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Crime & Punishment: A Rock Musical - Interview with Director Phil Willmott

Crime & Punishment: A Rock Musical - Interview with Director Phil Willmott

9 August 2016 Stephanie Brandhuber

As part of London’s Free Open-Air Theatre Season, Crime & Punishment: A Rock Musical will hold its world premiere at The Scoop in London Bridge this month. Directed and adapted by Phil Willmott and featuring music by legendary rock legend Toyah Willcox, this revamped production will transform Dostoyevsky’s most famous and influential novel into a thrilling new musical. We sit down with director Phil Willmott to get the low-down on this adaptation of a classic with a tuneful twist.

London Calling: What attracted you to doing a rock-version of Crime & Punishment?
 
Phil Willmott: Well, we always try to do plays that reflect what’s going on in London society. Right now, we’re all very interested in what motivates these lone wolf killers to commit these terrible atrocities around the world. Crime & Punishment is very much about this, about a young man who sincerely believes that for the greater good and because of his beliefs that he is entitled to kill, so it feels very topical. And even though it’s a 19th Century Russian novel, the story is all about student angst, anger, and idealism so it seemed to really suggest itself to rock music as a sort of language for anger and alienation, as well as having a youthful energy.
 
LC: You’re using music by Toyah Willcox and Simon Darlow. What is it about their music that fits so well with this rock adaptation?
 
PW: Well in the 80s she was the punk princess. She was the person who took punk rock and sort of glamourised it and made it theatrical, while still retaining the kind of rawness, the anger and the energy of rock. So, because that’s my generation’s music, the first thing I did was to go back and listen to her songs and then I discovered that she is still recording and is still a best-selling recording artist so I got in touch with her and explained what I wanted to do and fortunately she said yes, that she’d love to come on board.
 
LC: I feel like fewer and fewer people do make the effort to go see plays these days. Do you think putting on a musical or a music-based production is a good way to pull in a youthful crowd?
 
PW: Statistically, we have the youngest average age of any theatre in London because we’re free and because we can seat 800-1000 people. What we do usually attracts a big twenty-something crowd. The cast who I’ve just started working with, who are all in their early 20s, most of them had never heard of Crime & Punishment, and certainly never read it, so what I hope is that people will come and enjoy themselves and as a result maybe be drawn to discover this amazing novel for themselves.
 
LC: So you feel like Crime & Punishment is a good introduction for newcomers to the theatre then?
 
PW: Yes, because it is all about the agony and the ecstasy of being twenty-something, of being worried about the future, of not being quite sure what direction the future will take you in. So, if we get it right, Crime & Punishment should really speak to a young audience and feel very relevant to them.
 
LC: As you’ve been explaining, Crime & Punishment is very topical, and that’s an important element for you. What are some of the other elements that you look for when choosing a new project?
 
PW: I’ve been lucky enough in my life to be exposed to these amazing classical plays, texts and novels, in a way that I sense maybe generations below me haven’t. So it’s really important for me to help open people’s eyes to the extraordinary wealth and richness of literature that past generations were exposed to. And these can still inform and inspire us today. So that sort of feeds into the repertoire I choose to do.
 
LC: Crime & Punishment is a very dense book. How did you go about the process of adapting it for the musical?
 
PW: A great deal of the novel is about expressing the murderer’s internal angst, and anger, and energy. So, whereas in the novel you might have a long chapter exploring his state of mind, with a rock song with the right lyrics and the right energy you can also convey that within two or three minutes of stage time. But I’m really adamant that seeing our production of Crime & Punishment isn’t in any way better than reading the novel. However, if we can capture the essence of the novel it will lead people to read it for themselves.
 
LC: The musical is being shown at The Scoop. Why did you choose an open-air location for the production?
 
PW: Because it’s a very democratic theatre, anyone can afford to come. It’s sort of in the tradition of ancient Greek theatre in that it’s open to the people. Over the years that I’ve worked there, the audience you get is of every single kind of class and demographic and cultural makeup; it’s not just theatre for people who can afford to go to the West End. You can look along a row of people during any performance night and see city workers, and seniors, and young kids, and people from various cultural communities, and they’re all sat together collectively enjoying the same story. That’s a very powerful experience. So, that’s why I love working there, and that’s why I keep coming back to it.
 
LC: Have you seen anything in London recently that you’ve really liked?
 
PW: If someone said “I’m coming to London, what should I see?”, I would always say The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It’s a perfect combination of being very entertaining and populous and a great night out, and it also teaches you something about the world we live in. It gives you an insight into the mindset of a boy, while also giving you a very good laugh and being very entertaining.
 
LC: After Crime and Punishment, what’s next on the agenda?
 
PW: After Crime & Punishment I’m going to be doing King Lear, but with a female King Lear. So that’s next for me. We also have our musical based on Polish mythology down at The Scoop, and we’re doing that because of the appalling rise in racism against Eastern Europeans post-Brexit. We wanted to do something to celebrate Eastern Europe, the Polish community in London and something which the Polish community would feel welcomed by, so that’s the other thing we’re doing in conjunction with Crime & Punishment.
 
Crime & Punishment: A Rock Musical will be showing at The Scoop in London Bridge between August 31st – September 25th 2016. For more information, click here.

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