Adrian Horsewood meets the New Renaissance Collective

Choosing a name is usually one of the most crucial decisions for a new ensemble: how to communicate one’s philosophy with clarity and immediacy, without sounding either too detailed, too vague, or too pompous? Without meaning any disrespect to the many successful ensembles with slightly nondescript names, I’ve found that one seldom encounters arresting yet simple examples of this, but having met the New Renaissance Collective, I’m happy to add another to my very short list.

While the surroundings for our conversation – a vegan café a stone’s throw from the group’s rehearsal space in a converted warehouse in Peckham – chimed with the NRC’s innovative and often subversive outlook, the members of the five-strong production team were quick to emphasise that their work very much has its roots in the music and drama of the 16th and 17th centuries.

‘For us, adhering to Renaissance ideals means trying to find a synthesis of the arts,’ argues Angus Bower-Brown, the company’s dramaturg, ‘in order to create a framework for people today to understand text and music that, on their own, might come across as inaccessible. Sure, we might occasionally be irreverent or provocative,’ – ‘not just for the sake of it!’ adds director Sam Rayner, ‘although we do have a counterintuitive modus operandi,’ – ‘but we feel that this is very close in spirit to what the original creators of this material might have done.’

‘It’s about finding a way to give the music and drama equal weight,’ contends producer Frances Livesey, ‘and it can be difficult to do that by presenting either in its entirety.’ Musical director Freddie Waxman agrees: ‘We approach the music from a dramatical angle – and maybe we do go about chopping up the music to aid the drama, or add things into the score that weren’t originally there, but the movement on stage is also influenced by what goes on in the music.’ Bower-Brown contrasts this approach with the current trend of ‘authentic’ Shakespeare that uses ‘snippets’ of music interspersed here and there – ‘we want to do something more involved.’

Artistic director Camilla Seale suggests that the group is ‘a playground for trying out all the things that we want to mix’ – stagecraft, music, staging and lighting, drama – and that by bringing together a small number of dedicated creatives with different backgrounds to work together in a very physical way, something radically new can be achieved. ‘In larger companies, you’re not able to do a large amount of cross-discipline, all-ensemble work – time and resources are short, and generally everyone has to submit to the vision of a single director. Instead, in our way of working, everyone can contribute more and learn more all at once, and ideas take shape and evolve much more quickly.’

As the team gathered around me talk, it’s evident that ‘collective’ was an inspired nominal choice; they’re continually finishing one another’s sentences (though nobody ever seems to mind), no one person ever holds forth without turning to a colleague for input, and each of them is clearly completely familiar with the material under discussion and totally enthused by the NRC’s way of working.

Their current project, Venus and Adonis, is a staging of Shakespeare’s poem of the same name spliced together with Italian Renaissance music, particularly Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna in its madrigal version; both have at their centres the theme of a woman abandoned by her lover (falsely believed to be the case by Venus, but actually so by Ariadne), and neither ends well for the protagonists. ‘It was Angus who noticed how Shakespeare uses colours throughout his poem,’ Camilla says – ‘they give a structure to the plot’, adds Angus – ‘and so we wondered how we could reflect this in the treatment of the music. We decided to use Monteverdi because of the way he “musicifies” the dramatic action even in an ensemble piece – there are moments of sheer simplicity that make you appreciate what’s going on at a very basic, unsophisticated level, instead of in a more “academic”, considered way.’

Part of their mission includes schools performances for 14 to 18-year-olds in conjunction with the Southwark Music Hub. ‘We’re applying non-conventional techniques to the classical canon,’ says Sam, ‘and seeing what happens. What we want to achieve is to take the text and the music out of their glass cases.’ And as the team gather their things and head off to rehearse – continuing to throw ideas back and forth as they walk – I’ve no doubt that they’ll succeed in doing just that.

The New Renaissance Collective presents its newest project, Venus and Adonis, at the CLF Café in Peckham, London, 5–7 December; for more information visit