As the dust settles on the opening night of BU21, a play following six Londoners in the aftermath of a fictitious terrorist attack, we caught up with the show’s director, Dan Pick, to talk about finding the comedy in tragedy, and what it’s like to bring a show to the West End.
For anyone who hasn’t come across the play BU21, how would you describe it?
BU21 is a series of six interlinked monologues which explore characters’ responses to a terrorist attack in London. It’s a kind of romantic comedy set in the aftermath of a plane being shot down over Fulham.
Clive Keene, Graham O’Mara, and Florence Roberts. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
You’ve based the piece on real testimonies – how did you go about taking these testimonies and morphing them into a piece of theatre?
BU21’s writer, Stuart Slade, did a lot of research into real life testimonies from the survivors of the 7/7 attacks on London and 9/11 in New York, and he shared those during the research and development phase. I had been reading firsthand accounts of the same attacks and the attack on the Bataclan Theatre in Paris. There’s a really wonderful book called You Shall Not Have My Hate which is a memoir written by Antoine Leiris. It’s a firsthand account of Leiris discovering his wife was dead, processing that information and then moving forward with his life and with his son. He wrote a Facebook post, a kind of open letter to the terrorists which became really famous. That individual account was particularly useful in going through Stuart’s text with the actors.
Graham O’Mara. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
Did you find similarities between the accounts of those who lived through the different attacks?
Yes. We watched documentary testimonies from the Westgate massacre in Nairobi in Kenya to get a sense of how the survivors of those attacks processed the information that their minds had had to deal with. What becomes really interesting is the curiosity, almost surprise, with which people recount those events. They’re very factual. It’s all about details rather than emotions, which I think is really interesting because the temptation is to assume that every time you retell that story you would relive the emotion. Of course there are moments which are hugely difficult: I think just putting words to the loss of a family member or loved one helps to make it more real. So there are moments when you can feel these emotions being stirred up again and you can see – for a fleeting second – that person at that moment the event is occurring. It’s been an intense process for the cast, but one that I think they’ve really gained a lot from.
In the rehearsal room, do you try to capture the voices of the people who gave those testimonies, or are you trying to allow the actors to find their own voice?
When Stuart started writing the play in 2014 he wrote three of the parts for actors that we had already worked with and so Graham, Floss and Alex were written specifically with those actors in mind. I don’t really believe in character in of terms of asking “what does that person do in that situation?” I tend to encourage actors to think about things from their own perspective – to ask themselves “what would I do?” so the character is removed as a buffer. With that in mind, Stuart structured the piece and had written three of the characters for actors that we knew and [introduced] three other characters who would be developed over time by the performers. Stuart is a wonderful writer to work with because he’s very sensitive to the actor’s need to feel as though the text comes from them. So if something is sticky, we’ll encourage our actors to say it in their own words and then Stuart will rewrite for them. What makes him such a brilliant writer is that he’ll listen to the rhythms and the idioms of those actors and put those into the text so that it adds to the verbatim feel of the dialogue.
Roxana Lupu. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
How do you find the humour in such a difficult subject?
What Stuart is so brilliant at is staring into the abyss with a kind of curiosity and humour that very few writers have. What’s remarkable about BU21 is that it really is a very funny play and such a release: we are permitted, in all that darkness, to enjoy moments of levity and humour. It’s very compassionate humour and [those moments] shine all the more brightly because they are surrounded by this dense, dark, harrowing material.
BU21 played at Theatre503 in 2016 to great reviews. Are you excited to see it performed in London again?
Absolutely. I’m over the moon to see this piece given further life. I always felt it was a play that was extremely relevant and would become no less relevant over time. It’s fantastic for Kuleshov [Theatre] to be starting 2017 in the West End. We are a company that was born in the latter part of 2014 to stage Stuart’s first full-length play, Cans. So in a relatively short time we’ve gone from playing above pubs to playing in Trafalgar Square.
Graham O’Mara. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
What are your ambitions for the future?
As a company we want to be always levelling up, expanding and growing. We want to offer a platform for other emerging writers, for other Stuart Slades, to produce really powerful, fierce new writing and we hope we can do that going forward!
BU21 is running now at the Trafalgar Studios 2 with performances until 18 February. Information and ticket can be found on the ATG website.
Piece written by Niall Palmer, from an interview conducted by Robin Johnson.