What happens when you bring era-defining characters back to life? A thought-provoking avant-garde history-play, exploring the self through the epic, Paradise Lost. Watch the characters emerge from history into a timeless void. A director and artist break onto the stage emerging into Dickens’ London pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. With its many nooks and crannies, you can’t help but wonder what stories it holds. Ponder Theatre bring their play, Listen, You Can Hear The Sound Of No Hands Clapping to the Edinburgh Fringe; Playwright and Director, Melanie Jehan spoke to The Fountain in more depth, along with others from Ponder Theatre.

TF: You are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, how exciting? 

We can’t wait! The Fringe is an incredible and unique experience with an astonishing range of shows and fabulous people to meet! Our production team consists of both Fringe old- timers and Fringe newbies, so we’re each excited in different ways. It is a great opportunity to be able to perform at the Fringe and for some of us (in both cast and crew) this will be our first time putting on a production for the public, beyond the comfort of the university bubble. So, yes, the thrill that comes from that is incredibly exciting! 

TF: Listen, You Can Hear the Sound of No Hands Clapping certainly sounds intriguing, what is the premise? What drove the project, where did your influences lie? 

MJ: Listen is a thought-provoking, avant-garde exploration of the self through the epic, Paradise Lost. The play, Listen, draws characters from different periods in history into one singular moment and space – that of the famed London pub, ‘Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’. When a Director and an Artist break onto the stage they emerge into this space and the worlds of the different characters collide as they create a theatrical production of Paradise Lost

I had this concept for an Avant-Garde history play – a great deal of it had been written well before I found the title. I came across a cartoon by Mike Turner captioned “Listen, you can hear the sound of no hands clapping.” Two figures stand outside the door of an Avant-Garde theatre company, one with their ear pressed to the door. It comments on a disconnect between audience and performers created when the ritualised gesture of applause is not given. A large number of the characters in the play (such as Christopher Marlowe, Katherine Parr, and Homer) have not had the opportunity to appear before the generations of ‘audiences’ who have received their work and be applauded for it as themselves (rather than through the spokespeople of history). Instead they are trapped by the voices of other writers and the characters that these writers have made of them. 

The initial concept for Listen came about from a series of rather fortunate encounters with a number of texts, writers and a pub. The play is formed around an array of ideas born from these encounters and, most significantly, the realisation of how experiences with such figures change the way in which we interact with literature. 

Books, stories, poems – any kind of literature really – is, for me, magnetic. I love being plunged into another world, into someone else’s mind. I recall, as a child, I would often sneak away from the dinner table to return to the plush green landscape riddled with drama and intrigue that lay between the pages of some book. (I have vivid memories of reading Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart – I loved playing away the time, mulling over the concepts of that trilogy. I find reading to be like the primary concept of that trilogy – I am just not sure whether the characters escape the boundaries of fiction into my world, or if I intrude on theirs, or if it is indeed a bit of both.)

History has always had a similar effect on me too. As a kid I’d have to remind myself often that the stories of the ancient Romans and Greeks were not fictional – that these were real people, with emotions and thoughts – just like me, but still oh-so different – there’s something fantastical about it, like stepping into the woodland world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now I find the line between history and fiction to be even more blurred than I once thought. Listen is an exploration of who we become when we interact with history and historical figures, and significantly too of who they become when they are given the opportunity to respond to history’s representation of them. There is no doubt in the matter: literature, theatre, art, changes us. So, it begs the question: what actually happens when we bring era-defining characters back to life through theatre? 

The way we use literature is incredibly interesting, even on an every-day basis, and we often do so without realising it too. Every time we reuse phrases and quotes by other writers, placing them in our own context, we breathe new life into them – a different meaning. Off the top of my head I can think of a number of Shakespeare phrases that we use regularly, probably without even thinking about it or being aware of what we are doing: “BREAK THE ICE”, “KNOCK, KNOCK! WHO’S THERE…?”, “WILD GOOSE CHASE”, “YOU’VE GOT TO BE CRUEL TO BE KIND”, “BE-ALL, END-ALL”. The important question to ask, I think, is what is happening to language when we reuse and recycle literature like this? There are so many dimensions to this question that you can explore – that is what is so fascinating about it – and this forms a great deal of what Listen investigates. 

Luke Haywood, Assistant Director: The shows I’ve directed in the past tend to be comedies so I am very excited about AD-ing this show. It is a great chance to work within the avant-garde genre and with a play that has the potential for me to draw out elements of my own style, such as comedy, using such an interesting range of historical characters. 

Jane Philpott, Designer: When I applied to be a designer for Listen I was really intrigued and excited about the prospect of bringing these iconic characters of different eras all together. I think there’s potential to be quite playful and abstract in the approach to each character’s costume and the play’s set, which I am currently exploring and enjoying every minute. 

TF: Have you been to the Fringe before, is there anything you are keen to see whilst in Edinburgh? 

MJ: Our team being a mixture of both Fringe newbies and Fringe old-timers. We’re all looking forward to seeing as many shows as possible in as many different genres as possible. We will definitely be going to see shows of other Leeds-based theatre companies also going to EdFringe, such as; One Giant Leap, Shut Up Helen, and Tally Ho, Secret Several. These are all pieces of new writing too. It’s always really interesting to see what people put their heart into and write about today. We also have many of comedy fans at Ponder, and you’ll definitely be seeing us at a load of improv performances too! 

Our biggest tip for first-time performers is to talk to people! It may sound obvious, but don’t just hand out flyers. Talk about what makes your show interesting and be proud of it! Go and support other shows and build a network with other companies! (We’d love to talk to you!) The first thing you should do though is pick up a free Fringe Programme, but also leave room in your schedule to do the spontaneous things – the Fringe is about discovering theatre, meeting people and creating an experience – so listen to those word-of-mouth recommendations because you might just find something really special! And lastly, keep an eye out for the other festivals happening in Edinburgh during the Fringe, such as an Edinburgh Art Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival. 

TF: And what are your future plans beyond Listen, You Can Hear the Sound of No Hands Clapping?

MJ: As for our individual team members, a number of us will be completing degree courses at university – and of course will be involved in student theatre on campus! A number of us, having just graduated, will be entering the world of work! Jane, has wanted to go into production design for years so is currently applying for jobs in that sphere, while also applying to artist call outs to keep exhibiting her fine art! Melanie Noa will be doing a part- time MA in Creative Writing and will be spending the rest of her time working on theatre and film projects. And Luke, who has recently completed a MA in Writing for Performance and Publication is directing his first self-written farce in November called Wright Off, which his is very excited about! He also would like to work with independent companies (and help take Ponder Theatre further!) As for Ponder, we are already seeing about expanding into the arts with Ponder Art Fair on July 27th in Highgate, London. We hope to be able to continue working with all sorts of creative people to produce fun, thought-provoking events including, of course, theatre. As for Ponder’s next big project… you’ll have to stay tuned to find out! 

You can see Listen, You Can Hear The Sound Of No Hands Clapping at theSpace until 24th August at various times. For tickets, go to https://tickets.edfringe.com/