What’s the least Christmassy thing I can think of? Ben Duke’s Ruination

Lost Dog has a reputation for taking sideways looks at classic tales and taking them into unlikely spaces, but might an interrogation of the murderous Medea in the bowels of the Royal Opera House prove a step too far?

Christmas theatre: it’s Nutcrackers and sparkle and jollity and “he’s behind you”, plus betrayal and searing revenge and infanticide … er, hang on? Dance-theatre company Lost Dog’s Christmas offering this year sounds distinctly un-festive. Ruination, by director-choreographer Ben Duke, is a reinterpretation of the myth of Medea, best known from Euripides’ play, a sorceress who helps Jason steal the golden fleece from her father and takes off with him (murdering her own brother en route). But when Jason leaves her for another woman she kills her own two sons in a rage of revenge.

At what point, I have to ask, did Duke think this was ideal Christmas fare? “I think it was just a really childish kind of contrariness,” he says, laughing. “Someone says: ‘Do a Christmas show’, and then I go, ‘What’s the least Christmassy thing I can think of?’ And it was Medea. But then I started thinking about it. If that’s the opposite of Christmas, because it’s about the death of children and Christmas is about the birth of a child, it started making sense to me.”

There was also the fact that it was Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, who was having the conversation with Duke, looking for something to put on in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury theatre. It’s a space in the bowels of the building: you descend multiple staircases to get there, while the cheery evergreen Nutcracker will playing on the main stage above. “So it felt like a shadow world, a subconscious,” says Duke. A trip to the underworld.

Ben Duke
‘On stage was a place where emotions were OK’ … director and choreographer Ben Duke. Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

Duke, 47, has had a run of hits over the past seven years, taking well-known, much-retold stories and turning them inside out with meta commentaries that are witty, absurd and often deeply moving and truthful. There was his one-man Paradise Lost, rich with surreal tangents such as God trying to chat up Lucifer in a nightclub; it drew parallels between God’s creation and Duke’s experience of parenthood (he has two daughters), with neither entirely in control of what they’ve made. Then there was Juliet & Romeo, which imagined if the star-cross’d lovers hadn’t died and were now a middle-aged couple in marriage counselling; and, which saw one of the characters interviewing the others for a documentary.

Medea is often seen as the most monstrous of women, but Duke liked the idea of making her ordinary, and was interested in the moment that she moves beyond our comprehension.

“I follow her sense of being wronged and the injustice – ‘What’s happening here?’ – but I can’t follow her to the point of killing her children.” he says. “So the conceit is circling around this moment of tragedy, and what it’s turned into is a courtroom in the underworld where Hades and Persephone are trying to get to the bottom of it.”

Anna-Kay Gayle, Hannah Shepherd Hulford and Liam Francis in rehearsals for Ruination.
The road to ruin … (From left) Anna-Kay Gayle, Hannah Shepherd Hulford and Liam Francis in rehearsals for Ruination. Photograph: /Andrej Uspenski

Duke’s ideas begin at home in Sussex, where he lives in a housing community that has its own studio space. The dancers gather there, improvising around Duke’s themes and texts, “scattering ideas”, he says. “That seems to be how my brain works, and then you get attached to certain ideas and start using those as hooks. I’ve tried to make my peace with the inefficiency of it all.”

Now they are in a studio five floors up in the Royal Opera House, and things are starting to get real. Dancers Liam Francis, playing Jason, and Maya Carroll as his new wife Glauce, are playing with ways of falling into one another, bodies sliding down to the floor, faces smooshing together, grappling and bumping, a leg wrapped round a waist, lost in heavy breathing, then a knee clunks to the floor. “I’m so sorry, my fault.” “I’m OK, I’m OK,” they carry on without missing a beat. Nearby, Anna-Kay Gayle (Persephone) and JD Broussé (Hades) are running lines, and in the centre of the room is a skeleton wearing a judge’s wig. The scene sums up Duke’s combination of meaty movement, text and humour perfectly.

Duke found theatre as a teen. With his father in the navy, he went to boarding school. How was that, I ask. “Having told myself it was fine, as I think a lot of people do, I’m now at the point of going: it wasn’t fine,” he says. “The age seven to 14 is when you’re developing your emotional sense, but you’re basically in a situation where emotions shouldn’t be on display because they attract attention, and that’s dangerous. You feel like you are narrowing your bandwidth somehow.

Ruination rehearsals.
The dancers rehearse for Ruination. Photograph: Andrej Uspenski

“I know what it does to people,” he says. “I look at a lot of the people who are running the country and I recognise those people. It’s about empathy. Charm is very different to empathy, and that’s what’s scary about people making decisions around other people’s lives who have a limited sense of empathy.”

In that environment, however, Duke discovered drama. “I was incredibly shy, but being on stage, this was a place where emotions were OK. It offered me a space that was addictive, actually,” he says. “I still feel most comfortable on a stage; I trust my instincts on stage more than off.” Duke did an English degree at Newcastle, where he was an usher at the Newcastle Playhouse (now Northern Stage) and had his mind blown seeing the Belgian dance-theatre-maker Alain Platel. He went to Guildford School of Acting but when asked which companies he wanted to work for, it was DV8, Complicité, V-Tol, Derevo – all physical theatre. “I looked at that list and said: ‘Oh no, I’ve done the wrong training.’”

