Dundee Rep bring Stephen Sondheim Sweeney Todd's musical to the stage
As Dundee Rep prepares to tackle Stephen Sondheim’s bloodthirsty musical David Pollock finds a company and director relishing the challenge
There’s little heroism to be found in a tale of murder and cannibalism, but Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at least attempts to find some rationale for the actions of the titular killer in tragedy and subsequent revenge. And James Brining, artistic director of Dundee Rep and the director of this new version of Sondheim’s work, is most interested in a truth beyond that of the characters.
‘I think Sondheim’s main interest was in a society that can push a man to such extremes,’ he says. ‘We empathise with Sweeney, we come to understand he’s the victim of a series of injustices, but he stills ends up a butcher and an animal. That’s the brilliance of what Sondheim’s created: he makes us relate to Sweeney even as he pushes him further away from us. Yet he lives in a society in which injustice, intolerance and oppression are permitted to thrive, and these things are hardly restricted to the Victorian era.’
Brining promises not a contemporary update of the piece, but one which doesn’t distract from this political edge with ripping Victorian bodices and the like. Yet it’s also a play that eases the dark horror of the situation through the black humour of Sondheim’s lyrics, as Ann Louise Ross, a veteran of Dundee Rep who plays Sweeney’s landlady, accomplice and admirer Mrs Lovett, is quick to point out.
‘Cutting up bodies isn’t the sort of thing that gives Mrs Lovett sleepless nights,’ says Ross. ‘Her intention is to keep Sweeney Todd by her side as a potential husband, and whatever she has to do in order to achieve that, she does. It’s incredibly witty, the way this is done, and she’s a joy to perform. All of her songs are very character based, which is what you want as an actor.’
With an ensemble cast and a live score, this show will be among the most ambitious the Rep has undertaken, including past musical successes such as Sunshine On Leith, Gypsy and Flora and the Red Menace. It’s also been a long-term ambition of Brining’s to stage it, though not one he’s felt ready to meet until now. ‘Everybody is hugely challenged by this material, including myself,’ he says. ‘But I feel that the company has built up an expertise and an understanding – particularly with our musical director Hilary Brooks – over previous productions that has made us fit for the task. If I’d done this seven, eight, nine years ago, it would have been … god, very hard.
‘This is an extraordinary story with such power, it’s a classic of its kind, and I wanted to create a production that completely blows the audience away.’
Ross, meanwhile, sums up the experience of performing in Sweeney Todd in a manner that might appeal most to those who recall what an effortlessly safe pair of hands Dundee Rep has proved to be. ‘There aren’t many songs you would instantly recognise or sing along to in Sweeney Todd – the music of The Proclaimers is far more well-known by the public. But James is keen that we keep challenging ourselves as a company, and that’s how we also challenge our audience’s expectations.’
Sweeney Todd, Dundee Rep, Wed 19 May–Sat 12 Jun.