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Embodied literature: an interview with Ben Duke

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A Tale of Two Cities by Ben Duke. Photo: Sarah Weal
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On blending literature, theatre and dance – Ben Duke talks about storytelling, embodiment and the classics

Before ever stepping foot in a dance studio, Ben Duke – 2011 Place Prize winner, artistic director of Lost Dog, and creator of works for the likes of Rambert and Scottish Dance Theatre – obtained a first class degree in English Literature from Newcastle University. ‘I was fed all the usual dead white men stuff: Dickens, Thomas Hardy and so on,’ he says wryly during a phone call from his London base. ‘I think I’ve always been most interested in writers with a completeness of imagination, people like Tolkein with his Lord of the Rings series, and Shakespeare. There’s a whole world outside of what they’ve written. The stories they tell are just snapshots of entire universes.’

Despite loving his academic studies, Duke soon began to feel something was missing from the traditional, cerebral approach to literature. ‘I was bored of being inside my head, and felt like there was a whole other part to the human experience that isn’t to do with words, analysis, and this logical, rational approach,’ he says. He decided to train at the Guildford School of Acting to discover a different way of relating to his favourite texts, but when he arrived, he realised ‘we were still just studying and looking at words. But Shakespeare wasn’t imagining that when he wrote his plays. He created works to be embodied on stage.’

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I left drama school not wanting to have anything to do with words. Then I left dance school thinking: we’re so silent.

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Duke’s quest for embodiment led him to dance and a three-year degree at London Contemporary Dance School. Since then, he’s gone on to combine his passion for literature and theatre with movement to create his own unique brand of physical theatre. To date, he’s adapted two classic works of literature, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, into a 2016 one-man show and a 2020 duet respectively. Far from chronological retellings of the original narratives, his shows often place well-known fictional characters in new contexts. Juliet and Romeo imagines what would have happened if Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers survived to become a middle-aged couple undergoing relationship therapy. Similarly, his latest work, set to premiere in February 2022, is a reimagining of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities through the eyes of Lucie Manette, one of the novel’s female characters whom Duke considers ‘underwritten – all her psychological complexity left on the cutting room floor.’

‘Looking backwards to understand going forwards’ – Ben Duke on Tale of Two Cities

Blending literature, theatre, and dance didn’t come naturally to Duke at first. ‘It took me a really long time to get there because I kept swinging between different ideas,’ he says. ‘I left drama school not wanting to have anything to do with words and just wanting to move. Then I left dance school thinking: we’re so silent. Why aren’t we talking? Maybe I should bring back some words.’ While various other choreographers and companies working at the intersection of theatricality and physicality inspired Duke – such as DV8 Physical Theatre, Complicité and Alain Platel – their approaches weren’t quite what he was after in his own work.

Paradise Lost was probably the first time I felt like I’d made something that was the closest I’d got to what I’d been trying to do,’ he says. ‘Making the show really helped me discover the anchor of the book’ – which appears with him onstage as a performative companion – ‘as both a physical object and as a narrative construct,’ says Duke, confessing that as he can easily wander off topic when creating work, the presence of a printed copy of Milton’s novel forced him to stick to his initial inspirations.

On the problems of adapting Miilton’s Paradise Lost into a solo dance theatre show

While Duke’s works to date have reinterpreted serious, heavyweight texts from the English literary canon, his performances are surprisingly comedic. ‘There’s something about the ridiculousness of trying to do tragedy on stage that I’ve always found quite funny,’ says Duke. ‘That funniness can sit right next to something that makes me want to cry. The stage is particularly good at holding all of these things together.’

For Duke, humour is also an effective way of addressing the suspension of disbelief in dance and theatre. ‘I’ve never been convinced by the idea that I sit in a theatre, forget that I’m there and disappear into a different world,’ he says. ‘But if a dancer or actor tells me: I know this is ridiculous that I’m trying to convince you that we’re all dead on the stage, or that I’ve murdered someone, I somehow feel more open to going there. I trust them.’

