Will Adamsdale on masculinity, vikings and quasi-mystical 1980s literature

Written for Exeunt

The Summer House is a comic play which Adamsdale devised along with Neil Haigh, Matthew Steer and director John Wright. Produced by Fuel, it’s been touring for some time en route to its current London run at the Gate Theatre (Exeunt initially reviewed it at Bath’s Ustinov Studio last year). It plays around with a fairly traditional comedy scenario – three men on a stag do – but it also attempts to interrogate ideas of masculinity, using Viking myth as a counterpoint. It all sounds rather chaotic, but Adamsdale and company believe there’s method to this madness: “I can’t remember why but I called it a ‘comedy thriller’ which doesn’t really make sense! But it is a good description of it, you’ve got this sort of thriller going on and then you’ve got these puerile laughs at the same time.” The results have been “thrown together with the blind faith that because we’re sincere about what we’re doing and we’ve worked really hard on it, you’re going to respond to that.”

Much of Adamsdale’s previous work – the Perrier-winning Jackson’s Way and The Human Computer – has taken the form of solo shows. This is the first time this mischievously self-proclaimed ‘megalomaniac’ has collaborated in years and it’s a typically unpredictable move from an artist who enjoys keeping both himself and the audience on their toes. He’s excited by change. “I think people tend to light upon a system and then just keep doing it, but it seems odd to me to do that… in terms of saying ‘Well I’m not the sort of person who does that’ I always feel that, it’s slightly perverse but I always think ‘Well what if I was that sort of person?’ ‘What if I put myself in that slightly awkward situation doing it?’ which is sort of why I’m doing this.”

The devising process seems to have been a positive one with four very different personalities coming together to produce what Adamsdale calls, “dreamlike results” They hope they have created a solid story arc. As a company, they were keen to create a show with more narrative drive than most devised pieces. “A lot of devised shows end up with beautiful crazy images” but don’t always satisfy in narrative terms especially in a culture where the ‘story is king.’

Inspired by a desire to do something Lynchian on stage (“I don’t know if that ended up in this, I think it does in a way…”) and a quasi-mystical 1980s book called Iron John, the company explored a lot of issues to do with modern masculinity: the loss of male mentors in young boys’ lives, how male friends have to get drunk to talk to one another, how gestures often replace verbal communication.  But whilst telling a good story and exploring these themes is very much at the heart of The Summer House as a piece of theatre, Adamsdale is clear they were keen to avoid making a point. “I think as soon as you have a point it’s didactic; you could just have written it in the programme and we could go home really. These sorts of issues are gnarly aren’t they? Poetically they’ve got many sides [so] what you want to do is throw a subject out to there see if you can argue around that subject.”

In fact he admits that press night was the first time he feels they told the story completely. “I don’t know if my colleagues are similar to me but I always have to go back to the beginning and make sure that’s OK and so you’re endlessly sort of polishing the beginning and then you just keep doing that until, you think ‘Well you know we’ve got half an hour of great stuff here we really need to show it to some people and maybe we can sort of busk an ending’.” This ethos makes sense for a group of performers who have experience of the scratch process (Neil Haigh is a member of improv troupe Cartoon de Salvo), of moulding and shaping their work in front of an audience.

I wonder how they ever know when it’s finished? “You do know when it’s finished or rather as close as you’re going to get to a sort of satisfying full piece,” he says before changing tack. “But you want to know that the performers are excited by what they’re doing and you can see it behind their eyes if they are just going through the motions. For that to happen you have to be trying new things all the time and sometimes that can be very subtle and just a small thing,” he pauses and smiles, “but sometimes it can be something really quite big!”

It is at this point a rather worse for wear Steer turns up. “Have you said it’s all about sexual politics?” he asks wryly. Apparently, at an initial feedback session,  Wright said that this was the case, to the surprise of both the audience and his cast. And is it? Adamsdale thinks about this, playfully deciding whether to exploit the myth or not. “Nope. I think that’s one of the only things it’s not about…”

The Summer House plays at the Gate Theatre until March 24th. For more information and tickets, please visit the website.

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