EDINBURGH FRINGE 2023 / INTERVIEW
"I should maybe have been more surprised that the judging panel didn’t include a single woman, so looking back now I feel immensely proud to have broken through in that small way. "
2 - 27 August 2023 (not 14) at 13:15 (1hr00)
July 24, 2023
Two Tigers is a kaleidoscopic musical drama about New Zealand-born modernist writer Katherine Mansfield, who lived and died with the Furies at her heels and her turbulent love affair with John Middleton Murry, who ensured her legacy. Since Sue Casson's musical was first staged for the centenary of Mansfield's birth the reputation of the spirited short-story writer has steadily grown, whilst the man who brought her work to public attention is all but forgotten. The truly modern story of these literary pioneers is re-imagined for the centenary of her death this year.
Hi Sue, thank you for talking to The New Current, how does it feel to be coming back to Edinburgh Fringe and C Venues with Two Tigers this August?
Thank you for asking me! I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Edinburgh over the years so in a way it feels like coming home. At festival time the city overflows with creative energy, and I’m looking forward to that buzz.
You have a great history with C Venues, where you brought both The Happy Prince and the Premiere of Dreams of Peace & Freedom to their stages, what makes C Venues such a unique venue at the Fringe?
It’s a very welcoming and encouraging platform for new work, and there is a diversity across its’ programming, both in terms of the number of international companies and the variety of genres and artists it hosts, it’s almost a festival on its’ own.
This is a special, re-imagined production of Two Tigers that was first staged at the festival 35 years ago, had you always hoped you would get to revisit this powerful piece?
I’ve always felt it was a strong score, and several of the songs from it have gone on to have other lives since that first staging, on radio and in cabaret, but sometimes anniversaries can provide the nudge that is needed, and it was the approaching centenary of Katherine Mansfield’s death that made me feel the time was right to approach it again as a theatre piece.
What did it mean to you to become the first woman to be a PRS Vivian Ellis Prize finalist?
Being shortlisted and showcased and having musical titans like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice championing my songs had such a big influence on my decision to pursue writing as a career that at the time (perhaps naively) I never thought about my sex. I should maybe have been more surprised that the judging panel didn’t include a single woman, so looking back now I feel immensely proud to have broken through in that small way. It saddens me that even today, women creators at PRS are extraordinarily under-represented in terms of overall numbers.
I know it’s a silly question to ask after you’ve performed all over the world and done cabaret with the BBC but, are there any nerves ahead of your return to the Fringe stage?
Always! There’s nothing like walking out in front of an audience to get your heart racing.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Two Tigers came about, what was it about Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry’s work and lives that connected so much with you as a composer?
There’s so much I could say about this, as in subtle ways I recognise aspects of their lives in my own. I suppose as a songwriter I was initially drawn to Mansfield as a subject for a musical as I saw a parallel in the short stories for which she is famous, and the limited number of verses that comprise a song. In both, brevity is no obstacle to meaning.
However, it quickly became clear that translating a number of her stories into song during the course of a musical wasn’t going to work for all sorts of reasons (I later found when composing The Happy Prince that a 5 page story could become a full evening in the theatre) and in any case what captivated my imagination was her extraordinary life, both alone and with Murry, and the way she captured it in her journals and notebooks. He was a writer too, and his novel Between Two Worlds dramatizes their relationship in scenes. His letters are wonderful as well.
As a composer, this time around, with so much more of her writing available than when I first wrote, I’ve become much more conscious of how music was central to Mansfield’s life – as a young girl she aspired to be a professional cellist, she was a singer, she played guitar and piano, and her writing reflects that rhythmical and poetic musical phrasing. Her words thread through my lyrics and her poetry and letters respond well to underscoring.
When did you first discover Katherine Mansfield writing and was there any one piece of work she wrote that truly captured you?
One of her stories, The Daughters of the Late Colonel was in a collection that we studied when I was at school, but it was at university when I was given a selection from her journal and letters by my then boyfriend (now husband) that my interest really took off. I love diaries of all sorts, and her writing is so immediate, so sensory and garrulous, it’s impossible not to be drawn into her internal drama. Angela Carter called her journal ‘a fabulous autobiography of the soul,’ and I can’t better that description.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced re-imagining Two Tigers?
Leaving the first production behind! When I first wrote Two Tigers, it was conceived as a musical biography, and trying to tell that whole story, took a bigger canvas with a much larger cast. This time I really wanted to shine a spotlight on the inner Mansfield as creator – the one that first attracted me, and who continues to live on through her words - rather than the mortal who died 100 years ago. It means some songs are left out, which is hard, but it brings the story I want to tell into sharper focus.
Even though John Middleton Murry’s really championed Mansfield’s work, as you’ve said previously, Murry seems to have become largely forgotten for his efforts, during your research where you able to discover why that was?
I feel a bit protective of Murry as he has such a hard time with the critics. He was a prolific writer himself – of poetry, critical biography, novels, and he was also a notable editor of literary magazines in his day. He not only had the discernment to recognise the worth of his wife’s writing, which he saw as ‘sacred’ but the connections and a platform of his own to ensure it wasn’t forgotten in the years following her early death. His love of Mansfield as a woman got in the way of this, in that in promoting her writing he did censor her work to protect her image in the way film studios then liked to do, and scholars of her work coming after have been frustrated by this. But the idea that a woman’s writing in the early 20th century would come into the public domain by sheer merit alone is wrong I think. Murry may not have been such a good writer, but certainly he put his own reputation aside to champion hers – travelling all over Europe to collect suitcases of her notebooks, deciphering and annotating her diaries – he really put in a shift, and I’m not quite sure why he has been so castigated for this.
"As to theatre, I went to panto very young, fell in love and have adored theatre of all sorts ever since!"
If you could describe Two Tigers in three words what would they be?
Haunting, original, modernist.
Have you always had a passion for music, cabaret and theatre?
There was always music at home – dad at the piano was often the musical focus of a party, and my brother played keyboards and sang vocals in a band, so it was a very natural part of life for me, I assumed I would play and sing as soon as I could. I was drawn to witty, wordy lyrical songs – Noel Coward, Richard Stilgoe, Victoria Wood – the sort you don’t often hear now, but in cabaret they still have a platform. As to theatre, I went to panto very young, fell in love and have adored theatre of all sorts ever since!
What have been the biggest changes to your musical style since your debut production?
When I started out I was musically doffing my cap at the period in which Murry and Mansfield lived, with a focus on the jazzy, syncopated sounds that were emerging then and I’ve pretty much stayed true to that, as it seems right for the piece. This time round I’ve taken out what strikes me now as pure pastiche.
What does your work say about you as an artist?
In a wider sense I suspect you’d have to ask someone who’d heard and seen it. For me revisiting this early project reaffirms my lifelong passion and commitment to creativity.
Do you have any advice, tips or suggestions you would offer anyone thinking about getting into theatre and performance?
This is a holy grail, but if you can, find someone who believes in the value of your work as much as you do, and is prepared to support you – in every way - as you pursue it, just as Katherine did.
And finally, what do you want your fringe audiences to take away from Two Tigers?
A show so affecting they can’t wait to tell their friends! And I’d like then to go away and seek out Katherine Mansfield’s work. Her writing is brilliant, and under-estimated. Her reputation has grown enormously in the last 35 years, and she deserves to be as much of a literary name as her contemporary Virginia Woolf – and I’m not quite sure why she isn’t.