Uncanny recent events
It was announced this week that Eugene de Kock, a former death squad commander under the apartheid regime, would be released after serving 20 years in prison. Under the Truth and Reconciliation commission (which offered amnesty to confessors of crimes during the apartheid era, provided they claimed to be politically motivated), he admitted to 100 counts of murder, torture and fraud during the 80s and 90s, mainly towards black members of the ANC. A mix of responses to the news from relatives of his victims; some vehemently opposed to his release, others defending and praising what they believe to be his genuine remorse. Bizarre smiling photo of him posing in orange prison uniform, with his arms around the family members of one of his victims.
For a play written just before the commission, Playland anticipates it uncannily. Central to the play are the themes of confession, the terms of forgiveness, and whether a person or a nation with that many crimes behind them, can ever truly be redeemed. The TRC offered a vast platform for confession and the incredible human gesture of mass forgiveness. Yet the amount of crimes that have gone unpunished as a result is still dizzying to think about. In this respect, I am very interested to see how audiences respond to our character Gideon le Roux. Through the course of the play he confesses to mass murder as a soldier and condones the rape of African women. Nevertheless, the play follows the contours of his character and self-discovery closely. Will audiences be able to afford him understanding or compassion? Or will the mere mention of those crimes consign him automatically to the villain box? Good that our actor, Ben Cutler, has a lot of humanity about him. Hopefully this will make it harder for audiences to make quick judgements.
On to a cheerier subject:
Lights! Our lighting designer, Azusa Ono, makes me laugh. She wants to put lights in everything. No object on stage is safe. I am surprised she has not yet proposed adding lights to the actors’ costumes. “Maybe the character Martinus could wear one of those underground torch helmets” I say jokingly, but she looks back at me nodding with utter seriousness. I have worked with her several times before – she lit the Hitchcock play we took to New York last year, and lights were a major star of that show. I know she will do a great job, even if I limit her ambitions.
A publicity photo shoot at a local farm
We are all freezing to death. Trying to make a pig farm in Nottingham look like the South African Karoo desert takes some work. I am delighted to discover a beautiful mound of red earth, and I force the poor actors to pose on it. The image potentially transports us out of freezing Nottingham, though we have to be careful to avoid patches of snow from the frame. It begins to feel like we are shooting some sort of RnB album cover from the early nineties; a chiselled looking white and black man staring moodily into the camera. Above us a flock of sparrows fly in a group formation. Our play begins and ends with a description of African pigeons doing something similar. I point out this exciting coincidence to everybody but by the time they look up the sky is empty. So the sparrows didn’t make the cut.
Music and sound
As a music obsessive, the exact quality of sound is always crucial for me. I spend ages listening to many variations of a low percussive pulse, provided by our brilliant and patient sound designer Adam McCready. Then suddenly a sound appears, and its texture and tone captures the entire mood of the show for me. Hard to pin down why, but it’s a sound I could play at any moment in the play and it would slot into the action, just like another actor. However, my deep love of sound forces me to be sparing with it. Few things uglier on stage than sonically over-emphasising.
I start each rehearsal with a kind of Robert Bresson blanket rule to not use any additional music. Using mood or emotions that belong to music feels like a big cheat on stage. However, as soon as I set myself this rule it’s broken. I don’t like to use music to try to situate the world of the play, or let the audience know what kind of evening I hope they are having. Yet sometimes a piece of music captures something I need that is outside of what I can achieve onstage. I have to be careful with using tracks by musicians I love. For our production of The Boss of it All last year at Soho I included excerpts from great Norwegian pop band Kaada, but I haven’t been able to listen to them since. Their sound is now forever connected to that show and that time.
I am using John Zorn’s extremely minimal string composition, Kol Nidre, at a very precise moment in the production. The sound of it makes me feel something different about the action of the play. The piece is based on a prayer/recitation which is given on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and atonement is ultimately what we are looking at in this play. There are obvious resonances between the world of apartheid and that of Jewish persecution, but I don’t plan to make them too explicit in our production. However, the current commemorations for 70 years since the holocaust have infused my thinking about this play and the world around it. The music is so powerful, I will likely play it on its own in darkness, not supporting any action or dialogue.
Things are becoming clearer
The elements in the production are feeling like the right ones. However, I know too well that shows always surprise you. They can turn on you at any moment, often waiting till a paying audience is in front of them. I resist drawing any longer term conclusions from the optimism I might be feeling at the moment.
Artistic Director, Jack McNamara