If you want a job you love, you have to create it for yourself; a viciously true statement for the millennial generation, but perhaps truest of all for visionary young director Madeleine Perham, the driving force behind the new stage adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke. Due to hit the stage this August, Pullman’s sinister tale is set to come alive amidst smoke, shadows and Victorian sets in artful states of collapse. I met with Madeleine in London’s Southbank centre to clarify exactly how The Ruby in the Smoke went from best selling novel to debut play at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016.
‘I got really bored on January the first’ mused the young director, thinking back to the beginning of the project, now thoroughly underway. ‘I had finished my job at Waterstones, I had no plans for the rest of my life and I thought, I’m going to email Philip Pullman and see what happens’, which, of course, ended up rendering career changing results. This idea, however, was not borne out of thin air. While at university, Madeleine had directed a stage adaptation of His Dark Materials and had managed to tempt Philip Pullman himself down to Oxford to watch the show. It was there that she spoke to him and got his credentials, thereby beginning the journey of her professional directing career. ‘He emailed back and said “Yes, go ahead”. It was monumental’.
‘Philip approves the script before it goes on’ but the rest is in Madeleine’s hands, to write the script and to direct the actors. The leading role, Sally Lockheart, is an interesting part and one that will have needed care to to cast. In speaking about the role of Sally, Madeleine quoted a tweet that she had found of the character; ‘Sally Lockhart is my favourite superhero. Her superpowers are marksmanship, accountancy and business management’. Sally is undoubtedly a strong female character and one that subverts traditional gender roles in being talented in areas normally dominated by men. ‘Sally is 16, and is someone who is almost ready to be an adult, and then has to be’, the entire play revolves around her coming of age, being pushed by her situation into becoming an adult.
Such a complex character deserves a talented actress, and the actress they have found is the leading lady from Madeleine’s university production of His Dark Materials. ‘Philip had seen her and liked her, and when I suggested her […] we sort of bolted to the place where she was staying. She’s wonderful, she looks exactly like the character, and she’s studying to be a doctor’. It appears that the stage is set, the actors chosen and the script written, but what about the funding and the logistics of the show? ‘Crowdfunding is probably the main thing […] apart from that a lot of us come from Oxford so we are pulling some money from there’.
For those who aren’t as familiar with Pullman’s works, The Ruby in the Smoke is a Victorian thriller told through a haze of opium smoke and half remembered childhood memory. ‘The first death you get in it is a really overweight man who dies of a heart attack. You kind of go down a rabbit hole’. At that point Madeleine begins to describe the best way of dramatically depicting horror. ‘The less you show the more’ she mused, before going on to reference the film of The Fellowship of the Ring, specifically the scene where Pippin disturbs a skull in the goblin kingdom, and it ‘clatters clatters clatters’ into silence. This silence after is the part she is most interested by, the spine tingling horror of the imminent malevolent unknown; very easy to create, but it sets the imagination alight. With very little special effects, it has become perhaps ‘one of the most terrifying bits of modern cinema’.This appears to have been part of Madeleine’s inspiration of the horror in the play. For example, in portraying Mrs Holland, an evil hag and sworn enemy to Sally, the effects team use lights to create shadow, making her form appear ghoulishly large and opaque. This uncertain representation of horror allows this portrayal to exist alongside the horror in our imaginations, rather than inevitably damaging both portrayals with stark special effects.
Other effects that Madeleine’s team have up their sleeve sound incredibly creative. As there lots of story telling in the book, as is a particular love of Philip Pullman, the characters to engage each other and the audience in the stories they are telling. One visual aid they have developed is to place props around the room, that when shone in a particular light will become something else, ‘a bowler hat can be seen as a ship, or a phantom appears somewhere’.
Madeleine’s clear love and admiration for Pullman’s works, and for the stage, stage lighting, smoke, props and characters, all point towards this being a show that will not be one to miss. Showing in London for just two nights, at the Courtyard Theatre from the 29th to the 30th of August, and then onwards to the creative buzzing energy of the Edinburgh Fringe, I know which show I will be pre-ordering tickets for this August.
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