Russian Headlock, anyone?

You can’t argue with a Russian poet – especially if you’re not Russian and he’s dead.
But you can have a bash at turning one of his plays into a piece of physical theatre. Or so I discovered when I was recently invited to attend the sneak preview rehearsal of Dubrovski, adapted by Becky Moules and Tom Childs and performed by Sheffield’s own Headlock Theatre.
After a good month of being absent without leave, my cat-napping culture column had begun to sting like a painful patch of nettles around my dragging heels, and no amount of caffeine induced wake up calls could prize me from my pillow. One of the occasional pitfalls of relocating to another city and attempting to integrate via the written word is that A. You remain to most people, acquaintance or otherwise, a written word (in my case a set of initials – E.H), and B. Should a case of blank page syndrome strike, even those initials float into the abyss. So, having all but disappeared from the fancy pages of my Exposed blogging-sphere, it was with great joy that I recently discovered dear old Mr Alexander Pushkin and his future prodigies.

Headlock Theatre – Dubrovski
Hailed as one of the great Russian literary figures, Mr P has gone down in history as the grandfather of Russian Romance, and at the age of 37, somewhat befittingly and in a state of utmost spontaneity, he shuffled off this mortal coil, abandoning his latest novel Dubrovski to the whimsical winds of time. Exit Pushkin. Enter Headlock Theatre….followed by a curious kitten keen for a whiff of cultural nourishment.

I arrived at the Octagon centre on time. Walking past the University I saw that the sun had lured a number of students out onto grassy areas where they lay slumped head first into the ground. I hopped down a set of stairs with fond memories of my not-so-distant daytime snoozing patterns and turned the corner to meet Headlock Theatre Company Director, Natasha Richards.
I soon discovered that all lazy summer lolloping was left at the door. Inside the rehearsal room I saw clear evidence of an action packed afternoon. Props lay scattered about, the ‘stage’ area had been clearly mapped out on the floor and scripts, notes and costumes were piled around the edges of the room. While the cast were on a quick break, I chatted to Natasha about the history of Headlock….
Brainchild of Sheffield University Drama students, Headlock is an independent physical theatre group. Working with improvised, impulse driven processes, the group maintain an honest dedication to their texts (often inspired by traditional playwrights) whilst pushing at the boundaries of contemporary theatre. How can you interpret a feeling, a thought or a moral dilemma with your body? – they might ask. With a fluctuating 22 members, the group strikes a balance between close-knit and inclusive. Performing in a variety of spaces, many of them often restricted in size, Headlock have an adaptable approach to spatial awareness, and as Natasha tells me – being comfortable in your own skin helps! The tension we carry in our bodies, I learn, affects our behaviour right down to our tone of voice. Understanding this tension, and manipulating it, allows theatre to move beyond the limitations of words and into the mystical land of body language.

Headlock Theatre – Rehearsals
Fun is a big factor in keeping energy levels high, trying things out and not being afraid to get them wrong is also important. (In fact as Natasha told me about their crazy fund-raising methods, such as a sponsored “being-tied-to-eachother-for-24-hours” episode, my mind wandered over my recent writers block, and I made a mental note to try and accept that writing my blog was a good thing, no matter how many mistakes I made. I also made a note in my journal that looked something like this – “Just get on with it. At least you’re not tied to 21 other people for 24 hours”. Silver linings…..)

As the cast wandered back in I took a seat on the edge of the stage. I say stage – I actually mean carpet with masking tape stuck to it. The room wasn’t much bigger than the demarcated area so I felt a little vulnerable – after all when someone says “physical theatre” to you, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t undo the fearful thought that at some point during the evening someone is going to cover themselves in jelly and run across the room naked, screaming and flailing their arms about, and that you’re going to be the one person who sat close enough to the stage to get chosen as the invisible wall against which they do their flailing. Call me a cynic, but I’ve been to art school. I know what these people are capable of.

Headlock Theatre – Rehearsals
However, I was overwhelmed in a good way when I realised that almost an hour had gone by and I’d spent the whole of the performance trying to edge closer to the action, rather than back toward the nearest exit. Headlock Theatre, in their tiny rehearsal space on a stuffy hot day, transported me into a totally new world of Russian romance, drama and even comedy. Through a quirky blend of choreographed movement verging on dance, piano accompaniment, amusing accents and passionate delivery of speech, I can honestly say that this group of twenty-something troubadours stripped the façades off their potentially daunting characters and gave pen-pushing Pushkin a run for his money. Raw talent shone through with an energy that put my own work ethos to shame. And, most importantly, through the trying, learning, improvising, reaching, daring and performing, I saw a group of students who were really enjoying what they were doing.  Which, in the end, is why I am writing this – because writing is my version of performing, and it’s fun.
Headlock are heading to the Edinburgh Fringe with their tragic Russian romance and I have no doubt that they’ll be a knockout. No jelly required. As the company embraces new students and new challenges in cities across the UK, one thing they value is their Sheffield based location. So if you want to catch up with some local talent before they tour, then go and see Dubrovski at The Raynor Lounge, University of Sheffield Students’ Union, Wednesday 30th May – Saturday 2nd June 2012, 7:30pm.  Tickets: £4 on the door, reserve online at
– words by E.H. Cocker

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