PLAYWRIGHT Brendan Murray has every right to have mixed feelings when he returns to the Crucible next week.
The pen behind a re-working of Aesop’s beloved fable Hare & Tortoise was ‘let go’ by a previous incumbant of the famous Sheffield theatre.
In fact, the Brighton-based former Sheffield Hallam Uni lecturer still has a play he wrote about the Studio – where his new work opens next Wednesday – yet to see the light of day.
Brendan acted at the Tudor Square theatre and later spent a year as writer in residence. “I think I was the first and the last,” he quips, recalling good times working with former artistic director Clare Venables.
“It’ll be fun to go back to the Crucible because I used to work there loads. I was there as an actor in the mid-’80s and then when Clare was there.
“I was teaching as well so brought students up for six week residencies and then we’d take a show around schools.
“Then I came back in 1989 to do a year, shared between there and the old Poly. I did a bit of work in their education department as one of their options was to do a drama and education thing.”
The only show Brendan managed to put on during his stint was a youth theatre production called The Practical Significance Of G.
“I’ll be very surprised if anyone remembers it,” laughs Brendan, now 55.
“All the work I’ve done was in the Studio but I’ve not been back since the refurbishment. It lost its way a bit after Clare Venables, people were coming in but not staying. When Michael Grandage took over he put it right back on the map because he was able to attract star names.
“I don’t know if I’ve walked through the doors since – it’s about who you know and everybody I knew left, or died.”
Time was called on Brendan’s residence when Michael Rudman took the reigns, even though the men never met.
“When he came in he just closed the Studio. I was writing a show called The Studio, that was the whole part of my residency. That never happened and was a real shame because I was writing the show for that place. It’s never been performed.”
Brendan says he is in touch with one of the current day producers at the venue, so you never know.
His work on Hare & Tortoise sees him reviving a relationship with Wendy Harris, who directs the production by Leeds-based children’s theatre company tutti frutti and York Theatre Royal.
“It sort of brings it full circle because when I was there in 1989 Wendy was in the theatre on a placement, an Arts Council bursary, still training.
“She and I worked on a show together which went over to Vancouver Children’s Festival, so we were mates.
“But theatre’s a funny thing; you get close to people, then you might not see them, then you might pick up with them again years later.
“About 10 years after she was running Red Ladder, in Leeds, she commissioned me to do a show for teenagers. Then another 10 years had gone by and the phone rang earlier this year...and then it turned out this was going to the Crucible.”
Originally from Manchester, Brendan lived in Hunters Bar during his Sheffield years. “Those parks that go out from there, when I was acting I would go walking learning my lines and end up in the countryside. I loved it.
“I did Kiss Of The Spider Woman. My hair was dyed black and I’m fair skinned. People would recognise me – you couldn’t miss me.”
He also did a show called Lives Worth Living, a two hander about a mentally handicapped boy. “It was an amazing theatre to be in. The whole place buzzed when Clare was running it.”
Hare & Tortoise runs until January 7.
Famous fable gets a makeover for 2011 - but one that young audiences can understand
THE tale of the flashy Hare and laidback Tortoise and their unlikely race is one that children have known for generations.
Although he is experienced in writing for younger theatre-goers, Brendan admits he was presented with a challenge this time.
“You’re thinking ‘That’ll be easy’,” he says, “but I really struggled with it, partly because the story is 10 lines long. It’s over a bit quick and the show is meant to last an hour
“I wanted it to be recognisable. Sometimes people adapt things out of all recognition. If you’re grown up that’s fair enough, but when you’re four it’s a bit confusing.
“The other point is, the classic message and moral of this tale - ‘slow and steady wins the race - is for me a lie. That’s not my experience.
“The thing about the tale is it’s actually a negative moral. Hare throws away his talents by messing about. But to do a negative-based show for such young children didn’t appeal so I looked for a more positive angle.
“The race still happens and the show is about deferring the race. All the way Hare is dead certain he’ll win because he wins everything, because that’s what happens in life and he finds that comforting.
“And when he doesn’t win he’s like ‘What’s going on?’
“That’s how the world is and Tortoise is like ‘You know what, it doesn’t always work out the same, sometimes the world is a bit more complicated’.
“When I hit on that idea it seemed to tie in with the age of the kids. The big thing that happens to children watching the show is that when they go to school for the first time, they leave home and become aware that everything isn’t quite so cosy.
“The play is in a sense a bit of a growing up story. At first Hare finds it scary you cannot predict what’s going to happen and then he thinks it’s more exciting to be in an unpredictable world than a predictable world.”
The time-honoured tale, of two competing friends, takes place over four seasons thanks to some canny design work from Catherine Chapman, while Ruth Tyson-Jones handles choreography to original music by Dominic Sales.
The cast features Luisa Guerreiro (Dr Seuss’s The Cat In The Hat, National Theatre) as Tortoise and newcomer Barnaby Southgate as Hare. Brendan is impressed with the result.
“The thing about a good director is they free you up to some extent; I can come up with all sorts of mad things and they come up with a creative way of doing it.
“In kids theatre they want to know what’s going to happen next and in this it’s all about keeping the story moving forward, little adventures along the way as Hare learns more about life.
“A lot of work I do is for very specific audiences. It might be children, teenagers or old people in residential care, it might be a general adult audience as well.
“Thinking about what the audience experience is central to what I do.
“I do think about what it’s like to be a kid, and a kid who has not been to the theatre before. It can be quite scary. So this is fairly gently handled with quite a bit of humour.
“I don’t find it hard to put myself in the place of a three-year-old because I’ve still got that sense of humour, so I quite like it when people fall over or there’s a bottom joke.”