Prodigal Theatre, their roots firmly in Brighton soil, return for one night only to perform an extraordinary piece of theatre for Brighton Festival. We spoke to writer and performer Alister O’Loughlin about this extraordinary show…
It’s 1821 and the gloves are off! ‘Shakespeare of the prose’ William Hazlitt sets out from London with sporting pundit Pierce Egan and goes looking for some real life at a bare-knuckle boxing match.
But what can his 200-year-old essay teach us about national identity politics in the age of Brexit? Blending physical and verbal wit with texts ancient and modern, performance-parkour, song, and the sweet science of defence; Prodigal Theatre invite you to join us for a rip-roaring ride into the underbelly of Georgian blood sports and the equally brutal world of British politics…
This looks like an unusual premise for a performance… can you tell us a bit more about how it works?
200 years ago, William Hazlitt wrote ‘The Fight’ – maybe the best sporting essay ever, and the first real piece of Gonzo journalism. It’s totally subjective, and less about ‘the fight’ than Hazlitt’s experience of going to this illegal event 60 odd miles away from London.
It’s about who he meets along the way, and how he sees in those people examples of a type of Englishness… we’re trying to honour this amazing piece of writing, but also bring it alive, and have it resonate in modern ears! We do that with the text, and by making it extremely physical. There’s song, dance, performance-parkour, a nod to Eminem, and a load of other stuff too…
Without giving too much away, tell us a bit about the story?
Hazlitt was in company, but used a pseudonym for his companion. This gives us the license to ‘decide’ who the companion really was! We chose Pierce Egan, a boxing reporter and political satirist. So, the plot is a kind of ‘off couple comedy’ – the 19th C. equivalent of the Guardian’s arts columnist goes to an illegal boxing match with the Sun’s sports writer!
Think Planes, Trains and Automobiles meets Fight Club, in costumes, from Bridgerton…
How many players? Tell us a bit about the cast
Miranda Henderson is our artistic director and dramaturge. I play Egan, and Sam Nancarrow – a member of our Emergent Ensemble of early-career artists – plays Hazlitt.
Is there an actual fight?! Or fights?!
Yes! Between Bill ‘the Bristol bull’ Neate and Tom ‘the Gasman’ Hickman. We worked with Chris Chatfield of Brighton’s 1595 Club to understand the peculiarities of 19th C bare knuckle boxing (which is savage!) and the fight sits at the centre of the story.
But as with Hazlitt’s essay, you don’t have to know about boxing, or like boxing, to enjoy the way it’s dealt with in the piece.
Who is the writer behind this show?
Me. But to caveat that – we do montage texts. There is loads of both Hazlitt and Egan in there, a bit of Keats, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and other boxers, and various other bits and pieces.
All of it is ripped up and stuck back together with original writing, the glue. Eventually it becomes the script we perform. It’s the same way Miranda and I worked on The Tragedian Trilogy (Brighton Festival best actor award winner).
There is some metaphorical stuff about Brexit? Tell us more…
Hazlitt was a republican and vocally anti-monarchy. He never got over England’s victory over Bonaparte. Friends of his (Wordsworth and others) had felt the same, but quickly switched to supporting the king. Hazlitt stayed true to his politics.
So basically he’s a remainer in a post Brexit reality… which is very relatable. At the same time, he really admires what he sees as ‘English practical common sense’. In Hazlitt’s view the fight between Neat and Hickman mirrors a ‘European vs English’ conflict… and in our version we draw all of this out. It is metaphorical, but in places quite explicit. And very funny!
Not picking a side is tricky – but it feels good to address the issues and, when you look back at Hazlitt, you see that in two centuries nothing has really changed….
For one night only – 2 June at 7pm at the Brighton Open Air Theatre
For tickets (be quick!) – Book here Brighton Open Air Theatre
From 2002 – 2010 Prodigal ran the Nightingale Theatre in Brighton as a home for experimental new theatre and dance. During that time, they won best show, best actor, and best venue awards along with one of the first Argus Angels. The company left the theatre to tour internationally, before relocating to Cornwall in 2017, where they are associate artists of the Hall for Cornwall, run a festival of performance and participation ‘The PAR-teee’, and are planning a residential development centre