“It has all my favourite things – showmanship, a great story, excitement, music, physicality, theatrical revelation… I have been wanting to do this particular play for a long time,” says Mike McCormack.
The JMU drama tutor is talking about The Bells, a Victorian melodrama by Leopold Lewis that explored the story of an unsolved crime and the psychological toll of guilt. First performed at the Lyceum Theatre in 1871, more recently it was revived, modernised (and significantly pared down from its original mammoth three act duration) by playwright Deborah McAndrew for Northern Broadsides in 2004.
It’s fair enough to say that revivals of McAndrew’s version are rare – McCormack had to request copies of the script from her agent, as the play text was never printed. But it was worth the tracking down.
“The script is extraordinary,” says McCormack. “I’ve been a performer for 50 years on and off, and in terms of technical difficulty of the text it is probably the most difficult I’ve ever dealt with. It is the kind of script that has to be accurate. Deborah McAndrew has done a brilliant job taking the original play and keeping the structure and the story, but it’s still challenging.”
This new production – which opens at the Unity Theatre this week – also brings back to life McCormack’s dormant theatre company Hazard, bringing on board some of new and established talent that has come through the ranks of JMU under his tutelage. There’s a cast of 11 involved in The Bells, including four actor-musicians that provide the live score.
Hazard Theatre was set up in 1989. McCormack had spent eight years as the director of the Finsborough Theatre in London, and, for his final show had staged The Cage, a play about Houdini by Lionel Watson.
Ask why, and he’ll tell you as a former magician and escapologist he couldn’t resist a good theatrical stunt, and had become obsessed with Houdini. The show eventually toured around the world; the name ‘Hazard’ seemed to lend itself well to the rather dangerous looking spectacle the company put itself through each night.
“So I thought when I came to do The Bells – another murderous and risky show,” teases McCormack, “why not revive it?”
In a mountain village with a terrible secret at its heart, isolated by the worst snows for 20 years, in The Bells villagers remember that earlier storm and the mysterious disappearance of a foreign merchant. McCormack plays Mathias, whose guilt of a crime from years comes by returns to haunt him.
The Bells is on at the Unity from this Thursday (January 23) until Saturday (January 25). For more information, visit the Unity’s website, and take a look at this evocative trailer: