Chichester: Ben back at his home theatre

Ben Duke’s ushering days at Chichester Festival Theatre are consigned to the past as he returns with Lost Dog, the theatre and dance company he formed in 2004.

“I was at the Minerva the other day, just looking at the space and talking to the technical team,” Ben says. “I hadn’t been there for a while, but I so remember working there as an usher. It was funny to be back!

Like Rabbits

Like Rabbits

“I was there a long time ago. It must have been about 15 years ago. My parents live just between Emsworth and Westbourne, and that’s where I was brought up. The first show I went to see at Chichester Festival Theatre was Follow That Star. It made a big impression on me. I remember the snowballs. I think Herod was throwing snowballs. I don’t remember too much about the show, but I remember more the atmosphere of the whole thing. I remember being quite scared and excited by the darkness of the theatre. That’s what sticks in my mind – though actually I took a rather circuitous route into being a performer and a theatre-maker. I was unusual in that I wasn’t performing until I was 15 or 16. Until then I was very shy and found the whole thing of being on stage very embarrassing.”

Schooled in Dorset (his father was in the Navy), Ben did an English degree at Newcastle University where he became part of the theatre scene. He went on to train at the Guildhall before setting up Lost Dog with a fellow student at The Place, the UK’s premiere centre for contemporary dance.

“With the company, I think we both felt a little like outsiders in the dance world. We had both come to dance quite late, and I didn’t see work out there that I wanted to make. I wanted to make work that felt like a genuine combination of theatre and dance. By theatre I mean sometimes text, but I also mean framing the idea, framing the physicality of the drama and the narrative. The narratives are often fragmented and move around, but there is a sense that the narrative and the characters are often the starting point.”

Ben comes back to home territory with Like Rabbits (Minerva Theatre, January 16), a piece inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short story Lappin and Lapinova. Made in collaboration with writer Lucy Kirkwood, it premiered at Brighton Festival 2014.

In the piece, on a night in a city a man and a woman meet and have sex and fall deeply in love. Each night the lovers slip away from their real lives and disappear into a world that exists only in their shared imagination. A world that belongs to them, in which tax returns and shopping lists and commuting do not exist. A world in which they are not their normal selves, but King of the Rabbits and Queen of the Hares.

But what begins as a game soon becomes a battleground, and the couple hurtle towards a tragedy of the quietest, saddest and most ordinary type.

“Like Rabbits is the idea of them escaping maybe their constraints. We have adapted the story. We have placed it into a contemporary setting, but particularly with the Virginia Woolf story, there is a sense of them using the physical fantasy for the lid to come off their reality, particularly for her.”

The piece will be performed in Chichester by Ino Riga and Ben Duke. Writer Lucy Kirkwood will be taking part in a pre-show discussion at 6pm, lasting 30-40 minutes. The event is free but tickets must be booked in advance.