Ellie Chan talks to Harry Michell and Ed Eustace about a tragedy about comics
by Ellie Chan
Thursday 26th April 2012, 13:05 BST
A play named Comedians, directed by one of Cambridge’s leading comedians and indeed starring another, might seem destined to be exhaustingly predictable. It’s a misconception director Harry Michell and lead Ed Eustace are keen to dispel. “We don’t want people not to go because they’re expecting a comedy, because it’s far more harrowing than that,” says Ed; Harry’s judgement is similarly resolute: “It’s not a comedy, it’s a tragedy”. But then, in reality comedy often goes hand in hand with tragedy, and this is not a play to be confined to generic conventions.
So a tragedy about comics, I wonder? Harry is quick to emphasise that the beauty of the play is the way it presents stand-up in context. The nature of stand-up comedy tends to means that it is detached from the circumstances of its comics, with the result that an audience rarely gets to see what actually inspires the material. “It asks the audience to engage,” says Harry, “To make up their minds how to react to the stand-up, whether as isolated from the play, or part of it.” The life of a comic is, clearly, far more harrowing than might be expected. “Harry cries himself to sleep every night,” laughs Ed.
Comedians is an interesting choice for Harry, recently appointed the new Footlights President. The play explores the nature of comedy in abstract, placing under the spotlight three theories of where it should come from, whether from hate, from truth, or from an idealist love. Harry was drawn to it by the chance of staging this debate, and the possibilities of the ensemble nature it entailed. “It’s energy as a form of theatre; it just relies on seven people in a room, and this kind of weird electricity it creates.” Comedians is a serious contemplation on our expectations and understanding of comedy, and one that is still pertinent today, despite the admittedly uncomfortably racist nature of the play’s contemporary comic conventions. Both Ed and Harry were determined to keep the production ‘Period’, such that Ed has shaved his head in the name of authenticity (a transformation which is startling to say the least).
To stage such a philosophical reflection on comedy in an environment which extols the Footlights as its own celebrities is a compelling statement. Indeed, Ed comments on its ‘X-Factor’ quality. Are these boys crying out for love and affection, trying to tell us that a stand-up is for life, not just for a set? All in all, I think not. Comedians is not preachy, and neither are its director or star. Both are dedicated to exploring the potential of drama’s “tentative suggestion; to make people think.” This looks set to be far more than a play about comedy simply put on by comics.