“What’s the least Christmassy thing that comes to mind?” Ben Duke on his holiday ruin

Christmas Theater: It’s Nutcracker and glitter and merriment and “he’s after you,” plus betrayal and searing revenge and infanticide… er, wait? The Lost Dog dance-theater company’s Christmas offering looks decidedly less than festive this year. Ruination, by director-choreographer Ben Duke, is a reinterpretation of the myth of Medea, best known from the play of Euripides, a sorceress who helps Jason steal his father’s Golden Fleece and leaves with him (killing his brother along the way). But when Jason leaves her for another woman, he kills her own two children in a rage of revenge.

At what point, I have to ask, did Duke think this was the ideal Christmas present? “I think it was just a really childish kind of contrariety,” she laughs. “Someone says, ‘Do a Christmas show,’ and I say, ‘What’s the least Christmasy thing I can think of?’ And it was Medea. But then I started thinking about it. If this is the opposite of Christmas, because it’s about the death of children and Christmas is about the birth of a child, it started to make sense to me.”

There was also the fact that it was Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, who was in conversation with Duke, looking for something to stage at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre. It’s a space in the bowels of the building – descend multiple stairs to get there, while the cheery, evergreen Nutcracker will play on the main stage above. “So it felt like a dark world, a subconscious,” Duke says. A trip to the underworld.

Duke, 47, has had a hot streak over the past seven years, taking well-known and much-told stories and turning them upside down with meta commentary that is witty, absurd, and often deeply moving and truthful. There was his one-man Paradise Lost, full of surreal tangents like God trying to chat up Lucifer in a nightclub; he drew parallels between God’s creation and Duke’s parenting experience (he has two daughters), with neither having full control over what he did. Then there were Juliet and Romeo, who imagined if the star-crossed lovers hadn’t died and were now a middle-aged couple in marriage counseling; and, which saw one of the characters interview the others for a documentary.

Medea is often seen as the most monstrous of women, but Duke liked the idea of ​​making her ordinary, and was interested in the moment she moves beyond our comprehension.

“I follow her feeling of being hurt and the injustice – ‘What’s going on here?’ – But I cannot follow her to the point of killing her children ”. he says. “So the conceit is circling around this moment of tragedy, and what has turned into a courtroom in the underworld that Hades and Persephone are trying to get to the bottom of.”

Duke’s ideas start at home in Sussex, where he lives in a housing community that has its own studio space. The dancers gather there, improvising around Duke’s themes and lyrics, “spreading ideas around,” he says. “It seems like this is how my brain works, and then you get attached to certain ideas and start using them as hooks. I have tried to make peace with the inefficiency of it all.

Now I’m in a studio on the fifth floor of the Royal Opera House and things are starting to get real. Dancers Liam Francis, who plays Jason, and Maya Carroll, as his new wife Glauce, are playing ways of falling into each other, bodies sliding across the floor, faces snogging together, wrestling and bumping , one leg wrapped around the waist, lost in wheezing, then one knee hit the ground. “I’m so sorry, my fault.” “I’m fine, I’m fine,” they continue without missing a beat. Nearby, Anna-Kay Gayle (Persephone) and JD Broussé (Hades) run in line, and in the center of the room is a skeleton wearing a judge’s wig. The scene sums up Duke’s combination of meaty movement, text, and humor perfectly.

Duke found theater as a teenager. With his father in the navy, he went to boarding school. How was it, I ask. “After telling myself he was fine, which I think a lot of people do, now I’m about to go: he was not fine,” he says. “Age 7 to 14 is when you develop your emotional sense, but basically you’re in a situation where emotions shouldn’t be on display because they attract attention, and that’s dangerous. You feel like you are restricting your bandwidth in some way.

“I know what it does to people,” she says. “I look at many of the people who are running the country and I recognize those people. It’s about empathy. Charm is very different from empathy, and that’s what scares people who make decisions about other people’s lives who have a limited sense of empathy.

In that environment, however, Duke discovered drama. “I was incredibly shy, but being on stage was a place where emotions were fine. It offered me an addictive space, actually,” she says. “I feel even more comfortable on a stage; I trust my instincts onstage more than off.” Duke majored in English in Newcastle, where he is was usher at the Newcastle Playhouse (now Northern Stage) and was stunned to see Belgian dance-theatre producer Alain Platel He went to the Guildford School of Acting but when asked which companies he wanted to work for, they were DV8, Complicité, V -Tol, Derevo – all physical theater “I looked at that list and said, ‘Oh no, I did the wrong workout.'”

So off she went to South East London and to Lewisham College dance class. She was already 26, in a class of 16 and 17 year olds, but it felt right. The dancing seemed more real to him than the acting – “You’re not telling yourself you’re sad. You dance and feel things and it’s all there” – and even more objective: “You can do a pirouette or you can’t”. Drama school, he felt, was more governed by subjectivity and looks, and whether agents would like you and what kinds of roles you might be cast in (although with his floppy-haired beauty, you could absolutely see Duke as a sensitive protagonist).

I follow her feeling that she has been wronged, but I cannot follow her to the point of killing her children

Ben Duke

He co-founded Lost Dog with Raquel Meseguer and they won the Place Award in 2011, but have had nothing like the success of Paradise Lost, which has racked up five star reviews. The change came when Duke realized that his strength was not in writing original stories. “What interests me is to separate the things that exist and place myself within those stories.” He’s embarrassed when I ask him about his success, but of course he’s pleased. “I like this feeling of being part of an evening that hasn’t bored people.” Had he previously been into things that bored people? “Definitely, yeah, definitely,” he laughs.

Lost Dog has been a regular on the National Rural Touring Forum circuit, an initiative which means bringing shows to churches, town halls, sports arenas and libraries across the UK. There, a packed crowd can be 40, with no room for set, other than having to enter the lottery (“You can’t mess with the lottery”), or having to stop and ask the guys in the front row not to open yet another rustling bag of chips. “You walk into a room and say, ‘OK, let’s turn this space into a theater and see if this thing we’ve created can stand,’” says Duke. “It’s incredibly humiliating. I love that intimacy and it’s a really good test for a show.

Ruin will soon be tested. “This could backfire, trying to get people to come and see Medea at Christmas time; maybe that’s a step too far,” says Duke. But based on its back catalog, the descent into hell should be worth it.

The downfall is at the Royal Opera House: Linbury theatre until 31 December.

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