily on skills such as mask work, puppetry, object manipulation and storytelling as well as other common traits of expressionism such as robotic movements and the unified consciousness.
We were very heavily influenced by an expressionist film called ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Kalligari’ but also by other companies working in the industry today such as Complicite and Kneehigh so we’ve drawn from lots of different sources.
Whilst this is your first professional appearance at the Belgrade, the company has a strong history of performance across the Midlands. Where else has your work taken you up to this point?
We’ve been performing The Country Doctor now for a couple of years. We’re also hopefully going to be launching into a tour of the show in the new year. In the past, we’ve participated in the Experiment Festival at the MAC Birmingham. Through that experience, we developed a new show which we’re toying with called ‘ANIMATE’ which is an object manipulation-based piece – again, tapping into that whole tradition of creating a fully-realized story from nothing. We like that magical style of performance.
As individuals too, we’ve got quite a lot of experience across various different companies. Merging from the University alongside us were The Fabularium who are an outdoor theatre company who do a lot of storytelling for families and children based around Aesop’s fables and other classic narratives. They were last seen performing as part of the #ThisisCoventry City of Culture 2021 launch on the 2nd July at Godiva Festival. Coming out of the same cauldron as them, we collaborate with them quite often so it’s nice to have that community around us – people like Theatre Absolute, EGO Performance company, Arts Space – where we can go and try out ideas and draw inspiration.
As a collective of artists who began life at Coventry University, what – would you say – are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced in setting up a professional theatre company?
The biggest and most obvious challenge is always time and money. There’s obviously also the challenge of getting into the industry in the first place which is where partnerships such as Springboard are so invaluable. Being able to get the profile and the opportunity to showcase our work, that’s a massive challenge. The challenge can be financial but it’s also a reputational one. Being part of the Springboard scheme is great because we get the ‘seal of approval’ from the theatre industry so to speak. The weight of names really will help us take the next step in our development.
Likewise, Coventry’s bid to be named City of Culture 2021 can really help boost the profile of local arts and focus the spotlight on an area of work that otherwise wouldn’t be in the public eye. Events such as the recent #ThisisCoventry launch day at Godiva Festival have really helped focus people’s attention on the diversity of work and practitioners operating here in Coventry and that will only gain momentum in the coming months. It’s a very exciting time for artists living and working in the city I think.
As a company, we’ve benefited significantly from being able to industry professionals. You can never really underestimate how much other people contribute to your endeavours. To be able to see how the Belgrade operate, be in the background and ask questions has been invaluable. We’ve also got our own office space which is fantastic.
Also – being able to spend time with the professional artists who have come through the Belgrade has been a huge boost. In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to work as an Assistant Director to Nick Walker on ‘Vampomime’ which involved shadowing his way of working, meeting artists and performers and really getting to grips with how a professional theatre environment works. As a start-up company with ambitions to take our work across the UK, it really has been an invaluable learning curve for us.
Where did the idea for ‘The Country Doctor’ first originate?
As I say, the show itself is inspired by the works of Mikhail Bulgakov but we’ve taken our own narrative and made our own creation from it using the heightened expressionist style. The story centres around a failed medical student who escapes the city and any persecution because of his failure and stumbles across a country surgery where everyone thinks he’s the new doctor and life continues from there. It’s a macabre comedy essentially.
As a company, we like to make work where we can really hone the multiple skills that exist within our company of individual performers. So in this show we’ve got a tap number, mask work, face paint, music which has been specifically designed for this show which keeps things lively and unique!
Also, the idea of trying to evoke the gruesomeness of 19th Century operations but with the limitations of theatre – was a real joy and a challenge! You can’t have blood splattering everywhere at all times for example so ours is a very stylised rendering of the descriptions you encounter in the novel, which works very well I think.
So what’s next for Noctium?
We’d ideally like to tour ‘The Country Doctor’ to other venues across the UK but also we’re exploring a new piece based around object manipulation called ‘Animate’. Beyond that, we might try and do another devised piece as we’re very much invested in the style that we’ve created and moulded over the last five years working together.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to gain a foot in the theatre industry, what would it be?
For anyone looking to get into the industry – whether as an actor, director or producer – the best thing you can possibly do is to go out and talk to people. I don’t think we’d have achieved anything near what we have so far without the help and support of people within the industry. Put yourself out there and nine times out of ten, people will be more than happy to help you!
The Country Doctor will run from Wed 20 – Fri 22 July in B2. For more information and to book tickets, call our friendly Box Office on 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk where tickets are cheaper.