Professional theatre comes to Cambridge?

Harry Parker 30 January 2015

Ian McKellen once joked about there being a ‘Cambridge mafia’ in the acting profession. Look at a list of graduates who have made it big in drama – Trevor Nunn, Griff Rhys Jones, Tim Supple, Sam Mendes, Tilda Swinton to name a few – and it’s not easy to doubt. What’s interesting about all these names, though, is that they have all featured on the programme for a Marlowe Society production.

And given the way that Mark Milligan, second-year English student and newest star of the Marlowe, describes the society, it’s perhaps not surprising. “The idea of the Marlowe is to try to push people into bridging the gap between university and professional theatre. We always have an Arts Theatre production every year with a professional director, as well as the Marlowe showcase, which will premiere at the ADC, which is again with a professional director, and we’ll go to London and have a showcase in the West End, or off West End.”

Asked whether “bridging the gap” is something which attracts him, Mark remains coy. “Hopefully [professional acting] is the plan. I mean we’ll see. I think I’d like to give it a go.” His Camdram credits will certainly do him no harm: he appeared as Don John in last term’s Footlights pantomime, and as Ariel in The Tempest. Playing Henry V with The Marlowe Society, which opens next Wednesday at the Arts Theatre, is, however, by far his biggest role to date.

“I’ve been lucky with the roles I’ve had”, he explains. “We’re also lucky to be part of this group that has such an amazing reputation for putting on great quality drama. But with the Footlights and the Marlowe it’s still important to remember that we’re all learning, which I think can very much be forgotten. Especially with a show like this and the amazing opportunity of working with a professional director in a professional venue. You have to remember it’s all a learning experience and a great platform to jump up from.”

Mark’s frequent mention of working with a professional director is something that intrigues me. Henry V will be directed by Lisa Blair, whose credits include The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida. So clearly we can expect a high quality of show – her approach is “very much a contemporary approach, with a very human feel about it” – but I wonder whether the world of Cambridge drama, with its wonderful tradition of amateur plays, should be at least a little wary of too much professional involvement in its shows.

Mark disagrees. “I wouldn’t think so. I mean, I think that you can never take away from amateur dramatics the opportunities that having the Corpus and the ADC gives you. Where, as a director, you have the opportunity to put on a show and do whatever you want with it.

“I’d never suggest that we have professional directors for everything, but if you’ve got the chance to have professionals come in and work with you, you get a flavour of how people in the industry work, how they think, their approach to a text, the way they run rehearsals. It’s just an amazing opportunity that should be maintained.”

The second big difference between this and other amateur productions is that it will take place in the Cambridge Arts Theatre, “a 600-seater venue where the stage is huge and the space to fill is massive.” Is Milligan nervous or excited? “I mean it’s the best feeling to have a full house at the ADC, and so I will feel even luckier to have such a huge space to do something which is really epic. Because that’s what Henry V is; it’s a really epic piece of theatre.”

Despite all the opportunities which the Marlowe seems to be offering, I am sceptical about its inclusivity. In particular, its insistence on putting on Jacobean and Elizabethan verse plays clearly limits the roles available for female actors looking to take advantage of what the society offers. I put this to Mark. “That is something that we have been discussing, and it plays into other discussions taking place across the university, particularly with the Footlights. A year ago we had had Sarah Livingstone as Hamlet, and it was brilliant. It’s also worth mentioning that in Henry V, a lot of characters which were written as male have been gender-swapped, so the split in the cast is actually pretty even.”


Henry V is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Wednesday 4 February until Saturday 7. Get your tickets here.