So off he went to south-east London, and Lewisham College’s dance foundation course. He was already 26, in a class of 16- and 17-year-olds, but it felt right. Dance seemed both more real to him than acting – “You’re not telling yourself to be sad. You dance and you feel things and it’s all there” – and also more objective: “You can either do a pirouette or you can’t.” Drama school, he felt, was more ruled by subjectivity and looks, and whether agents would like you and what types of roles you might be cast in (although with his floppy-haired handsomeness, one could absolutely see Duke as a sensitive leading man).

He co-founded Lost Dog with Raquel Meseguer and they won the Place prize in 2011, but had nothing like the success of Paradise Lost, which racked up five-star reviews. The shift happened when Duke realised his strength was not in writing original stories. “What I’m interested in is pulling apart things that exist and placing myself inside those stories.” He is sheepish when I ask about his success, but of course he’s pleased. “I like this feeling of being part of an evening that hasn’t bored people.” Had he previously been in things that bored people? “Definitely, yes, definitely,” he laughs.

Lost Dog has been a regular on the National Rural Touring Forum circuit, an initiative that means taking shows to churches, village halls, sports halls and libraries all over the UK. There, a packed-out crowd may be 40 people, with no room for the set, plus having to fit in the raffle (“You can’t mess with the raffle”), or having to stop and ask the boys in the front row not to open yet another rustling bag of crisps. “You walk into a room and you’re like: ‘OK, let’s make this space a theatre and let’s see if this thing that we’ve made can stand up,’” says Duke. “It’s amazingly humbling. I love that intimacy and it’s a really good test of a show.”

Ruination will soon be put to a different kind of test. “This may backfire, trying to persuade people to come and see Medea at Christmas time; it’s maybe a step too far,” Duke says. But on the strength of his back catalogue, the descent into the underworld should be worth it.

Ruination is at the Royal Opera House: Linbury theatre until 31 December.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
From Chris Rock to Burning Man: a complete guide to this week’s entertainment
Whether your idea of fun is cutting-edge US comedy or a desert festival-meets-country house sculpture clash, we’ve got you covered

27, Aug, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
The anti-hibernation culture guide: something to enjoy for every day in January
You can spend the next few weeks under the duvet and in front of the telly, or enjoy world-class art, theatre, music, film and standup – here’s an event for each of the next 31 days

Rachel Aroesti, Catherine Bray, Andrew Clements, John Fordham, Miriam Gillinson, Jonathan Jones and Lyndsey Winship

31, Dec, 2022 @11:55 AM

Article image
From See How They Run to Frozen Planet II: a complete guide to this week’s entertainment
Whether you’re after a comic detective case or flabbergasting footage of frosty fauna, out critics have you covered for the next seven days

10, Sep, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
From Avatar: The Way of Water to I Hate Suzie Too: a complete guide to this week’s entertainment
From big blue aliens to the return of Billie Piper’s hapless celeb, our critics have you covered for the next seven days

17, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Matthew Xia: ‘Hey Duggee is the most political thing I’ve ever done’
The BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ turned theatre director is celebrated for his progressive, community-minded productions, so why is he bringing a children’s TV cartoon about a dog to the stage?

Deborah Linton

08, Nov, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Oona Doherty: ‘I wasn’t the best dancer in the class. My ego couldn’t handle it’
Kicked out of conservatoire during her hard-partying years, Doherty has gone on to become one of the most exciting choreographers of her generation. Now she’s teaming up with Jamie xx for a dread-filled new work

Lyndsey Winship

07, Oct, 2022 @1:45 PM

Article image
Yule love it: the best culture of the festive season
From magical ballet to adult panto, Arthurian exhibits to a touring troupe of comics, we present December’s hottest remaining tickets

Lyndsey Winship, Rachel Aroesti, Michael Cragg, Skye Sherwin, Kate Wyver, Catherine Bray, Andrew Clements and Ammar Kalia

03, Dec, 2022 @11:55 AM

Article image
‘I want my dance to feel like The Sopranos’: how Holly Blakey became choreographer to the stars
She has created routines for Florence Welch and Rosalía, and once turned Coldplay into chimps. Next comes a swansong for her rootin’-tootin’ show upending masculine stereotypes

Lyndsey Winship

23, Jan, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
‘We bring something fresh’: the theatre companies exploding myths about disability
Not Your Circus Dog’s new show is a riotous upending of audiences’ preconceptions of disability and neurodivence. It joins a swelling movement of similar collectives rewriting the stage rulebook

Ella Braidwood

02, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Zachary Quinto: ‘I have lost a certain faith in America’s system’
The Star Trek actor is making his West End debut in a play about the 1968 US TV political debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley. But he fears the pair’s fiery exchanges may be partly to blame for today’s polarised politics

Kate Wyver

11, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM