The sea, Greek myths and outdoor shows

Tell us about the inspiration behind new show Hero & Leander, Or I Love You, But Everything’s Under Water?

It’s an idea I’d had knocking around for some time. I make a lot of stuff about British / English identity, and the sea seems like such a big part of that. Being an island, being encapsulated by this thing of beauty that is also a void, a hostile environment that will kill you if you’re in it for too long, and the effect that has on people. I started doing the Exmouth Beach Christmas day swim a couple of years ago, and the way thousands of people come together to do something as dangerous, painful and ostensibly pointless as jumping into the frozen English channel, it moved me a lot. The aesthetic of the run-down seaside town was also very appealing to me. Their sense of faded glory coupled with a dogged low-key resilience is, as the kids say, a whole mood.

 The show is based on ancient Greek myth Hero & Leander – why this myth?

I’m not ashamed to say I was heavily inspired by Hadestown, a stunning folk musical by Anais Mitchell. She plays pretty fast and loose with the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice (a luxury you get with out-of-copyright texts) in order to give a new life to the characters and make them more intelligible and relatable to our current world. I was rootling around for myths about the sea, and this was obscure and simplistic enough for me to put my own spin on it. The location of Leander’s original swim across the Hellespont – the traditional border between Asia and Europe, and one of the focal points of the current refugee crisis – also carries some weight, that I try to handle gently while relocating it geographically to the English coast.

What can the audience expect from the show?

It’s just a big, happy-but-sad set of songs about the sea, about borders of all kinds, about love and about loss, with lots of harmony and voices and instruments. You can follow the story or you can just soak up the music. You can even have a little dance and sing along with some sea shanties if you want.

 What excites you about working outdoors?

I’ve always been interested in summer festivals, that other great British point of communality. Since many of the larger ones won’t be able to go ahead, we’re looking to bring their vibe, on a much smaller scale, to anywhere we can. There’s a democratic and honest element about working in that environment. People can just walk off if they want, which is scary but also a fun challenge as a performer.

 Can you tell us about the musicians performing Hero & Leander?

Hanno is a guitarist, trumpeter, and cheeky imp who shreds hard and has to be held back from veering into funk solos. Bea and Yoon-ji are classically-trained strings players who have put incredible lush arrangements under everything. Jay plays accordion and sings with a deep bass voice that I’m profoundly jealous of. Sian is a singer with phenomenal lung power and a knack for clowning. I do stuff as well.

This is an incredibly difficult time we’re all living through. What have you learnt about yourself in the last year? What keeps you positive?

I don’t have all the answers, but I feel very strongly that people should allow themselves to feel as sad as they need to. To mourn the loss of people, of friendships, of freedoms. There’s a lot of jingoistic “let’s all do this together” stuff in the media, which can have the effect of suppressing or trivialising people’s natural negative emotions. I’ve found that when you let those feelings happen, let them pass through, then like the seasons or the tides, things tend to naturally return to a point of balance.

Image credit: Ben Borley


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