Back in October, Sisyphus: A Rock 'n' Roll Musical played at The Canal Cafe Theatre, and presented as a piece unlike anything you've seen before. A hilariously clever depiction of Greek mythology in an intimate setting, packed with songs and three powerful women, made for a great show.
You can read my full review here:
Desperate to find out more about how it all came about, I asked Ian Bowkett- writer and director, and arguably a creative genius- to share more on this.
Describe your writing methods- what drew you towards Greek mythology in particular?
I fell down a Wikipedia wormhole when I realised I knew about Sisyphus’s punishment, but very little about what he did to earn it. That led to hours in the British Library reading all the contradictory accounts of this character, which felt like they could all be glued together into a decent story with a bit of creative license. Even beyond the story side there were the juicy themes of humanity’s relationship with the divine and existentialist philosophy that writers such as Euripides and Albert Camus had associated with the character. That Sisyphus was married to Merope – an equally fascinating character who experienced a parallel life and punishment but whose story is less commonly told – sealed the deal.
As someone with very minimal knowledge of Greek mythology (not even understanding the pun in the title until researching after being offered to see the show!), Ian does a fantastic job at presenting this piece in a way that ensures it is thoroughly enjoyable for all.
How did you go about making the show accessible to a wider audience, who perhaps aren’t familiar with traditional Greek mythology? I knew I had to streamline the plot to make it work as a small, DIY production, and this had the added benefit of making the story much more accessible and appropriate for a one act musical. The ancient Athenians used a cast of just three actors to play all the roles in their theatre, so using this as a precedent, I re-examined the stories and cut or combined as many characters as possible. This simplified the story and lessened the need to spend time explaining the intricacies of ancient Greek society and religion. Hopefully it works for audiences with no knowledge of mythology at all, though there are definitely lots of extra jokes and references in there for those who do.
It is so important to encourage women in theatre, and this show does just that brilliantly.
How did casting all women (and a whole bunch of Barbies!) come about?
The Bronze Age culture that originated these myths was frustratingly misogynist, so it felt essential to have strong input from women on how the story and the show should be presented. I was beyond lucky to find three performers who – as well as being extremely talented actors – are super-intelligent and have great theatrical instincts. Their guidance decided a lot of the tone of the show and made it better than I could have alone. On top of this, though you can’t escape the awfulness of some of these mythical characters’ deeds, having Emily and Ciara play the biggest creeps makes it all more obviously theatrical and less harrowing to watch, and even comedic in places.
The Barbie dolls started as a sneaky workaround to include minor characters without having to cast more actors, but they turned into a neat way to explore the body/soul divide and the objectification
With a whopping 30 tracks squeezed into 80 minutes, it is a miracle that this show is able to showcase these in its excellent score.
There are a lot of songs, and a whole variety of genres explored over the course of the musical. What was it like to develop each of these, and put them together as a collective?
So many songs! The cast are superheroes for learning them all with so few rehearsals.
The obvious approach to writing a Sisyphus musical would have been to use repetitive music, so I wanted to avoid that. The path of most resistance is usually the magical one. I tried to write each new song on a new instrument or in an unusual time signature to force variation into the score. Honestly, some of the most fun songs came about from my inexperience with, for example, the mandolin, or writing in an unfamiliar dance-pop idiom. All the variety meant I was able to use repetition sparingly and deliberately and to much greater effect.
Being a small show with a tiny stage and only three performers, it's intriguing to think about how things would be different if presented with more resources. Personally, I feel that it would alter the entire experience of the piece, but not detract from its wonder.
If it was a larger scale production, how would the show change? That’s a tricky one. Apart from myself and these three actors and all their super valuable input, there was nobody else involved with the production: it was massively understaffed, even for a pub show! So the first few steps of scaling up would no doubt be behind the scenes – hiring a talented musical director and choreographer etc. to bring a greater level of polish. This show was written specifically to be DIY, and it wouldn’t work to throw a huge chorus and expensive sets as it is now. If it ever gets to a big stage, I expect there will be a lot of years of development in small and mid-sized theatres first.
Having only a short run this time around, there's hope that the show may return at some point.
Are you able to discuss any future plans for the show?
These last couple of months of rehearsal and four performances were the first time the show has existed outside of my head, so I want there to be a few more DIY-scale performances to really hone things before getting too grand in my ambitions. I do want to make a permanent record at one point to make the show accessible to more people, possibly in the form of a filmed performance or cast recording. Audience feedback has been wonderful, especially from those with a particular affinity for Greek myth or this style of musical comedy. It would be a dream if everybody who might build a personal connection with this show was able to.
After seeing the show, I for one, would really love to hear a cast album, so very pleased that the concept may be in the pipeline for one day!
What do you hope people have taken from the musical? Of course I hope it entertained, and I hope the audience were as blown away by the performances of the cast as I was. It has been lovely to hear from so many people who were touched by the story and message too. The reason you put out a piece of art is because you think it might resonate with other people, but that is hugely scary when you know everybody is different. After two years of lockdowns and limited social contact, feeling that we managed to make some genuine connections with audiences was particularly lovely and validating. And it would be wonderful if creative people who came to see the show were inspired to make more art. Musical theatre has a reputation of needing an enormous team of talented people, but Sisyphus was a ridiculously ambitious show that four people mounted around full-time jobs and study, with no external help nor funding. A couple of years ago it was a funny idea for a show title and now it is – technically – part of the British musical theatre canon. If everybody with an idea for a musical thought that it was possible to produce without the backing of theatre establishment gatekeepers, the scene would be much more exciting and diverse.
How inspiring, and such a lovely concept to produce content for.
How would you describe the show, in one sentence?
A musical reinterpretation of Greek myth and existentialist philosophy – but, like, fun.
I think that pretty much sums it up too.
And lastly, who inspires you?
The moment that got me into musical theatre was when Anaïs Mitchell – of whom I was a huge fan as a folk singer – first developed Hadestown as a concept album a decade ago. From there I discovered Sondheim and how beautiful and intricate the artform could be. Like most composers I learned how to write musicals by reading his books and interviews. The contemporary composer I’m most excited about at the moment is Dave Malloy (The Great Comet, Ghost Quartet, etc.). He is one of very few to tackle book/music/lyrics/arrangements on his own, and is hugely inspiring just for that, let alone the fact his shows are weird and poetic and beautiful.
With the recent loss of theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, it is particularly touching to hear of the ways he has impacted so many people, alongside the others looked upon for influence through their talent.
Huge thanks to Ian for partaking in this interview, and providing such fantastic answers for us! Best of luck with your future works, and I definitely hope to see Sisyphus make another appearance again soon.