The 18th-century actor-manager system has fallen by the wayside in most British theatres. It used to be common. The likes of David Garrick and Colley Cibber would step off stage into an even trickier role as impresario and business manager, moving easily between worlds of make-believe and commercial reality. One place the entrepreneurial spirit thrives, however, is in the British Midlands. In 1992, a young actor named Neal Foster founded his own company, raising funds by interviewing West End actors live on stage. "If they would do it for free and the theatres would give me the theatres for free, I could keep the money and put it towards my first show," he recalls. "In one evening I got Donald Sinden, Judi Dench, Alan Bennett, Ian McKellen, Michael Frayn, Paul Eddington..."
The show was Chekhov's The Seagull, and the theatre group became the Birmingham Stage Company, which this week is touring a children's production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night through the UAE as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. Foster's outfit has come a long way - without investors or government sponsorship, he is careful to point out - but it's still his show. "I do decide what the company does," he says when we meet in Abu Dhabi. Foster chose to stage Twelfth Night, he says, "partly because it had a good part for me. That's kind of how my company works." He's playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a fop who has fallen in with riotous company. It's a small part in the context of the play, but one that intrigued Foster.
"He's a fool and he's always played as a fool," he says, "but whenever I've seen it I've never believed him as a real person. He seems just a slightly two-dimensional character. So I wanted to try and find out how someone could end up being so stupid." Foster admits there might also have been an element of good-natured rivalry in the decision. In the recent Derek Jacobi production of the play, a friend of Foster's, took Sir Andrew's role. "I didn't think he quite got it, so I thought, that's the challenge," he says. "I wanted to make him a believable character so that if you met me in the pub afterwards you would expect me to be like that."
Twelfth Night is a complex play. The last of Shakespeare's comedies, it marks the start of his run of great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and so on) and anticipates them. Though funny, its humour is wistful, often painful. There's an elegiac strain to it. Foster's production, made especially for the UAE and tailored to children, keeps it simple in some regards - it's a traditional bit of staged Shakespeare in Elizabethan dress - but still aims to do justice to the play's depth.
"The concept is to really find out what's going on and really portray the real emotions and the difficulties that the characters go through," Foster says. "There's a lot of tenderness in the production that all comes from the director [Andrew Normington], and a lot of moments that are normally played straightforward for laughs are very tenderly done." Normington and Foster put together a solid cast that includes Emma Clifford, lately seen in the West End Chicago, and Emma Hamilton, known to viewers of Showtime's The Tudors as Anne Seymour. Sir Andrew's companion in dissipation, Sir Toby Belch, is played by the unusually young Morgan Philpott. "The director wanted him to play Feste, but knowing I was going to pay Sir Andrew I grabbed him for Toby," says Foster. "I thought: 'I want him to do all my scenes with.'" The pair share "a Laurel and Hardy kind of relationship", Foster says. "That's the kind of feel we've got at that moment: 'Another fine mess you've got me into!'"
Twelfth Night is the first piece of Shakespeare that Foster's company has taken to the UAE, but Foster is here a lot. "Almost every show we produced in England for children has come out here," he says. His first was George's Marvelous Medicine. Horrible Histories came to Dubai twice, and in December the company is planning to bring Horrible Science. It's a hectic schedule, but when you subsist entirely on box office receipts you have to keep moving. The Birmingham Stage Company is "the only company in the world that I know of that depends so strongly on box office", Foster says.
When the troupe was starting out, he applied for a bank loan. The bank manager struggled to grasp the business model. "He said: 'Really, it's almost like you build a factory to make bathroom furniture,'" Foster recalls. "'You design it, create it, get the people to make the bathroom furniture, you make it, get it reviewed, sell it for three months, then you sack everybody. And then you say now we're going to do lounge furniture.'"
Figuratively speaking, this is what the Birmingham Stage Company does every two or three months. "You're starting from scratch," Foster admits. "That is so bonkers. No company would ever set up on that basis." Did he get the loan? "Yes," he says, "but against my house, which they later took." This may be why you don't see so many actor-managers about these days.