Of love. Oh those old-fashioned rhyme schemes bumbling along there. So disarming. Local company Theatre Nation’s excellent play Caravan of Love is soon to return from this year’s socially distanced and Covid-safe Brighton Fringe and do a two-day run in the company’s home town. I caught up with them during rehearsal at our Stables Theatre, which they’d used for the David Glass workshops (see below) earlier this year.

Oriana Charles and Patrick Kealey
PICTURE: Peter Mould

Caravan of Love is the debut production by Theatre Nation co-director Tom Daldry, and first played at the Prague Fringe in the summer of 2018. It’s an excellent production, and oddly prophetic with its subject: two newly-weds stuck together in isolation (not the caravan you were thinking of?). It will play on the 10th and 12th November.

Tom Daldry: “It has been inspiring to stage Caravan of Love for the second time – with a completely different cast and in an overturned sociopolitical context. In 2018 (our original run), the play was an exploration of emotional abuse, isolation and psychological warfare in silence. Fast forward to the ongoing potentiality of lockdown, a world where communication breakdown (between governments and citizens), a pandemic of mental health difficulties (now rising to the surface) and the sense of ‘never going back’ to the old order is extant. In this setting, Caravan of Lovehas taken on new meanings for me – especially as it is subsumed by an industry in existential crisis (theatre).”

Living Theatre
There’s a trend you’ll notice in many great and cult-classic films, the way that behind the scenes the directors not only respect their actors but involve them in the production at many or all levels. The script develops and finds new expression as it’s lived by cast and crew, growing from writing into a real incarnation, depicting real people, real scenes. Theatre Nation does this as standard.

I sat with Patrick Kealey, the other head of Theatre Nation (alongside Tom) as he discussed his direction with the two lead actors, Oriana Charles and Oliver Parnell, and their sound engineer (Seisha Butler). He calls the process “organic”. Think of it grown as a whole organism from the ground up. They rehearsed on a set which had been built with the actors’ oversight – as users of the space. Ori and Ollie in turn self-isolated together to rehearse and to be able to perform within regulations. Everyone is allowed input, everyone contributes to the overall production. As I sat in on the rehearsal, everyone listened to advice, suggestions and understanding from the sound engineer as keenly as they listened to Patrick himself, and it wasn’t just to be polite. She knew what she was talking about. This style of organisation has the intriguing effect of putting everyone at ease, while also making them more committed to and focussed on the production. A kind of not-contradiction that is also exemplified in Tom’s scriptwriting, specifically the way he fleshes out his characters on stage.

Oriana Charles and Patrick Kealey
PICTURE: Peter Mould

Tom Daldry: “It is always humbling as a writer to see just how much work actors, designers, technicians are doing: really all that they can to interpret and make the blueprint (script) of a world come to life. The creativity is the collaboration, in the multitude of ideas and visions that are played with and experimented. And in these troubling times, it has been all the more humbling to have the opportunity to connect with a sense of engaged humanity. It also happens to be the first time the production will play in Theatre Nation’s hometown of Hastings – making it all the more meaningful.”

Precise Set Design
I hope some of you managed to see the free-to-stream National Theatre performances that were up on YouTube during lockdown. I’d never normally go to the NT myself, not for lack of interest though – it just seems like too much effort (and money) when there’s good theatre here. These productions were superb however, and one of the elements that shone out in them was the way each set was nigh perfectly engineered. Not like a classic opera stage or Stanley Kubrick epic, all opulence and gaudy wonder. No, they were like playgrounds for the actors, allowing them their fullest creative expression. Meanwhile the stage environment was simply clad with just the right amount of decoration for each play, just enough to set the scene for audience’s imagination, and obscuring none of the action from view. Theatre Nation’s caravan embodies the same principles – it expertly meshes the actors’ and the audience’s needs. It’s a confined space, designed to match the dimensions of a real caravan, and all the more claustrophobic in our current social environment.

Fleshy Characters
Daldry’s play follows a couple on honeymoon in that most romantic of vehicles: a holiday caravan. Doesn’t it just drag to say it? Not that lavish Song of Solomon caravan with rich velvets and spices and sun-baked sands at all. The couple are less than a perfect fit for each other, or perhaps they’re too similar and their shared flaws, which might have gone some way to bring them together, also push them continuously apart. Their ideals are what we would expect from a couple getting married: there’s the sense of some ritualistic power in the way a sanctified relationship binds people together, but in reality, if they don’t fit, they don’t fit. Both characters are immediately human, sometimes awkward, often inappropriate, very much two ordinary people who’ve somehow stumbled into an extraordinary situation, in what should’ve been one of the ‘safest’ settings of all.

Oriana Charles and Oliver Parnell
PICTURE: Peter Mould

Then there’s the Hitchhiker. The archetype, the fool, the wanderer, the mysterious bloke you met outside the petrol station who seems kind of alright. I’ve not seen enough of the play to be sure if he’s even real – perhaps he’s a living figment of their shared psychology. Caravan of Love revises and revitalises its seemingly ordinary and much-used setting of domestic bliss upset – lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, and allowing us to turn our gaze and privileged perspective back on ourselves.

Rehearsing in Isolation
Oriana and Oliver had to isolate together in the lead-up to the production to meet Covid guidelines for acting in close proximity on stage. They were in fact among the first actors to go this far in bringing theatre out of lockdown. It’s a rare bubble for theatre actors to live together full-time while rehearsing (definitely more common for films). Is it a better way to prepare? Worse? Just necessary for now and that’s all?

Oriana Charles: “I’d say it was actually a really nice break from the city, a completely different life being by the sea. It was hard being away from loved ones, especially after lockdown where I saw them every day at home. But overall it was exciting to feel like some of the only people getting the chance to create, I felt very blessed!”

Oriana Charles and Oliver Parnell
PICTURE: Peter Mould

Oliver Parnell: “I found it tough. You get used to being away for a while when doing plays away from home, but the added factor of a ‘bubble’ made the distance to loved ones much harder. No option of them popping down for a weekend or you popping back home on a day off. The fact that the rehearsals were very intense partly exacerbated this, but also partly eased it. Having little time to think of anything else left me feeling in a strange state of limbo. This is a very psychological play, so being in this state made it better for finding interesting avenues to explore, but also more difficult to deal with without the outlet of time with loved ones.”

I for one would be interested if anyone did a study on actors preparing in shared quarantine/isolation. I suppose it’ll necessarily depend on who the people are, and what they’re being required to rehearse. Not something easily analysed. For the right pairings though – surely it could be a good thing to more deeply immerse themselves in the fictional world they’re going to inhabit on stage?

Theatre in Lockdown
The last time I wrote about Theatre Nation was before the tragedy of Covid and the oncoming lockdown cancelled their proposed tour of Waiting for Godot. Despite that setback the company has carried on admirably, acting in online-only plays (Skip to “Ghost in the Machine”), hosting workshops, writing, surviving. Most recently HIP’s friend Caf Fean attended a workshop they organised with renowned theatre maker David Glass. Glass is going to direct their resurrected production of Waiting for Godot in Spring 2021 (regulations permitting) which will be part of a three-year community-focussed project Beckett in the Time of the Pandemic. You’ll want to see that too I imagine.

In the meantime, just go and see the Caravan of Love on 10th or 12th November at the Stables Theatre, if you can get your tickets in time. And don’t forget: if love is a journey, would you really want to take it in a caravan?

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