No more fog on the Tyne

There's more to theatre on Tyneside than the 'Wor-Geordie's-down- the-pit-again' school of drama, as Clare Bayley finds out from Alan Lyddiard, the artistic director of Northern Stage. Plus, below, we profile new talent in the North-east
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The Independent Culture
Newcastle upon Tyne has a bad reputation. In the popular imagination the only famous Geordies since the Venerable Bede are Gazza and Viz's Sid the Sexist. Coal, Lindisfarne and When the Boat Comes In were its only known exports until the 13-year-old outlaw Rat Boy made the headlines and the Daily Mail christened the North-east "birthplace of ram-raiding".

In contrast to this, there is a spirit of cultural regeneration in the area which we hear nothing of in the tabloids. The varying fortunes of Northern Stage, the premier theatre company in the North-east, reflect this. Four years ago the company was homeless, broke, had virtually no local audience and was given two years by the Arts Council to shape up or shut up shop. Now the company is resident at the Newcastle Playhouse, fully funded by the Arts Council and attracting healthy audiences (85 per cent houses). The man responsible is 46-year-old Alan Lyddiard, a southerner who lived in Scotland for almost a decade and became artistic director of Northern Stage in its darkest hour.

"I was feeling like I wanted a really big challenge," says Lyddiard, a stocky, bullish man who appeared as a fascist commander in his production of Max Frisch's Andorra, and the authoritarian Farmer Jones in Animal Farm (playing both parts, by all accounts, most convincingly). In person, though, that power is turned to positive ends. "I felt that Newcastle was the place for me. I wanted to work in a city that had a strong identity, somewhere with a rough edge and energy, not Windsor or Cheltenham or Farnham." The situation he found there was perhaps worse than he imagined, with none of the sense of solidarity and cultural identity he had found in Scotland during the late Eighties. "It was very inward-looking and insular," he recalls. "It's a region which feels that the south of England has shat on it. Somebody in London decided one day they weren't going to have any mines any more, and that was it. They feel cut off from the rest of the country. So a major plank of my work was to encourage local artists and give them access to wonderful work from other parts of the world. If they feel angry about London, get them to look towards the rest of the world for inspiration."

To the surprise - some would say consternation - of local arts managers, one of Lyddiard's first projects was to bring the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg to Newcastle, first to work with local actors on their production of Stars in the Morning Sky, later to perform. It was a huge gamble to assume that this highbrow Russian artistry would communicate, on any level, with local audiences. In fact, the visit came to be seen as a major event, and the Maly set an example for much of the work Lyddiard has done there, both in its visual, European-influenced aesthetic, and its scale: Stars in the Morning Sky had 36 people on stage, Andorra had a cast of 13, Neil Murray's production of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? will see 50 people (including local students, school children and amateurs) on stage. "The theatre's got to become an event," Lyddiard declares. "We've got to get away from the sense that each production is just another one off the conveyor belt. We want it to be dangerous and exciting."

This belief partly explains the decision to stage A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess's story of Alex, a juvenile delinquent who creates his own culture of violence, and then is brutally "re-educated" by the state. "Here in Newcastle there's no sense of any future for young people now that mining and shipbuilding have gone. Some young people are making the choice of violence, and I wanted to explore that," Lyddiard says. "But I didn't want another new sub-Stephen Poliakoff play about young kids on the streets. Burgess's book spoke to me in a poetic way about youth and young people.

"What Burgess is saying is: there is an evil in some people. As a middle-aged, middle-class, liberal white person, I always feel it must be that somebody is angry about their environment or had a problem with their mother or father. But I have to question that. Humanity isn't fundamentally evil, however there is evil in some people, like Jamie Bulger's killers or Myra Hindley. I don't think we should just shut the door on it, we should explore it further. That's what I'm doing. I've got no answers. By producing the play, maybe I'll find some."

The production is being complemented by a programme of outreach work in schools and community centres ("trying to get young people to express themselves creatively, not just through violence and crime") and a conference on youth crime and punishment co-chaired by the journalist Jon Snow, who is also the chair of the Prison Reform Trust, and Bea Campbell. "If we raise the issues, we have to take on the responsibility," says Lyddiard. And he doesn't exempt himself from this. In a play about male violence and rape which has an all-male cast, Lyddiard is prepared to put his own masculinity under scrutiny.

"I'm in a strange position - I want to explore what men feel and get from the expression of their sexuality, but also I worry about it. Sometimes in rehearsals I find it very frightening. Here's Mark Murphy (the choreographer, artistic director of V-TOL) getting performers throwing themselves around and being very sexual, and here they are enjoying the buzz, getting off on it. Here in Newcastle, Friday and Saturday night is a big deal. Girls and boys go out in big gangs, but segregated. The men wear almost nothing, just T-shirts in the coldest weather - they keep their cigarettes in their rolled-up sleeves. It's like a frontier land, all swagger and show, and there's a part of it which is quite beautiful, but another part that's horrific. And I feel excited myself by my own masculinity - look at the way I'm talking, with my fist clenched - but if it goes too far it becomes threatening and ugly."

It remains to be seen whether this production of A Clockwork Orange will have any impact on the lives of young people growing up in the depressed North-east, or whether Northern Stage's outreach workers will ever get to the potential ram-raiders. Despite the "man of the people" image, Lyddiard projects, the Newcastle Playhouse is still frequented predominantly by the chattering classes; one critic recently commented that he was pleased to hear a Geordie accent in the foyer for the first time. There are other gripes, of course: Lyddiard's record on commissioning new writing is not impressive and local playwrights are resentful and disappointed. But Lyddiard's undisputed achievement is to have set the cultural agenda, rather than try to provide what makes people feel safe. Rather than looking to the South-east, the North-east is broadening its horizons, and it's a two- way process - the latest export from Tyneside is a touring production of Animal Farm which has already visited Turkey, and is scheduled for a world tour in 1996. There is an atmosphere of excitement around the theatre, and Newcastle now has a producing house it can be justly proud of.

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