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Sharon Willems Interview: Three Queens (Barons Court Theatre)

One of the theatres that I visit regularly is Barons Court: the intimate London pub theatre in the basement of The Curtain’s Up in West London. Footsteps from Queen’s Club, the theatre has been run by Kibo Productions since 2021, specifically Sharon Willems and Leo Bacica. Largely responsible for the operational and programming side of the venue now, sometimes the creatives step back into the directing seat for specific shows and Sharon is doing exactly that this coming week for Rosamund Gravelle’s ‘Three Queens’. A new piece of writing that looks at Tudor women in power, the play shines a light on Lady Jane Grey, Queen Mary I and Princess Elizabeth, when the nation was divided by faith and lives were at stake. Set in February 1554, it takes place over one sleepless night, with each woman having their own power aspirations.

Three Queens leaflet at Barons Court Underground Station, London

About Kibo Productions

Finding her way into theatre through an interest in ‘in person storytelling’, Sharon grew up in the USA and Caribbean, before ‘working abroad’ and spending time in Japan and Australia. Now living in London and running Kibo with Leo, the name is an anglicised version of a Japanese phrase, with the ethos behind it being to use ‘whatever resources you have’ and ‘aspire for the best work that you can’. This is very much the spirit of the production company and can be seen in its hardworking and welcoming nature. On a personal level, Sharon and Leo know ‘what it’s like to leave their home country’ and ‘try and start something new’, wanting to make sure ‘that diaspora voices are being looked after’.

Producing at Barons Court Theatre

Leading Barons Court into a ‘new phase of its life’ in 2021, the duo decided to ‘have a go and see what happens’ and a few years on, Sharon says it is lovely that ‘people are still discovering us’. For a proportion of the programming, the creatives ask themselves ‘does this show need Barons Court?’, in terms of providing an opportunity for new artists or people returning to the industry after a break. They also ask if the show offers ‘something to the public forum that is currently being pushed under a rug’ or ‘hasn’t been looked at with a creative perspective’. For me, this is part of what makes the theatre such an exciting Fringe venue and contributes to why I review there month after month. 

The Sunday Fix poster at Barons Court Theatre, London

Debuting Three Queens

Now is a ‘fascinating time’ for the venue, with ‘Three Queens’ being the ‘fifth of a number of co-productions over the Winter/Spring’ period. Sharon refers to this as the ‘first time that the seeds we planted are coming to blossom’, with Rosamund being a ‘writer that she’d known from the Sunday Fix as well as other events’ at the theatre. It means a lot to the director ‘that they support women full stop’ and she ‘knows what it’s like when life happens but you still want your story to get out there’. I can only imagine how excited Kibo Productions are about this play and finally sharing Rosamund’s work.

Stepping back into the director’s seat

With Three Queens, the creative team ‘are really trying to understand the inner life of three famous women from history’. Sharon ‘loves political intrigue’ and feels that ‘Lady Jane Grey’ is just a ‘footnote’, when looking back at Tudor times. Describing her ‘as a young woman who at no point went back on her word’, it is this drive which ‘appealed in terms of storytelling’. She gets ‘frustrated by the idea that because [the former Queen] didn’t have a coronation, she wasn’t a proper Queen’ and sees the play as the creative team ‘reclaiming her a bit’.

Three Queens rehearsal photo
© Barons Court Theatre

Making parallels with prominent figures of the modern day who are compelled to drive change, one of the questions that the company and creatives have been asking themselves is ‘what do you do when you are confronted with choosing to save your life or your soul?’. It has been a joy for the team to ‘immerse themselves in these questions’ and ‘see the conversations brought to life so beautifully by the actors’.

What can audiences expect from Three Queens?

Despite not being based on specific historical events, the production team have taken every effort to research the influential women thoroughly, looking in particular at their relationships. Taking one night of someone’s life is never going to fully encapsulate every part of a person, but the company feel that they have been able to focus on the figures as people as a result, casting aside their legacies and instead delving deeper into who they were.

