Taken from an interview with Derek Graham at Nottingham Playhouse for their Backstage Pass Members’ newsletter:
neat14 – the second Nottingham European Arts & Theatre festival – takes as its theme “Europe Then and Now”. Not only will it see local artists rubbing shoulders with theatre makers from all over the continent; it will also explore layers of European history, and 1914 in particular. No show better encapsulates the concept of neat14 than Bolero, a new play by Michael Pinchbeck which uses Ravel’s celebrated music to weave together a tale of three cities: Nottingham, Paris and Sarajevo. Michael has taken time out from his work on the show to answer a few questions for us.
What was the starting point for Bolero, and how far has it changed from your original conception?
The starting point for Bolero was my personal memory of watching the TV on 14 February 1984. I had fallen over outside a fish and chip shop in Bulwell and got a black eye. My Dad carried me home and my mum put some ice in a tea towel and switched on the television. Torvill and Dean were dancing to Bolero at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. When I listen to the music now I remember the cold of the ice against my face and the smell of fish and chips. This memory was the reason for my journey to Paris and Sarajevo in 2012 to research the project and to go in search of Bolero. This formed the basis of a piece of writing which I read out onstage at Nottingham Playhouse for Making Tracks in 2012 and it has now become the introduction to the finished show. However, now we tell the story in the second person so we say ‘You have fallen over outside a fish and chip shop…’ In doing so, I hope we are taking the audience on a journey to the places I have gone to, for example, Ravel’s house, Ravel’s grave, the Opera in Paris or the Zetra Stadium in Sarajevo. We meet the people I met when I went there but they will address the audience directly because the audience will become the writer. The concept has changed because I have worked with actors from Nottingham, Berlin and Sarajevo on developing the project towards its premiere but it is still hinged on my journey to follow the music.
You’ve spoken about “letting the music tell the story” and “sticking to the tempo”: what does that mean in terms of the production?
I have been listening to Bolero to understand the rhythm. Ravel said conductors should ‘stick to the tempo’ and we are trying to do the same. We do this by making the rhythm of the text mirror the rhythm of the music or by letting our footsteps and movements happen in the same tempo. We make noises with pencils and batons and a typewriter that flirt with the rhythm of Bolero. Everything we are doing onstage is related to Bolero in some way and has come from my research into the music and the actors experience of performing to it. It is a biography of a piece of music and weaves together the stories of Ravel writing it, Torvill and Dean dancing to it, the First World War and the Bosnian War.
Your most recent play on our main stage, The Ashes, was a significant success. What do you think Bolero will offer those who enjoyed that show?
It is similar in its fragmented narrative. We move around in time and place and travel from 1914 to 2014, Paris to Sarajevo. It is exciting because this is the 30th anniversary of the Winter Olympics and the centenary of the First World War which plays a part in our story. Ravel fought in the First World War and was inspired by the rhythm of gunfire to write Bolero. The First World War was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Then the Bosnian War led to the destruction of the Zetra Stadium where Torvill and Dean won gold so our story is bookended by two wars. We follow the journey of the needle around the record of Bolero through 100 years of European history. In that sense, the play is similar to The White Album which followed the needle around a record. But in this case we are working entirely with factual material and it feels more like a documentary about the making of the music.
To help create this piece, you’ve undertaken extensive research and travel, and worked closely with theatre makers fromKosovo, Germany and Bosnia & Herzegovina. How has that affected the show’s development?
It has made it richer and more complex but in some ways becomes more like conducting an orchestra of different voices, different languages and different backgrounds. There are stories only some people can tell of living through a siege or crawling across a runway during a war and what this project has done has opened up a space for us to share these stories and also to experiment with performing each others stories. My job has been to conduct the process.
The show throws up some almost uncanny connections and correspondences between different times and places. What for you were the most striking? (Or, How have these helped shape the play?)
There are lots of coincidences. Archduke Franz Ferdinand lived in the Palace of Belvedere in Vienna and Ravel’s house outside Paris is called Belvedere. Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Franz Ferdinand, contracted TB and had his arm tied up with a piano wire. Zubin Mehta, the conductor famously conducted Bolero for a 1973 film of the same name and went onto conduct Mozart’s Requiem in the bombed out City Hall in Sarajevo. City Hall is where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting when he was assassinated. He was only shot because the driver took a wrong turn. Finally, we have a character called Haris Pasovic who is a theatre director from Sarajevo who tried to enter the city during the siege. He went on to direct a show about Bolero. We tell all of these stories in our show and all of them are related in some way to the music, either through a narrative connection, a visual image or through the rhythm of the delivery.
After two years of writing, what form does the final production take?
It is a devised biography of Bolero. So we do read out a text which has been written down but actually some of this is verbatim taken from interviews and the rest has been improvised by the cast. It is also a multlingual performance in the sense that we speak Bosnian, French and German as well as English.
What do you hope attenders will take away from Bolero?
I would like them to feel the rhythm of Bolero, and even if we don’t play it, to think that they’ve have heard it.