With The Hartlepool Monkey now on a seven week national tour, Co-Directors Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell talk about audience reactions to the production so far, and how the production has developed since 2014.
Having both originally grown up in the North East we knew the tale of The Hartlepool Monkey for many years. In 2014, just after we’d worked together on The Elephantom, we found ourselves once again remembering the myth whilst looking for a new story with a potential puppet protagonist for our next show as Gyre & Gimble.
Cut to three years and two periods of research and development later, this week The Hartlepool Monkey goes off on tour nationally. And how different the nation is that it will tour to. The themes always present in the myth – of fear and xenophobia – feel more charged and vivid. How couldn’t they, with what’s happened around the world in the last 36 months. The work has changed too. Instead of a backdrop to the narrative of Napoleon the Chimpanzee, we’ve spent much time to ensure Hartlepool has its own characters and rhythm before the French arrive. And though the locality of the myth remains celebrated through inclusions like asides to Middlesbrough, Hartlepool has also come to represent something bigger than itself through the universality of the tale.
It was really important to us that the Hartlepudlians who attended the London performances enjoyed the show – on those evenings it was brilliant to hear recognition as places like Eston Nab, Yarm and Billingham rang familiar to those people as they did to us during the first read-through in 2015. There’s pride in the myth in Hartlepool, and in how they’ve adopted the tale through things like their football team nickname ‘Monkey Hangers’ with their mascot ‘H'Angus the Monkey’, and the monkey statue in the town which our actors all can’t wait to see in person when they visit Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre.
Along with laughter there’s also been much debate after the show; of whether the myth is true, of its resonance, and on how the puppeteers could hold chimpanzee postures for as long as they did (lots of practice). Both children and adults have taken different things away from the work which is one of the biggest delights in creating a show for such a broad age range.
On tour we hope that debate continues, and Fuel have arranged several Theatre Clubs (like book clubs for theatre) and post-show talks to encourage discussion. What excites us most as theatre directors is how the work connects with its audience who give it meaning, and resonates differently in different places and times. Touring The Hartlepool Monkey in 2017 gives us a peak into a town in the North East during the Napoleonic Wars but it also gives us insight into the world around us today in fascinating ways. We look forward to hearing what you think.
The Hartlepool Monkey tours nationally 7th November – 19th November 2017.