The journey Our Fathers has taken from initial conception to on-stage production has been a long one. It has been four years since Mike Tweddle’s interest in fatherhood, which piqued when he found a box full of his late father’s diaries in 2010, crystallised into a professional ambition.
When I met him and Juan Ayala, the show’s director, outside a café on a leafy suburban street in Summertown, I wanted to find out more about the show’s origins. How had Mike’s personal experiences led to the hour-long production that arrives in Oxford at The North Wall on Saturday?
‘My dad died when I was thirteen, which is quite a critical stage in adolescence, and so I was interested in the theme of absent fatherhood in particular,’ he tells me. ‘How had the disappearance of my dad affected the man I’d become? How is society dealing with the fact that there are a lot of absent fathers out there? I decided that I wanted to bring together a group of artists and explore fatherhood through their own relationships.’
That group of artists consisted of Mike from the UK, Juan from Spain, Bert Roman from Belgium, and Sofia Paschou from Greece – four individuals with different cultural backgrounds and different relationships with their respective fathers.
‘We got a residency in Athens,’ Mike continues. ‘We had two weeks and no plan, but I told everyone we would be working around fatherhood. As soon as we learnt about each other’s fathers, who were such fantastic characters, we realised we had something very emotionally rich to play with.’
The depth of Mike’s personal investment in the project is evident even now. He speaks with a thoughtful, contemplative tone as he becomes absorbed in relating the show’s early history.
‘We started to understand the different challenges that different kinds of men in different contexts face when becoming a father. Challenges related to religion, or class, or tradition. At that time, it was still very therapeutic for me. There was a lot of crying, a lot of fear.’
‘We realised that the three of us [Mike, Bert and Sofia] had relationships that were perhaps more theatrical, that had an element of drama we could explore further. Juan stepped out at that point to direct, to help us transform our own messy personal stories into something an audience could relate to, and we took it from there.’
After sharing initial ideas with audiences in Athens, the show returned to the UK and eventually became an hour-long exploration of the twentieth-century European father, focussing on fictionalised versions of Mike, Bert and Sofia, and presenting slightly dramatised, slightly exaggerated versions of their paternal relationships.
Mike and Bert are a couple considering fathering a child together. Sofia is single and needs to find a man who will live up to her dad’s expectations. Examining fatherhood from different perspectives and embracing issues of sexuality, responsibility and freedom, Our Fathers has received numerous glowing reviews but Mike admits that there were some doubts about the show’s accessibility to begin with.
‘At first, those of us on stage were worried about the audience not being able to engage with the piece’, he reveals, ‘but Juan always had an eye on that. He kept us all in an interesting place between self-indulgence and theatricality. He could see the whole thing from an external perspective and could make sure the audience were always entertained.’
On cue, Juan jumps in to elucidate his directorial vision.
‘After the initial emotion had subsided, it became more of a professional risk than a personal one’, he explains. ‘On a personal level, they [the performers] were all very generous. They shared every detail. They were naked in the rehearsal room.’
‘But by then, the issue was whether or not the material worked on stage, in front of an audience. There is truth behind the stories, and I think that gives the show enormous power, but we were always concerned primarily with the audience.’
‘The show uses a variety of mediums’, he continues. ‘It’s a mix of stand-up comedy, domestic drama, and dance. There are elements of physical theatre and there is always a degree of improvisation as well. I think it is a very accessible show in that respect.’
Mike interrupts to expand: ‘The variety of mediums comes from a realisation that when you’re digging deep into emotional ties and deep into memories, words just aren’t enough. I think the most moving moments are when image, movement and words combine and hit the point we want to make that the words could not achieve on their own.’
I ask whether either of them think the show has a definite target audience
‘None of us are fathers, so we were always looking at fatherhood from a son’s perspective,’ Mike tells me, ‘But we’ve had positive responses from all sorts of people: people considering parenthood, young audiences beginning to understand their parents, gay audiences because of the prominence of alternative parenting.’
‘Ultimately, the show is about love and the way circumstances dictate the ways in which it can be expressed, and I think that’s something everyone can relate to.’
Mike himself is an Oxford alum, having graduated from Wadham in 2003. ‘It would be lovely to have some students come along’, he tells me as I prepare to leave. ‘It’s great for me to come back to Oxford and reconnect with the university. I spent a lot of my time here performing or directing, probably at the expense of my degree.’
We laugh together and I guiltily think about my essay due in tomorrow, a single word of which I’ve yet to write.