Curtains Up: Liverpool's Everyman reopens

As Liverpool's Everyman theatre reopens its doors after a two-year revamp, artistic director Gemma Bodinetz shares her vision for a democratic but daring space

Feature by Clare Wiley | 12 Mar 2014
  • Everyman Theatre

There’s a bit of a joke running around Liverpool’s Everyman at the minute. It riffs on that immortal line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (which the theatre will stage this month): ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’ It’s the tagline of the play, but also – at last – the Everyman has a play on.

The theatre is reopening this month, a reincarnation of its former self. What was once a hot, stuffy space with grimy dressing rooms and a stage trap door that usually got stuck has been reborn as a brand new venue, revamped, rebooted and ready for action – with a trap door as smooth as they come. It’s a major undertaking that has involved ten years of planning and two years of construction, and which began with the Everyman team asking Liverpudlians what they wanted from their theatre. What did they love about the old building? “It came back to us very strongly that people loved the thrust stage, having the audience on three sides,” says artistic director Gemma Bodinetz. “People also loved the neon sign reading Everyman, and they liked the basement bistro. So they’re all part of the new building.”

But there were other things that people loved about the old Everyman, things that were harder to quantify. “For example, you don’t have to dress up, but if you want to come in a ball gown you won’t feel out of place,” Bodinetz says. “The theatre space is rough but magical. The democracy of the Everyman, its idiosyncrasies – these are feelings people had about the building. We’ve tried to include them all and bring them into the new venue. If we’ve got it right, it’s a space that will be both radical and familiar.”

How does affection for a place – that sense of the familiar – come across in bricks and mortar? Firstly, well, it’s in the bricks themselves. The construction and design team managed to save almost all of the bricks from Liverpool’s old Hope Chapel, and have recycled them into the theatre. “So when you walk into the 400-seat auditorium, it feels warm and humane,” explains Bodinetz. “It doesn’t felt like a cold black box, or a swanky all-singing, all-dancing theatre. It still has that feel of a real theatre, a working theatre.” But crucially, while it might not feel all-singing, all-dancing, it is. The Everyman can now do a whole range of things it couldn’t before: “The stage is modular now, which in effect means that any bit of the stage, or all of the stage, can be a trap – or even a swimming pool, if we wanted.” And while audiences seem to enjoy being on three sides of the stage, that’s adaptable depending on the performance – so stand-up comedians, for instance, could have all their spectators in one easy-to-target place.

It’s a space that should invite you to play, says Bodinetz (another nod to that Bard tagline). All too often, this kind of language – inviting the local community, offering something that’s modern but familiar – is just empty press release rhetoric. But it looks as though the Everyman is really set to make good on its promises: as well as possessing a special studio dedicated to youth and community groups, there will be meeting rooms for local businesses, and there will be a 'Writers’ Room' – not just for playwrights, but for anyone who wants a quiet spot to write. There’s also a clever rehearsal room attached to a recording studio, so composers and sound engineers can create soundtracks while they watch the actors. The front of the theatre, meanwhile, features 105 portraits of people from across Merseyside whose images have been etched into metal shutters: truly public art.

Of the upcoming season, Bodinetz says that “all the work has tried to be forward-thinking, but reflect that renegade, democratic, naughty kind of spirit of the Everyman.

“I very much wanted an ensemble piece for the opener,” she continues – that opener being Twelfth Night, starring Nick Woodeson as Malvolio and Matthew Kelly as Sir Toby Belch. “I didn’t think it was right to have one famous name on the poster. It felt to me that this opening show had to be not a star vehicle but an offering to the city, and an opportunity for a lot of great actors to take their first step on that stage.” (The cast also includes Neil Caple, Pauline Daniels, Paul Duckworth, Adam Keast, Adam Levy, Jodie McNee and Alan Stocks.)

Twelfth Night is also a great fit for the opener because of the story it tells. “It’s a tale that’s imbued with anarchy,” Bodinetz says. “Malvolio is a puritan trying to crush love and naughtiness, and free spirit and individualism. The Everyman has always been about individualism and free thinking, and a sort of anti-puritanism, so it felt right. The play sees this world breathe and flower and come alive in the way the Everyman has.

“But I knew that it had to be a brave production,” she adds. “We couldn’t do a reverential, very lovely sort of period piece. Because the Everyman has always been courageous and forward-thinking. It has a history of game-changing, exciting ways of looking at Shakespeare.”

The opening season also includes Hope Place (9-31 May), a brand new play from Birkenhead-born Michael Wynne. Set around the eponymous area in Liverpool, it’s a play about the myths and stories that exist within families, and the defined roles that we’re often given in families that we perhaps don’t want to play.

“I wanted to write something that was Liverpool-based, that would have a slightly celebratory feel about it,” explains Wynne, saying he wanted to create a play that’s big and ambitious – much like the plays he saw at the Everyman as a teenager. “The Everyman was so inclusive and populist, and alive,” he says. “It was only much later in my life when I went to other theatres, like in London, that I realised theatre could be really exclusive and snobby and poncy and elitist.

“I do think the Everyman has a particular feel,” he adds, “and it can be quite reflective of some of the positives of Liverpool. It’s welcoming and funny and a bit wacky, and hopefully quite surprising. I wanted to write something that sort of fitted into the spirit of what I feel the Everyman is.”

Wynne's play will set a precedent; Bodinetz underlines that new writing will certainly be central to the theatre’s ethos going forwards. “The whole building has been predicated on future thinking,” she says. “I’m just a custodian of the Everyman. So I’m thinking, what will designers, artists, writers, be doing in the future? Theatre is evolving; there’s a lot more use of video, with huge multimedia experiences now, and we really wanted a theatre that could play like that for writers, artists and actors and designers.”

The Everyman's opening season: Twelfth Night, 8 Mar–5 Apr; The Events by David Grieg, 8-12 Apr; Hope Place, 9-31 May; Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs), 21 Jun–12 Jul