Anna Coombs is the artistic director of Tangle Theatre, an African Caribbean theatre company based in south-west England. Tangle is currently on tour in the UK with its production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus directed by Coombs and performed by a cast of three actors. This dark classic about a scholar who strikes a deal with the devil has been reimagined with non-traditional lighting, live music and Tangle’s unique aesthetic.
I spoke with Anna Coombs over email to get her insight into the production, Tangle’s mission statement and the company’s upcoming work.
Why Doctor Faustus and why now?
It’s the ultimate captivating play for our times. Christopher Marlowe may have written (or allegedly written) Doctor Faustus over 400 years ago, but its message and meaning is possibly more relevant today than ever before.
Doctor Faustus is more than an exposition on religion; it is a play about choices in the broadest sense – moral and material, personal and professional. We all make those choices as Faustus does, and to a lesser or greater degree there is something about Faustus in all of us.
In today’s society we are bombarded with temptation and dire warnings about making the wrong choices. The play is resonant with the fragility of this. It is hugely connected to the world today. Whilst he lived and died several centuries ago, Marlowe had an uncanny ability to understand human nature in its broadest sense – which is probably why the play has survived for so long. Marlowe was himself a working man and he writes in a language that everyone can understand. The play is peppered with words and phrases that are in common use today and the many characters reflect contemporary society very vividly.
It’s an exciting time for Tangle to be staging this controversial piece. Tangle is south-west England’s premier African Caribbean theatre company and our mission is to promote and develop African and Caribbean creative talent in its widest sense. We are currently focussing our creative programme on the presentation of European classical material.
Sadly it is still the case that African and Caribbean actors and artists are given only limited opportunities to work with these rich texts. There are some wonderful companies, such as Eclipse Theatre and tiata fahodzi, working in other parts of England to champion original stage work from Black, Asian and minority ethnic artists. Tangle’s work complements this rich theatre scene by providing an important and all too rare platform for artists to work with the classics. Not just actors, but musicians, such as John Pfumojena who has composed and arranged 11 acapella songs for our production.
What’s going to be different about Tangle’s production of Doctor Faustus?
There is no fourth wall with this kind of work, which means that an incredible dynamism is established between the actors and the audience. At its best it is electrifying to watch.
All our productions have a relatively unique aesthetic, combining aspects of traditional European theatre with aspects of Southern African township theatre. It challenges traditional perceptions of what theatre in England is ‘meant’ to be like and it can blow audiences’ minds.
Our company of actors work as a tight ensemble; there are only three actors playing all 30 parts and any scene and costume changes are presented visibly on stage in sight of the audience. There are over 150 lighting and sound cues for the show and 11 songs, and these elements combine together the traditions of both continents.
Something particularly arresting about Tangle’s productions is that we work only with ‘practical’ lighting – from angle-poise lamps to LEDs and fluorescent light bars – rather than with traditional stage lanterns. Some of the lights are operated by the actors themselves. It is always exciting to watch audiences come into the auditorium of theatres where we are performing. The lights form part of the set: they look up into the rig and there is nothing there!
This way of working has been developed by our creative team over a number of years. In the case of this production, the sound equipment, costume and the lights are all incorporated into the set design. This also makes the show self-sufficient – meaning we have the flexibility to present it in formal venues such as The Bike Shed Theatre and The Lighthouse in Poole, and in church and school halls, as we are doing when on tour in rural Somerset and North Devon.
He was a pioneer of his times, challenging both convention and the notion of what theatre should be. There is an immediacy to the work and to the text, which can at times be overwhelming
Have you made any unexpected discoveries in the rehearsal process?
Any rehearsal process is abundant with daily discovery. Whilst this is a small scale production, it is a very large show – and a huge challenge for actors who have to master complex classical material, work as a very tight ensemble, tell a detailed story and sing! As we are performing the show without an interval, the actors need a great deal of stamina to maintain momentum from start to finish. I always respect actors, who have such a difficult and demanding job; this project has increased that respect.
We’ve all made a million discoveries about ourselves, about life and about Marlowe. He was a pioneer of his times, challenging both convention and the notion of what theatre should be. There is an immediacy to the work and to the text, which can at times be overwhelming.
Why were you motivated to establish Tangle?
Tangle was initially founded from a cottage on a beach in west Cornwall as an international theatre project for the south-west and it is now the region’s principal African Caribbean theatre company.
There are hundreds of artists who have worked with the company in many guises since its founding in 2009. They are our driving force, our reason for existence and the main motivation for the founding of the company – a platform to bring some of the world’s most gifted artists to England’s largest and most rurally dispersed region.
What other work is Tangle currently making or supporting?
Tangle is a theatre company with the development of artists at its heart and we are proud to have nurtured such an array of talent – not just actors but also composers and musicians, such as Lekan Babalola, Allyson Devenish and John Pfumojena. We have also commissioned writers such as Chino Odimba, Patricia Cumper MBE and Oladipo Agboluaje.
Whilst we have very few resources at our fingertips, our door is always open and we love hearing from African and Caribbean theatre makers, artists and interesting people. […] Whilst we are not able to co-produce or commission much work due to our very small size, we offer a listening ear and support many theatre makers each year in developing ideas, securing grants, etc or just by having a good chat. Our annual Tangle Café events, workshops and networking nights enable us to bring artists together to meet and share ideas – so important.
This autumn we will be on tour again with Tangle Company, our virtuoso performance ensemble. They perform poetic work with acapella song, sans décor – with no lighting, sound or costume. The tour is especially designed to reach communities who might not otherwise access this work, such as remotely positioned schools, care homes, pubs and villages.
Our 2018 tour is Water, Bread and Salt, a two part poetic adaptation of Nelson Mandela’s writings, which we will be touring in October for Black History Month and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tata Madiba’s birth.
Prior to this, in September we will also be offering a programme of workshops, training and education events at Guest Projects in London, by kind invitation of our patron, Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).
Doctor Faustus tours to Bridgwater, South Petherton, South Molton, Corsham and London until 17 March. Further information can be found via Tangle’s website.
Image one is a photograph of Anna Coombs by David Bevan. It is a head and shoulders shot of Coombs. She leans against a brick wall and is smiling. She has blonde hair in a choppy cut and black eyeliner round her eyes.
Image two is a flyer for Doctor Faustus. On the right of the flyer a face stares straight at the camera; it is split down the middle with the right side of the face slightly lower than the left and smiling a little. On the left side of flyer are the logo for Tangle and the words: “Tangle Presents CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE’S DOCTOR FAUSTUS Touring 21 February – 17 March 2018”. Behind them some mathematical notation and some sketches can faintly be seen. The flyer as a whole has a blue tinge.
The image of Anna Coombs used in this article was changed on 5 March 2018 on the request of the company.