The featured women are ‘fragile, complex, intelligent and full of heart’ and it has been great to see the actors ‘really get their teeth into these characters’. ‘Audiences are going to feel like a fly on the wall’ and she is ‘hoping that people are going to be googling Lady Jane Grey afterwards’.

Three Queens leaflet at Barons Court Theatre, London

Following a ‘book ending structure’, ‘the bulk of the play’ is set in ‘Queen Mary’s chambers’ at the palace, with ‘elements of theatricality’ and ‘speeches and monologues’. The intimacy and privacy of the location gives audiences a ‘glimpse into the actual truth of the mindset of the women’ which has ‘been exciting to play around with’. Steering away from ‘stage lighting’ and aiming to ‘keep the audience in the dark’ (safely) with ‘electric candles’ for example, Sharon and Leo have been experimenting with ‘perspectives’ and ‘relying on the architecture’ of the venue ‘to help them tell a story’. The director is looking to ‘shape and gesture’ and not trying to be ‘exact in terms of costumes’, with the show ‘set in peoples rooms’. Sharon says it is ‘more relaxed’, reflecting the late night timescale of the work.

Three Queens will run for 3 weeks

Explaining that it is the ‘financial aspects’ that usually limit productions to a one-week run, with Three Queens playing for 3 weeks, Sharon sees this as an opportunity for ‘more people to interact with the work’, allowing it to ‘breathe and become something else’. With the three powerful historical figures, there is ‘complexity to the relationships and characters’ and a longer run ‘gives actors a bit more time to really take ownership’ of these factors. Looking at the overall production experience, Sharon also says it is ‘easier to know what’s next’ for the work, after a few weeks of performances.

Favourite moment of rehearsals

Working with ‘three really talented actresses’ and ‘three great women’ has been a highlight of the rehearsal process, specifically the ‘meeting of these two’ elements. It has been ‘fun to deep dive into some nerdy behaviour’ with the Tudor music and in the rehearsal room they have been ‘laughing a lot’ at the ‘playfulness’ of Rosamund’s script.

Three Queens rehearsal photo
© Barons Court Theatre

Three post-show Q & As

Each week of the run, there will be a Q & A event, where Sharon chairs some discussions with people relevant to the show’s theme. Topics that she is keen to discuss with the first panel are ‘political legacy’, ‘women in power’ and the ‘standards we hold women to’. I love the way that Sharon describes the initial guest speakers as ‘Tudor power nerds’, explaining that these are the people who have ‘PhDs and books in this area’. She is ‘curious about responses’ to the play and across this and two subsequent panel events in the latter weeks of the show’s run, she is looking forward to the speakers talking about the ‘challenges and joys of uncovering women in history and bringing their stories to light’.

A concurrent theme of history plays

Sharon and I discussed a recent trend of historical plays across the Barons Court programme, specifically a second play about Lady Jane Grey: Jen Tucker’s ‘The Nine Day Queen’ which opens in May. Whilst this ‘wasn’t intentional’, I thought Sharon’s advice of ‘don’t be afraid of a story just having a moment’ was pivotal. Mentioning that ‘there is something about [Lady Jane Grey] as a figure that people are responding to right now’, a further comment about ‘no one is afraid to do two Shakespeare’s back-to-back’, really put this all into perspective.

Three Queens poster at Barons Court Theatre, London

Booking tickets to see Three Queens 

Three Queens starts performances at Barons Court Theatre on Tuesday 23rd April. If Sharon’s teaser of the post-show Q & A has piqued your interest, definitely head to see the show on opening night. I will be reviewing the production soon and am very much looking forward to seeing it for myself in person. A huge thank you to Sharon for sitting down with me to talk about Three Queens. It was fascinating hearing about the development of the play and her passion for the project.

Thanks for reading my blog today.

Love Kat




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