Oh, what a morning full of guns: raw Oklahoma! swaps folkloricity for firearms | Theater

In Oklahoma! rehearsal room, they practice Ado Annie’s signature number, I Cain’t Say No. You can tell it’s going to be a barnstormer. Even with her voice in practice mode, Marisha Wallace’s vamping makes your forearm hairs stand on end. But before she can speak her heart, the rest of the cast must pull off their stomps and applause.

“You don’t cheer him on, you don’t start singing along,” director Daniel Fish says in his calm manner. “You should feel like you’re playing a very difficult Mahler symphony and at any moment it’s going to spiral out of control. You are dig.”

The atmosphere, the attention and the uneasy feeling that all is not well are crucial to the vision of Fish from Oklahoma!, a musical that is more often interpreted as a warm romance of pioneer life and manifest destiny. Its raw revival has been honed for more than a decade – Fish first hinted at it with a student cast in upstate New York in 2007 – and it’s coming to London’s Young Vic with two Tony Awards. With a set featuring a maddening number of guns and an ending that required special negotiations with the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, this is no Kansas City cornbread caper.

Critics acclaimed its visceral connection to the story’s deeper themes of death and longing, confirmed in a sultry modern dance solo, in place of the traditional dreamy ballet, and a generally comedic song filmed live and projected into a disturbing darkness. A stage arch adaptation is currently touring the United States to 1,000-seat venues, but this production brings the show back to the kind of intimate space it was designed for, with singers draped on trestles at a touching distance. “There’s nowhere to hide,” Fish says, and you get the sense he’s not just referring to the performers.

“We tried to reduce production”… American production. Photography: Little fang

When the show premiered off-Broadway in 2018, chilli was served to the audience, a meal that underscored the community — and, when the plot darkens, the complicity — of everyone in the room together. Covid protocols removed that, although Fish doesn’t mind. “It was never the most important thing. We tried to reduce it, to make it more essential.

It was not his goal, he says, to confront the folk tradition of the play, but only to free himself and his cast from any assumptions they might have about it. It is, of course, a different perspective with a predominantly British company. It will be interesting, says Fish, to see how themes of gun violence and racial tensions resonate in the UK. “There’s a tendency in the culture to tell people what they’re going to see. But I think people go to the theater to find out what’s going to happen. It’s the Laurie Anderson thing, “What’s behind that curtain?”

Anderson is a natural touchstone for Fish, whose resume reflects a similar love for multimedia, performance art and the avant-garde. One of his works saw an ensemble reciting selections from David Foster Wallace’s writing while tennis balls were thrown around them. Another involved two actors filmed as they performed the final scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 23 times in a row. Fish doesn’t see himself “on an experimental edge, or anything like that”, but acknowledges the inspirations of a number of boundary-pushing authors, from filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman, to Berlin Theater’s Frank Castorf Volksbühne.

Vamp it up… James Davis, Marisha Wallace and Arthur Darvill in rehearsals for the UK version.
Vamp it up… James Davis, Marisha Wallace and Arthur Darvill in rehearsals for the UK version. Photography: Anne Tetzlaff

It should also be noted that his work has not been oriented towards advertising since his Oklahoma! strike the big blow. “People said ‘Everything will change for you’, but I’ve never been that kind of director,” he laughs. “I’m very happy with the success and I think it’s allowed me to be a little clearer when I need something, and to make a request. But I try to eliminate this noise.

Patrick Vaill, reprising his role as Jud Fry, worked with Fish for 13 years – he was a 21-year-old student actor in the original direction. “A big part of what makes this piece special is that we don’t pretend to be these other characters, we reveal who we are,” says Vaill, during a break in rehearsal. “And it’s exhausting!” But as the room grew, so did we. Daniel and I have been through a lot of lifetimes in this time, and the world has been through a lot too.

This Oklahoma! played for four American presidencies, from George W Bush to Joe Biden. It will now open against a backdrop of war in Europe, as well as more personal drama for the company. Last month, Barbara Maier Gustern, the vocal coach who helped shape the show’s sound, died after a random street attack. “There’s a lot of indiscriminate violence in New York, real instability,” Fish says. “People are not well.”

Considering all of this, Fish admits to having “complicated feelings” about creating work. There were even nerves about whether he might find it difficult to recommit to a show he has staged and re-enacted for the past seven years. “I think there’s always a bit of fear that it won’t be interesting,” he says. “But as soon as I got here, I was like, ‘Oh!’ My love for the material remains.

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