Rising stars Dawn State Theatre Company bring their acclaimed production The Man Who Would Be King to Upstairs at the Western this November. Likely to have last been seen in the 1975 film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, what can 21st century audiences expect from Kipling’s infamous mercenary yarn?
Adapter and director Dan Coleman recalls the film: “I remember loving it when I was a kid but when I watched it again recently I was struck by how inappropriate the tone seems now – it’s even nakedly racist at times. It’s depicted like a Boy’s Own adventure about plucky British heroes. But those men aren’t on an adventure, they’re becoming war lords.”
The Man Who Would Be King was Rudyard Kipling’s first novel, written in 1888 when he was just 22, and no doubt influenced by his time spent working as a journalist in what is now Pakistan, back then it was ‘the North West of the British Raj’.
Post-Brexit, Britain is in the midst of great change and uncertainty, not least the question of identity. Kipling’s story comes from a very different time and place, when Britannia ruled the waves and colonialism was at its height, so how does this relate to contemporary audiences?
“One comparison between the current state of affairs and Kipling’s story is the way western adventurism creates chaos in its wake.”
Dan explains: “We thought it was quite an interesting way of looking at the current situation in the Middle East. I adapted it in 2014 as British troops were pulling out of combat roles in Afghanistan. One comparison between the current state of affairs and Kipling’s story is the way western adventurism creates chaos in its wake.”
“Over the last few decades the West has trained militias all over the region and we’ve ended up fighting a lot of them ourselves a few years later. The characters in Kipling’s story train Afghans to help keep themselves in power only to have that army turn on them when circumstances change.”
In Dawn State’s production, two ex-SAS soldiers decide to head up a remote region of northern Afghanistan after several years fighting in the country, they enslave the natives and install themselves as kings. This works for a while until their army turns on them.
The story also touches on a particularly British sense of entitlement. Dan continues, “The soldiers in The Man Who Would Be King feel that the world owes them something – so they go out and take it. It’s the same attitude early Imperialists had, and it’s related to the idea of Britain and America as the world’s police today. We’ve got different objectives now but we still think we have the right to impose regime change through invasion.”
But this type of ‘adventuring’ isn’t just restricted to nation states. “There’s a big market out there for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in mercenary forces. Companies like G4S pay a lot of money for soldiers of fortune to guard oil fields. They’re like modern day privateers in a way.”
In an intimate venue like Upstairs at the Western, stage space is at a premium, however this is ideal for this style of atmospheric theatre. Actors Dan Nicholson as Peachy Carnehan, and Christopher Birks as Daniel Dravot also play over a dozen characters between them, all of whom must be clearly defined.
“It took us a lot of time to arrive at the finished product. My first priority is always the psychology of the characters. It’s about going from the inside out rather than the other way around. You’ve got to treat every character like a real character, even if they only have two lines. We found that if we knew who every character was, and what they wanted, then audiences understood as well. The vocal work and the physical language followed on from there.”
The original score by Dan Nicholson is a key element of the production.
“It creates an atmosphere that you’d need a huge amount of technical resources to achieve through other means. When you’re trying to create a world with mountains and armies in a single room then music is a very important tool to have at your disposal.”
“I think theatre is best when it’s timeless.”
Dawn State Theatre Company’s focus is to make contemporary theatre inspired by classic texts and forgotten stories.
“I think theatre is best when it’s timeless. The plays that are not inclined to a particular era are the ones that stand the test of time. I like theatre that works in the realms of myth and allegory. We founded Dawn State to make timeless, thrilling stories that are also politically and socially incisive.”
The Man Who Would Be King was the company’s first production, followed by the intriguingly-titled The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the Country of Lancaster. Both productions earned a clutch of four and five star reviews as well as hit-show status at the Edinburgh Festival, and tours in London and Oxford.
At a time of unprecedented levels of funding cuts and threats to the arts, Dawn State has achieved the impressive feat of creating and touring critically acclaimed theatre.
“It’s very tough sometimes. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some people who are on the same journey but who are much further down the line. Groups like English Touring Theatre and Knee High or people like Emma Rice.”
“This tour is the first time we’ve received Arts Council funding. We’ve used that to bring together a creative team who can take the professional and artistic standards of the production up to the next level. Hopefully we can keep that momentum going.”
The Man Who Would Be King is at Upstairs at the Western Friday 11 and Saturday 12 November, 7.30pm, £12/£10 concessions. Tickets available at www.upstairsatthewestern.com
Find out more about Dawn State Theatre Company at www.dawnstate.co.uk