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Backstage: Olly Fox

Published 8 August 2011

Olly Fox is one of London theatre’s leading composers with credits at the National Theatre, Young Vic and West End. But nowhere invigorates him as much as Shakespeare’s Globe, for which he has composed the music for 10 shows. Now Fox’s love affair continues with The Globe Mysteries, the outdoor venue’s version of the medieval mystery plays. He tells Caroline Bishop about the hectic pace of work which has him up into the small hours.

Early stages

It starts with a director giving me a call and then looking at the script and having a conversation with the director. Then taking it forward based on what their vision is… the period in which they might want to set it, what the idiom is and the colour and the tone of the play. Piece by piece you just put ideas together.

Sometimes I have to have things ready for day one of the rehearsal. Here [at the Globe], very often there tends to be something – whether it be a song or a dance or a jig – where the company would need something in the rehearsal room from a very early stage. In the case of this, The Globe Mysteries, there are about five songs which also reprise, so obviously that process has to start early, because it’s no given the actors would be comfortable with the singing process. Because of the extraordinary transition to that stage you really do need to be fairly rock solid when you get out there otherwise it can really go to pot.

I haven’t done a show here with this much music before. One of the key things here is that you are also sound designer and also lighting designer in a way, which sounds a bit pompous but it’s true in a functional level in that you don’t have lights to help you shift location or change the atmosphere in a way that lights so wonderfully do indoors. Music has to help to do that in order to tell the story, to change locations, to help herald the character and so on. You create it all through the music. So it can be quite monumental; in this case it is.

Globe trotting

I think the key with this is not to get too overwhelmed by it, because it’s immense. All these Old Testament stories – 26 stories told in 2.4 hours – all of which are iconic. It’s important to remember that it’s about human interaction. There’s that feeling when you look at the script that Christianity is everybody’s and you either live your life through it or you don’t, but whatever you do they are incredibly rich stories.

Over the years I’ve become magpie-like because you need to have an ear for all sorts of different styles and colours. So I’ve thrown the net very wide and it scared the hell out of me. I think it’s important here – when you’ve got mysticism, God, religion, the heavens involved – to create something in the vertical as well as on the flat. You are providing a context which is heavenly and it’s also about Satan and the power struggle between light and dark or good and evil.

It’s become very Middle Eastern in some of its feel. I felt that wherever it’s set, even if it is set in the North of England, these stories herald from Israel but they also have flavours of Africa and they have flavours of the globe and that’s what we wanted to say really, that these belong to everybody.

Making music

We have an oud in there, which is a Middle Eastern lute. We have a kaval, which is an Armenian hand blown flute, and zerna which is an ancient reed instrument. If you are clever about it you give the musicians a lot of room, because you can’t necessarily write something idiomatic for an instrument that is way out of your comfort zone. As soon as you start to hear them play you realise ‘ah, there it is, that’s the heart of that instrument, how fantastic.’ 

The musicians aren’t there on day one. You usually organise up to four band calls, three or four hours long, prior to the technical week, and that’s it. You can have conversations with them or send them little ideas, but for me it takes until the first band call to start to get a flavour of these things. That’s why it’s so great to work with the quality of players that you get coming through here, because the sensible thing is to hand it to them and let them create the sound world.

Before rehearsals you make sure you are ready to knock stuff out on the piano, so I did arrangements just for piano, an informal way, so I could make them sound right in the rehearsal room. It’s another thing altogether then to go back and prepare the music for the band. They need to come in and they need to be able to read and that’s a very time consuming process.

I think the secret is to write the music and get really good musicians to make it sound good. They bring so much more to it than you could ever imagine. It’s absolutely thrilling [to hear it be played] and I love it every time and it gives me a big kick, especially here.

In rehearsals

You have to go in and hope that you are going to have a strong enough company to carry off your ambition, and that’s very difficult. In casting, directors can’t let the priority be singing. You just have to cross your fingers that on day one when you try that epic choral number you’ve written that enough strong choral voices emerge and make it sound brilliant. It’s going to sound great, I know it will, but you can never be certain. There are usually enough actors out there who can do it.

