Tom, hats off, you have written the play, you are directing the play and you’ve playing the role of Spencer. It does seem very personal to you. How did it all begin?
Well, yes, personal would be one word for it. Ever since my first year at university, I’ve been writing plays, and working with Laura and Johannes to bring them to stage. This play was the first, and therefore always kind of my favourite. Add into that the family research I conducted, and the hundreds of hours pouring over history books… and, well, here we are.
I don’t profess to be the world’s best actor or director, but I am the best person to help shape the story of my great-grandfather – and the story of his life, and the lives of the other characters in the play, between 1914 and 1918.
Did researching and writing the play make you change your mind about certain things?
Crucially, the central characters – now called Spencer and Volker – were pure fiction. Now, however, they are approximate renderings of historical figures. The other four characters are also real people, the last of whom died in the 1970s, and I hope I’ve done the story of this part of their lives justice.
The form of the play has also changed. It started as a one-hour bunker play, all set in one room. It’s now stretching the definition of what can technically be called a play, and spans four years, with 52 speaking parts, and six narratives. Suffice it to say, if you caught And the Horse You Rode in on in 2013, there’s enough here to warrant a revisit.
Some people love a bit of military history, others sometimes find it upsetting to watch. Did you have a particular audience in mind while writing the play?
It’s tricky, because yes – we want people interested in militaria and the First World War to attend, and we hope they do. But my father, for example, who obviously has great cause to see the story of Spencer (his grandfather) doesn’t like war movies, or even theatre all that much. It leaves me in a strange position, but one I hope we’ve remedied by our minimal staging, and the heavy emphasis on character and narrative. There’s no gore in the play, very little swearing, and no violence – at least not that the audience can see. I don’t want to upset anyone with those things – the cheap thrills that often hide gaps in storytelling. I want people to have a genuine response to the story – be that to cry, shrug, or walk out. A tear is only worth it if you’ve earned it through hard work, not through a parlour trick.
What is the biggest thing you really want to say with this play?
I am not trying to educate – I would never be so arrogant as to assume that the world needs me to do so. I am not trying to rally people into action. What I am trying to do is simply give life back to the people I discovered, all of whom are now long dead – their stories (as far as I am aware) never told, and completely forgotten. I suppose I am also trying to say – come and see our play, it’s a hell of a story, and one you’ll be thinking about for a long time.
Assuming you’re now working with the actors and teasing out the characters, who’s got the hardest part to play?
It’s tricky to say. I play only one part, along with sharing some narrator duties with the rest of the cast, whilst Julia, who plays Mathilde – a French refugee – also plays nine other supporting roles. If I were to answer, and this would change depending on which part of the play I’ve rehearsed that day, I would say that Ollie, who plays Italian tailor Isabella, has the most varied job. Not only does she play a protagonist, but she also plays Blythe and Gunner, two other major characters. Whilst Chris and Max have a smattering of unnamed and supporting roles to play, Ollie has three major roles to switch between, all of different nationalities and ages. Despite these very different jobs, all six of us play the narrator, too – which really makes us feel like we’re working together, sharing the load, and working as an ensemble.
What incident should we particularly be looking out for, that will grab our attention?
The play spans roughly four-and-a-bit years, along six different narratives, all of which move at a different pace. There are points when stories intersect, and lengthy sections of individual storytelling. It is hard to pinpoint particular moments without giving too much away, but I suppose there are three scenes (not that the play really has those) where certain characters interact with others with massive consequences. There is also a heavy sense of inevitability to some of it – a worrying feeling that certain people have to meet, and that when they do, bad things will happen. Essentially, you’ll know it when you see it.
The poster images show a lot of make-up suggesting you will be going for a realistic or naturalistic effect. What kind of thought has to go into achieving that?
Laura, our producer, has done a fantastic job of helping me with costuming the cast. We really wanted to be historically-accurate, but also balance that with how restrictive or off-putting certain costume elements might be. An example of this would be by removing the helmet from certain soldiers’ outfits – if only to make sure actors are comfortable, and their faces visible. Also, with such a long timespan to cover, the cast are only in appropriate costumes some of the time – moving from a trench to a cinema between scenes, for example. It was therefore paramount to select moments in the play that are defining for each character, and to costume them in the wear appropriate to that scene. We might be getting slightly into spoiler territory, but the costumes might hint at things to come in a character’s future…
Finally, if you could go back 100 years and say something at the end of the war, what would it be?
I think it would be – ‘Whatever you do, don’t punish each other any longer.’ I don’t subscribe to the idea that the First World War was pointless, nor the Second. I don’t defend the architects of the Battle of Caporetto, or those behind the bombing of Dresden, but war is rarely without point. The true tragedy, alongside the immense human cost, is how avoidable the Second World War was in the wake of the First. There are countless brilliant books about the worldwide muddle that led to WW1, but far fewer about the build-up to WW2. I suppose what I am trying to say is that the forces of good lost the First World War by creating the perfect conditions for the Second. I would give anything to go back and prevent that.
The King’s Head, 115 Upper Street, N1 1QN
6 – 24 February 2018
Tuesdays - Saturdays 7pm, Sundays 3:30pm
3pm matinee Saturday 24th
Box office: 020 7226 4443