ITD at 21: Pete Brooks on ‘Hotel Methuselah’
In 2003, I was feeling a bit lost. I’d worked on a commercial musical a couple of years earlier which had crashed and burned. Everybody I’d ever worked with seemed to becoming either rich, famous or both, and honestly, I was wondering whether the theatre and I had mutually given up on each other. So, I went sailing. My wife and I moved onto our small sailing boat and we headed South, through the French canals to the Med. I had a part time teaching job at Central Saint Martin’s, so still made weekly trips back to London on Ryanair, although from steadily more distant airports and it was great: better than a clean warm rehearsal space; better than a nearly large enough budget; better than a 3 star review in The Guardian. We were in Paris for 6 months; then in Dijon and then, Avignon. We navigated the Rhone from Lyon to Port Saint Louis; we ate fish we had caught, and strip washed on deck in buckets of ice cold river water; we circumnavigated Corsica and I would have been happy to live like this for ever, but, in the end we did it just for a year and a half until my wife started feeling nauseous. We’d been living on a boat for 18 months so clearly it wasn’t sea sickness. She was pregnant. The nausea got a lot worse, so we left the boat in Sardinia and went home.
At about the same time Andrew Quick who I already knew, asked me if I’d direct a project with 3rd year students at Lancaster University. In my bottom drawer I had an unfinished text/sketch for a show set in a hotel which had characters and a situation but didn’t really have a thematic, and a very clear scenographic idea to do with back projected film and a letterbox shaped aperture. The aftermath of the Gulf war at that time dominated the news and crucially I was now confronted with the prospect of becoming a father. These elements were starting to cohere into something to do with a soldier with a pregnant wife who gets killed in a war. A show about the responsibilities of fatherhood. I accepted the project.
The show was good. Not the best show I’ve made with students, but up there in the top three. It was called Hotel Methuselah.
Three months later Andrew asked me if I’d be interested in reworking the student show with imitating the dog. We met in a pub in Soho. I suggested we work instead on Russ Meyer’s seminal feminist biker movie Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill! They laughed, although I wasn’t joking. They wanted Hotel Methuselah and in the end I agreed. I asked for royalties if the show toured outside of the UK, but they convinced me it would never happen (Hotel Methuselah ended up touring to 17 countries. It still rankles.) I’d seen ITD’s Einmal ist Keinmal which I liked but it was very much a first show. It was clear that the company was interested in stories and so was I. I wasn’t sure the relationship would last. I wasn’t sure the company would last. They were at that stage, having made three shows over a three year period, where people were clearly moving on. Charlotte had left, Alice was having a break and it wasn’t clear what Seth and Richard’s plans were. Andrew and Simon remained for sure, but at no time did I imagine a future beyond the show. And then the ‘new’ female performers arrived, and this definitely brought a new energy to the company, as all new performers do – Anna Wilson-Hall and Morven Macbeth. This was also the first show that we worked with Crofty (Andrew Crofts).
The show worked. It really worked and it confused people. It had a highly literate, one might say literary quality, Andrew did some great writing. It had a story, albeit one that was elliptical, and it was boldly transmedial in a way that used the media metaphorically rather than as some quasi academic sub Philip Auslander investigation of liveness. Opening night audiences at Lancaster University didn’t know what to make of it. “Is it postdramatic?”, they asked. “I spent the whole show wondering if they were making faces at each other behind the screen”, confessed a confused academic. Anyway, a few months later we did the show for the launch of the English translation of Post Dramatic Theatre in Huddersfield, and Hans Thiess Lehman, who’d written the book, invited the show to a symposium of post dramatic dramaturgy in Frankfurt. Subsequently we toured most of Europe as well as to Brazil and Beirut. The British Council seemed to see us as a safe pair of hands and what had seemed destined to be a swansong was both a paradigm shift and a new beginning. For the company, but also for me.