Interview with director Rachael Bellis and actor Soroosh Lavasani, on Aequitas production of Antigone set in the miner's strike in Durham during Thatcher's 80's
"I'm constantly interested in political theatre—I don't think you could explore it without grounding it in love." Rachel Bellis
"I didn’t know enough about the miners strike and I’m bloody from there. Men and women from Durham fought in some cases with their lives for the right to work." Saroosh Lasavani
Q. I am fascinated by the idea that you appeared to be courting controversy with your directorial debut earlier this year. Setting your production of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich in Trump’s America you were surely being very ambitious. Were you happy with the way it all panned out?
A. I was very happy. I had a wonderful cast and crew behind me and we had an incredible response from the audience. Of course when you put on anything that has to do with current politics there will be mixed opinions, but the vision I had came together nicely and I got the directing bug! And for me theatre means so much more when it says something. The question I always come back to is why this play, why now? I'm always trying to provoke a conversation with my audience and sometimes (but not always) controversy can do that.
Q. In your new translation of Sophocles’ classical Greek tragedy, the action is moved to the miner’s strike in Durham during Thatcher's 80's. Perhaps this is less risky as we have more hindsight and it does seems Antigone resonates extremely well with an 80’s twist. The play starts with a dead body and the argument that ensues over its burial is between the state and the individual. How does your version address this?
A. I would say we stick closely to the original in a way. This argument is fairly universal. Back home (in America) it's republican (individual) vs. democrat (state). We have similar though still quite different political debates here. And in the play, what's interesting is that no one is completely right and no one is completely wrong. We do need laws. If everyone broke the law we would have anarchy. But does that mean the law is always right? That's the tragedy of this play. I love exploring those grey areas—its where I find the most exciting nuances. And ultimately of course for both Creon and Antigone it ends badly. But what is the greater impact on the community? That's where I think this really ties well to the 80's. Countless people will call Thatcher a criminal and countless others will still defend her. I do of course have my own opinions as an outsider but also outside of politics: regardless of whether the mines had to close financially or politically, what was the impact on the wider community? I want to open up that dialogue.
Q. It’s a fiercely political play but it’s also a play about love, is this something that you’ll be drawing upon?
A. You have to! With Antigone, it comes down to family. Creon is her uncle (aunt in our version). And the person Antigone wants to bury isn't a stranger—he's her brother. She would fight tooth and nail to bury him because she loves him. And Creon feels betrayed by Polyneices and now by Antigone. Remember Creon is new as a ruler – doesn't know how to handle all the power she suddenly has and needs her family behind her. Creon has a sense of duty to a larger group and is only trying to do what she feels is best. So, when they clash it isn't without love. Often rage comes from a deeper love. It doesn't make it right, but it is not indifference. So, what I'm saying is politics can be closely tied to love. Rightly or wrongly we want what we see as best to help those we love. We vote for policies we feel will help our families. We become angry when we feel others harm the people we care about. I'm constantly interested in political theatre—I don't think you could explore it without grounding it in love.
Q. I love that you nabbed Soroosh Lavasani, hot off the national tour of the Kite Runner, to cast him as older brother Ismene and fiancé Haemon. What did you see in him and the other two cast members that you decided would work well in this production.
A. When putting together a cast there are a million factors to consider. They need to be able to handle the text, work well together without ever having met, work with the vision you have for your characters. And sometimes they surprise you. For this show they needed to be able to play multiple roles really easily. And beyond this, Soroosh, Mary and Natasha all had a little spark. They really connected with the characters during the auditions and gave me a sense of what the show would look like. I'm really lucky to have found such a great cast!
Q. The play is being shown at one of our most equal opportunities theatres, Bread and Roses. Historically, the pub took its name from a song written during a strike of women textile workers in Lawrence Massachusetts, USA in 1912. 27,000 women went out onto the streets and marched for eleven weeks to improve their working conditions. Their banners called for bread and roses. Is this significant for you?
A. Yes, this is very significant to me. I don't want to give away any surprises but I will admit part of the reason I chose this venue was this exact song. I was lucky enough to have a choice of venues for this piece and while the Bread and Roses is smaller than some pub theatres, it also is the strongest choice artistically for this piece precisely because of the song. Music is often my first way into a piece and I first heard this song while watching the movie Pride when researching the miner's strike. There's something so powerful about women taking back their rights, whether that's American women striking in 1912, the suffragette movement, Antigone, or indeed even now. It resonates with the 80's as well. I listened to an interview with miners' wives made in the 80's by the BBC and they were proud to support their husbands but it was more than that. They wanted the opportunity to do something for their community. They wanted to take control of supporting their way of life. This idea is obviously not the crux of the play but it is written into it to have such a strong female character standing up for her rights and it just felt right to draw upon the venue's history.
Interviews by Heather Jeffery
@August 2018 All rights Reserved
London Pub Theatres Magazine Ltd
Q. I think it’s wonderful that you’re hot off a national tour of the Kite Runner. One minute you’re in Afghanistan and now you’re in Durham. Will it be tricky moving from one accent to the other?
A. That’s the fun in the job really. I suppose your aim is to not let the accent overshadow the character and hope that the audience stop hearing an accent and follow the story. That was great with The Kite Runner because it has such a rich and layered narrative. I think Antigone will similarly allow the audience to understand the intent of the characters as well as experience where they come from.
Q. I also like the idea that they’re both political plays, but they are also plays about love. As an actor and a human being, what is the biggest draw for you?
A. Love! It’s all about the love! Isn’t it? Haha I don’t know I think when we react to political situations no matter how convoluted or formal things seem it all comes from emotion. We're just trying to manage each other's emotions and tell people, sometimes too aggressively, how the best way of life is. I think it’s easy to feel distant from politics because that’s how the system is structured to make you feel. Especially for the working-class man or woman. If you can’t relate to it, you’re easier to control. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe we should only listen to some people in society anyway. I don’t know. Love is always true even if only to yourself I guess and even if it is actually more overwhelming.
Q. Over your acting career you’ve also been cast as Cyrano De Bergerac, Moritz in Spring Awakening and Hastings in Richard III. Have these roles helped with a particular aspect of your development?
A. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had great opportunities to play with a variety of different characters. Each of them have given me something different. I find it weird to try and comment on how you improve in this job because there’s no marking for it really. You don’t know if something is going to help you in the future or not, or if you’re any better at anything. There’s no method to any of this I swear, don’t trust those who know one. You just turn up and take it all in. You start every job with hope and willingness. That’s it.
Q. I wondered why this play (Antigone), and why now at this point in your career?
A. I remember studying Antigone in sixth form. It’s a classic Greek Tragedy, it doesn’t disappoint. And after sitting down with Rachael and hearing her vision with the project I felt I wanted to be a part of it. The miner’s strike was not something I learnt about in school. I don’t know why that is. The decisions made then affect us all still today. For my own selfish interest, I wanted to be dropped in that world
Q. Finally, what are you particularly eager to share with the audience?
A. THE NORTH EAST! Haha. I didn’t know enough about the miners strike and I’m bloody from there. Men and women from Durham fought in some cases with their lives for the right to work. To work in one of the hardest jobs I could ever imagine. They’re inspiring, and I hope the play will be too. Thank you very much.
ANTIGONE is at Bread and Roses Theatre
4 - 22 September 4-22, 7:30pm
Those in power make the laws to suit their pockets. Ordinary people are worse off. The leadership are at a crossroads with the will of the people, though they think they are correct. Sound familiar? That's right it's a Greek tragedy (with an 80's twist).
Bread and Roses Theatre 4 – 22 September 2018