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There’s part of me that’s fearful of being seen to take myself too seriously, which may be a slightly English characteristic

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While this may be a self-defence mechanism – ‘there’s part of me that’s fearful of taking myself too seriously, or being seen to take myself too seriously, which may be a slightly English characteristic’ – the use of comedy makes his work more accessible to a wide range of audiences, especially those who may not be familiar with the texts he works with. ‘With Paradise Lost and Juliet and Romeo I assumed a bit of knowledge, but with A Tale of Two Cities I’m really trying to make it make sense for the people who haven’t read it,’ he says. Half of his cast hadn’t even read the novel at the beginning of the rehearsal process. ‘This was actually really useful, because it helped us work towards a clarity of storytelling.’

Accessibility can often be used as a dirty word in contemporary dance – a synonym for selling out. Duke, though, ‘loves the idea of accessibility, that people who wouldn’t normally watch a dance piece may be attracted to my show because of the novel it was based on, or that dance audiences may be tempted to read Dickens, Shakespeare, or Milton because of encountering them in my shows.’ A famous work of literature can also help secure funding and support, especially in the early stages of creation when it’s very hard to explain to others what you’re trying to achieve. While Duke ‘started off feeling like it was maybe a cheap trick,’ he says that ‘as long as I feel convinced that people would enjoy it when they get to the theatre, I feel ok about doing it to draw people towards dance – which isn’t always an easy sell.’

Ben Duke on the ideas and characters in Juliet and Romeo, performed by Duke and Solène Weihnachter

For his upcoming production, A Tale of Two Cities, Duke is working with his largest cast yet, a move he made to explore a range of characters and tell multiple stories. ‘There are just so many amazing performers in the world. It’s a joy to be with other people who can do things much better than I can.’ He could never have known, however, that gathering multiple people from multiple countries in one space would suddenly become incredibly difficult.

The pandemic and Brexit have influenced A Tale of Two Cities on both organisational and artistic levels. ‘In Dickens’ book, the characters move between Paris and London with an ease that makes me really sad to think about now. There’s this feeling of connection between the two cities which I feel has been really damaged by Britain leaving the EU,’ he says. ‘Yet Dickens writes in quite a binary way about the city and the French revolution, portraying London as civilised and Paris as barbaric. He offers this black and white view of the world which I think some have held onto. Even if people haven’t read Dickens, the ideas he espoused are part of our English identity. I’m curious about what gives us our sense of Englishness. I feel like that somehow sits at the root of why people voted for Brexit.’ (Curiously enough, Duke’s Juliet and Romeo also hinged on Franco-British discord, French performer Solène Weihnachter a foil to the very English Duke as the couple argue about their failing marriage.)

The Covid-induced shift towards the digital sphere also inspired Duke to use live camerawork on stage in A Tale of Two Cities, setting up the show as if the main character is making a documentary about her castmates. ‘During the pandemic we suddenly had to become comfortable with the digital version of ourselves being the way we were interacting with the world,’ says Duke. ‘People were suddenly invited into each other’s bedrooms or sitting rooms to have work meetings through Zoom. There was a strange sense of confusion of privacy. So with this piece, I was thinking about the idea of the private internal worlds of Dickens’ characters.’

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Ben Duke in grey tracksuit top, seated, one hand against his lips as he looks down a book (A Tale of Two Cities) held in the other
Ben Duke reading A Tale of Two Cities. Photo © Sara Weal

Despite embracing technology for his latest project, Duke is still attached to very simple methods of conveying narratives: ‘standing around a campfire and telling stories, the directness of that, and the immediacy of that.’ It’s a passion that suggests he will continue to reimagine written words into live dance works for years to come. ‘It’s funny…when I started making Paradise Lost I didn’t consciously think: from now on Lost Dog is going to be a dance company that adapts existing works of literature. But that seems to be what’s happened. Re-examining and reframing existing stories is endlessly interesting to me. I can imagine that will carry on for a while longer.’ 

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A Tale of Two Cities on tour through to May 2022:
08-09.02.22: Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, UK
17–18.02.22: Warwick Arts Centre, UK
23.02.22–05.03.22: The Place, London, UK
15-16.03.22: The Lowry, Salford, UK
22-26.03.22: Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, FR
02-01.04.22: Mayflower, Southampton, UK
05-06.04.22: Corn Exchange, Newbury, UK
24.05.22: Nottingham Playhouse, UK

Full details here

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