I spoke to the husband and wife team behind The Last Resort, the latest satirical production from Strangeface Theatre Company coming to Cardiff on March 31.
Originally named The Blue Chicken, Strangeface Mask Theatre Company was formed in 2001 by couple Bethan Tomlinson and Russell Dean. Now one of the only dedicated touring mask companies in the UK, the duo work together with what Bethan describes as “complementary skills”; she takes on an administrative role while Russell is the artistic force. Keeping it in the family even further, Russell’s brother Mark is composer and performer of the live music which accompanies the show.
Drawing his inspiration from places such as European cinema and Japanese masks, Russell also looks to British artists such as illustrator Quentin Blake and the late Oliver Postgate of The Clangers fame, but says, “At the bottom of it I’m a storyteller. If there is a good story to tell, I use the skills I have to try and make that work.” More than this, he hopes that through his masks and puppets he will be able to produce “things that are going to inspire [the audience’s] imagination, not dominate them.”
Current production Last Resort will complete more than 60 dates, travelling up and down the UK. This is an element which Russell enjoys enormously, describing it as “the real National Theatre, because that is really only for people in London or tourists.” The show performs in small theatres in rural areas around the UK, as well as bigger venues such as the Wales Millennium Centre. Russell believes an intense performing schedule of this kind means he “really gets to learn your craft. We have to perform under pressure.”
Due to family responsibilities (the couple have a young daughter) Bethan no longer joins Russell on tour; however she says that in the past, “We’ve been incredibly lucky and toured literally from Penzance to Stornoway. I’d love to goback to it one day.” Speaking of Wales, Russell recalls his very fond memories. Having completed a BA in Drama at Aberystwyth University, Russell has previously performed in and written shows for The Chapter Arts Centre in Canton.
Russell says he first became involved with mask making almost by accident. After assisting at Bristol’s Circomedia, a drama school for circus performers, he joined Hertfordshire-based Trestle Theatre Company, where he explains, “I had to make 25 masks – I was thrown in right at the deep end. I soon found that I had a real love for it. I became fascinated very quickly.”
Not the only creative bods in the family, Russell and Mark are joined by two more brothers and an opera-singing father. Early family visits to the opera house with what Russell describes as “overwhelming smells and colours [that] heightened our interest in the theatre, like a passage into another world” clearly struck a chord with the brothers, who have all ended up in the arts industry.
And Russell is keen for the younger generation to enjoy his work too. Although many of Strangeface’s productions have a dark feel to them, featuring disturbing plots and sinister-looking masks, Russell considers them appropriate for younger children: “When you think about folk tales such as Hansel and Gretel, that’s basically a story about cannibalism, yet we tell it to four-year-olds.” Last Resort is recommended for ages seven upwards but, says Russell, “We have had people bringing five year-olds and be entranced.”
Bethan and Russell are both involved in the several mask- making and performance workshops that Strangeface runs. “Being behind the mask means that those who often seem shy blossom, as if no one were watching them” explains Bethan. Furthermore, says Russell, “A mask can suddenly allow someone to access a way of telling a story that they hadn’t found before.” Children and adults can take part, but Russell particularly enjoys what he calls “extraordinary” special needs workshops, explaining, “You end up learning more from your performers than you are teaching them.”
Strangeface is eager for audience members to get involved too. At the end of each show, they are invited to look at the puppets and masks, meet the cast and perhaps even gobackstage. Bethan believes they get their best feedback in this informal setting; “People are usually interested in finding out how puppets work or what you can see through the masks.”
According to Bethan, audience members may find that masks allow them to be drawn into the world of the story. She says says, “They have suspended their disbelief straightaway and are then probably more willing to enter into other aspects of the production.” She continues, “Masks are also brilliant at defining archetypal characters – the innocent, the trickster, the old man etc.” Russell explains that these characteristics develop as he is making a mask: “I play around with it and it will begin to release its energy.”
Last Resort has an unusual synopsis. Featuring a remote village on the edge of ruin, visited one day by a soldier thief with a devil at his side, he makes the village elders an offer of salvation, but at a terrible price. It is described by Russell as a, “Satire of attitudes, moral decline and an offer you can’t refuse.” He believes that some of the characters are reflected in those that he performs in front of, “There will be people in the audience who will be in the same position.” He doesn’t worry about causing offence though: “You can sneak so many things in when you are doing mask theatre.”
Working with his brother, Mark, on this particular production “has been a real moment of epiphany for him and for me.” Russell says, “He has come up with this extraordinary soundtrack – it’s just the beginning of what we can achieve.” And the company certainly has bold ambitions, planning next to take on their first non-original story in the form of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. Russell says he is really looking forward to how that turns out, and it would seem things can only get better for this strange production company.
The Last Resort is on at the Wales Millennium Centre in the Gordon Studio on 31 March. Tickets cost between £5 and £10.