For the first time, this is most definitely going to be two reviews in one: discussing the delights of a most distinctive production as well as the experience of going to Slung Low’s new performance space at Temple – an extraordinary adventure.
Slung Low Theatre Company, founded in 2000, occupies a place at the heart of Holbeck, an inner city area of Leeds with a mix of industrial and residential properties and a strong sense of community spirit.
Much of this community spirit seems to have been created by Slung Low themselves. Being a theatre company is just one of their accolades: they are providers of leadership training programmes, team building sessions, educational workshops and, in lockdown, transformed into a food bank, providing over 15,000 parcels to the local community. Their achievements are too many to name, to the point where tv documentaries and books have taken the tale to tell.
Community is at Slung Low’s heart, with a community advisory board and most of their work targeted for, and with, the people of Holbeck.
The Temple is Slung Low’s new outdoor venue, in addition to their performance and rehearsal rooms at The Warehouse. In an industrial heartland within easy reach of the City Centre I initially thought my sat nav must have been wrong. However, the bright lights and cluster of parked cars assured me I was in the right area and I parked up the college minibus (there’s lots of available street parking) and led the slightly baffled students into the venue.
Our first reaction was one of awe. The small outdoor stage was adorned with fairy lights, with rows of deckchairs set out to create an almost festival atmosphere. Our excitement was increased when we were then given headsets and headphones, along with instructions on how to use them. Pre-show ambient music was played through the headsets, much to the delight of the students, giving the venue an atmosphere akin to a silent disco.
A fantastic vegetarian curry was served from a truck, the good amount of spice ensuring I would be kept warm all evening. This was enhanced by the unexpected provision of delicious mulled wine (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) which filled the air with a nostalgic longing for Christmas. It’s fair to say that my senses were well and truly saturated. Holding pride of place in the venue was the company’s double decker bus, which I believe they use for educational purposes within the community, but which also looks pretty cool! You can forgive the toilets, which are in need of a revamp, because just being at the venue provides a sense of energy and belonging – this was Holbeck welcoming you into their home.
Working in collaboration with the British Library, the show itself was presented by the company ‘School of Night’, named after a group of 16th century artists and academics who some believe wrote Shakespeare’s plays themselves. The concept was revived in recent years by Ken Campbell, their aim being to use improvisation whilst embodying the spirits of the Muses in order to summon some of the lost work of Shakespeare. This is all I knew about the company before I went to see this production, so I you can imagine, I had absolutely no idea what exactly that meant or what to expect. My selling point to the students was that it would be, well……different.
This is a company that specialises in all things Shakespeare and with this being his 400th anniversary, they are spinning round the UK to promote their passion, with several events in Leeds alone, including at Leeds Library.
On this specific evening, we were treated to 4 of the 6 company performers. From the instant they entered the stage, wearing tea-cosies as hats (which I’m still confused by), the audience was made to feel part of the production. The candles and fire pit at the stage front were lit and we were taken back in time to where stage lighting was basic and audiences were rowdy.
It was clear that these men were well trained in improvising and breaking the 4th wall, and gained the most from the audience: an initial hook task was to ask audience members to hold up items they had in their possession, improvising sentences using iambic pentameter, made famous by Shakespeare, as they moved around us with confidence and charm. In their introduction they explained their purpose for the evening, to use the audience and the energy of the night to summon down the power of the Muses in order to recreate one of Shakespeare’s lost plays. No pressure then.
My favourite part of the show came when an audience member was asked to pick a fairytale (Cinderella) and then other members to choose different playwrights. The performers went on to improvise a play based on the story of Cinderalla, whilst switching from one playwright to another every minute or so. Their mastery of showing the stereotypical features of each playwright was extraordinary (even Sarah Kane, which had clearly been suggested by one over-enthusiastic Drama student) and each time they switched to Alan Bennett I was left in uncontrollable laughter. These were clearly extremely intelligent, talented and highly cultured performers!
The main feature of the evening was then introduced, as they led us on to the grand performance where they tried to reproduce a ‘lost’ Shakespearean play. They asked the audience to vote on the genre of play: I was routing for comedy but the true Shakespeare academics clearly shouted the loudest and a tragedy was chosen. They then asked for ideas on a main character, a motif, a bad deed and all of a sudden a plot was formed. The actors then took to not only performing a mini Shakespearean tragedy, but also explained key Shakespearean techniques used as they went through, highlighting certain traits and types of monologues, in order to guide us through their decision making. Their multirolling and interaction were done without any conferring and their utter skill as a well-honed group of improvisers was well and truly showcased.
This performance was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The closest thing to it was ‘Showstopper! The Improvised Musical’ which I’ve been fortunate enough to watch a few times. But in this version, we had the added educational aspect and the enhanced audience involvement, made more possible perhaps with the unique setting.
I’m going to be honest and say that, being a Drama teacher, Shakespeare isn’t one of my areas of expertise and some of the language used was above my understanding. For many of the younger audience members, I think that at points the depth of study and references were too unfamiliar to them: for example, the Cinderella performance would have lost some of its comedy if you didn’t know the work of Pinter, Miller, Bennet or Kane.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare’s work or an academic on the English language, then I highly recommend you see this company as soon as you can! However, for those who are novices to his work, the show still has something for everyone and the energy and skill of the performers could not be denied by anyone. What was most impressive was the relationship they had with each other; the way the dialogue seamlessly moved from one actor to another. An absolute highlight was when they all improvised the epilogue to the Shakespeare play as a chorus, stood in a circle and were so in tune with each other’s way of thinking they could predict the next words to be said.
As it was a one night only performance in Leeds, I can only recommend that you follow the ‘School of Night’ and try and see them when they are next performing near you.
I encourage you to experience a performance at Slung Low at Temple as soon as possible. No matter what the production is I don’t think you’d ever be able to leave this venue disappointed. The energy and passion that goes into their work will draw you in and you’ll be left wanting to find out more about them and the work they do.
All their productions are ‘pay as you decide’ and this allows them to include the whole community, offering experiences for those who may otherwise be denied the magic of theatre. The UK needs more companies like Slung Low to support the arts, and so hopefully we, in turn, can support Slung Low by taking an active interest in both their amazing work and inspirational ethos.
All photographs by Tom Arber.