If you want to tell a story with the music and support the narrative, it’s got to move with the narrative and the telling of that changes in the previews. Actors speed up, slow down, cuts are made and so on. Or a director goes, ‘do you know what, we’re on a completely different tack, let’s start this again.’ Many’s the time I’ve lost big pieces of music because they’re just not right. You have to be prepared to be incredibly flexible and swallow hard and go ‘ah I just lost my right arm; spent three days doing that, never mind.’ In the end you have to remember it’s not about your music, it’s about the story.

Finding direction

It’s very collaborative with the director. I think Deborah [Bruce] and I have a very good relationship, she is very quiet and unobtrusive in the way she explains what she means and certainly steers well clear of being dictatorial in terms of what she needs. She allows you to get on with the job which is a wonderful thing, because you can create better work if you are given a bit of trust.

Almost more than the work itself and the choices that they [directors] make creatively – although of course those are vital – it’s about who they are and who you are and whether you get on. In theatre you sometimes have only four weeks or five and it’s too short. You need to be able to understand each other.

Working on Much Ado About Nothing with Marianne Elliott [in the West End in 2006] was very enjoyable. It was at a time in my life when I felt the need to step up and do something bigger and that was great. Our first meeting, I came out and Marianne went ‘oh by the way it’s set in Cuba.’ I did a comedy double take because, well, hang on, Cuba?! There are rules about the clave, the rhythm, and they are not to be taken lightly. I went home and listened to the Buena Vista Social Club and thought right, this is what I emulate.

Making music for theatre is a really, really tough thing. I fundamentally believe that you can’t write for a play, you have to write for a production. So what if it’s Much Ado About Nothing? It might be set in Africa or it might be in Cuba. Until you know that you can’t look at the text and go ‘I’ll do this’. So you have to be brave and wait, and the problem is it’s stressful because you end up having to do stuff very, very late.

Music of the night

I’ve worked three nights until 04:00, 03:00 and 02.30 this week. It’s too much, I can’t do it anymore! That’s partly because of the way I work but also because a production like this with songs, with a big group of actors who are tired, you can’t abandon them in the rehearsal room. When you get to the end of the final week you still need to be there bashing out the songs because if you’re not they’ll lose their confidence. So just when I need to be at home in front of my computer setting everything for the band I am in the rehearsal room banging out the songs.

I often work on several shows at once; three sometimes. But not on this scale. Sometimes you have to stare it in the face and say no. You’ve got to be fair to the people you are working with and you’ve got to be fair to yourself and you have to honour the commitment you make to something. My wife says it’s crazy what I do, but she’s an actress so she knows.

Starting out

I wanted to be an actor. I went to do drama at Manchester [University] and that’s what I thought I wanted to do until I discovered that it wasn’t what I wanted to do! The music that I’d played from the age of six – piano and then clarinet later on – began to take over. I got into a band and that became my life. I was asked by the youth theatre director at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, did I want to do music for a show? So I did and then I did another one and it was fun, and one thing led to another. I then did an MA in music for film and TV.

Would I like to get back on stage? Funnily enough, no. It was a passion, I loved it. Yet after a period of time I think I haven’t got the chops for that anymore. I’ve worked with so many actors who really can do it and I’m not sure I ever could really do it. I think I thought acting was putting on a funny hat and doing a comedy accent and I was alright at that – but it isn’t just about that!

Globe benefits

It’s brilliant here. There is nowhere that’s as invigorating as here. If there’s still any hangover of snobbery within the theatre world about the Globe it should have stopped yesterday because the programming here is incredibly vibrant, incredibly challenging, and to do work well and to make it land on that stage is harder than anywhere else.

You need a certain spirit to work here successfully. There’s a kind of anarchy about this madness of turning round so many shows, programming a big work of this sort with a bunch of actors who are doing another show. You need people who can be light on their feet, who remember that it isn’t all about them; you need people who are experienced and good people as well as brilliant players otherwise a pressure production like this is going to be really tough.

This has so much music I will definitely be here all the way through all the previews. Then once that’s done and dusted you are in the capable hands of a band. And it’s remarkable really because then you can come back three weeks later and they are still playing it exactly the same way.



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