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Sparking Fireworks at the Royal Court

First Published 20 February 2015, Last Updated 3 March 2015

It’s rare to find a theatre director not in the crux of an existential crisis when faced with the prospect of having just one job on the table, but Richard Twyman is of that rare breed. With a post at one of the world’s most revered theatres that comes complete with a travelling schedule that inflicts in me a case of wanderlust so acute I immediately download the Skyscanner app on leaving our interview, who could blame him?

Two years into the post of International Associate at the Royal Court Theatre, under the leadership of Elyse Dodgson who has spearheaded the venue’s unparalleled international work for more than 20 years, Twyman’s enviable and demanding – in equal measures I’d imagine – role has seen him collaborate on workshops and projects in countries including Turkey (three times), Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and Palestine (twice). And that’s just the trips he can remember from the last 12 months.

“We get the news footage, we read the journalists’ viewpoint, we see the leaders, but what about the people who are living it every day?” Twyman asks me, when explaining the importance of this quite unique department’s work, including its latest resulting project, Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya), developed with Palestinian writer Dalia Taha. “The thing when you read Fireworks that immediately hooks you in is it has an atmosphere and an insight into what it is to live under occupation and war that you can’t really describe unless you’ve been through it.”

The theatre’s tireless schedule of playwriting residencies, workshops and projects – a huge range of Royal Court artists from directors Stephen Daldry and Rufus Norris to playwrights April de Angelis and David Greig have been a part of its work over the years – serves to enable not only the cultivation of a playwriting culture in places where the freedom and ability to put pen to paper can’t always be taken for granted, but also the production of plays that offer theatregoers an intimate and affecting insight into the world sometimes completely overlooked by our often narrow news coverage of the regions.

“We get the news footage, we read the journalists’ viewpoint, we see the leaders, but what about the people who are living it every day?”

“Places like Zimbabwe, we have a slight idea in the British press of what it’s like, but we had the most wonderful time there with the most extraordinary people. With Palestine we’re led to believe it’s not safe to go there but actually I’ve never felt more at peace than when we were doing the workshop there,” Twyman explains to me as we sit and chat during a rehearsal lunch break in a brilliantly ramshackle office packed with props and old scripts somewhere in the Royal Court’s backstage warren. “The international work here always tries to look at really urgent stories but from the inside out, from writers that are living that experience. We never focus on subject matter, we never engage on a level of ‘you should write about these things’. What we do talk about is ‘What can you as a playwright say or talk about than no other playwright can?’”

This is what Taha has produced with Fireworks, a, by all accounts, devastating exploration of life in Gaza through the eyes of two children. Even given the play’s roots, shaped by last summer’s events in the war torn region, and its provocative title, which refers to the heartbreaking lie parents have reported telling their children to soften the fear of falling bombs outside their homes, Twyman describes the “beautiful and profound” play as one that is political with only a small ‘p’.

“It’s to do with politics in the same sense that a Shakespeare play always has politics in it, because it’s to do with the way people engage with each other,” he explains, telling me it was his work with former RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd on the multi Olivier Award-winning Histories Cycle that sparked the political interest that has crept its way into both his life and artistic offerings. “Fireworks is to do with daily life and the human interaction around being incarcerated through an invasion or occupation… I think what happens with international plays is they are incredibly vivid and they’re big tapestries. A part of that will always be political.”

“Whenever we see Gaza on the news you see dust and you see destruction, you see rubble and you see pain, but what you don’t see is colour and light and happiness and joy”

For Twyman, it’s not so much a case of educating audiences – “that feels a little worthy to me” – but capturing storytelling as a way of understanding each other’s existences. And it’s an undeniable truth that by casting a magnifying glass over the intimacies of everyday lives, family interactions and seemingly mundane tasks, theatre can harness the universality of all these things – whether you’re living in constant threat or in peace – to create something more powerful than any geopolitical drama attempting to condense the complexity of conflict in to two hours of theatre at the top of a building in Sloane Square. Or at least that is certainly the hope for Twyman.

“Whenever we see Gaza on the news you see dust and you see destruction, you see rubble and you see pain, but what you don’t see is colour and light and happiness and joy as a form of resistance. I wanted to try and release it from some of the clichés we have around that part of the world,” he says, admitting he didn’t tell his parents before going to Palestine for the first time for fear of worrying them, something he’s clearly amused by as he spurs me on to book a flight and see for myself. “There’s whole moments in Fireworks where if you do it one way there’s a danger it slips into an  episode of Homeland, but if you do it another way it’s very rye, because there’s lots of humour in it.”

This aspiration to open audience’s eyes to the perspective he has found for himself through this work, his clear admiration for the artists and actors he has worked with and the people he’s met pours out of him in every topic we discuss. It’s there on the walls of the rehearsal room he lets me peek into after our interview; vibrant photographs of sky blue-painted walls, children giggling at older family members, kids in fancy dress with faces painted brightly. And it’s in these captured snapshots of everyday life, rather than Guardian articles or Middle East history books, that Twyman clearly has found his inspiration.

“When I come and do these plays, I do feel like ‘Oh my God, there are a million more books I have to read.’ I do feel that burden. But I think what I learnt on Djinns [The Djinns Of Eidgah, his last play at the Royal Court developed with Indian writer Abhishek Majumdar], and it’s certainly been true on this, is that there’s only so much you can do,” he tells me. “You could just sit and read books, but I try and see films, looks at visual artists, photos.

“One of the things we did that we felt was a really important research point was to get Arabic actors to read it to us in Arabic, so we could hear the rhythms and ask them how it read for them… they felt that what it did was totally humanise the conflict and allow the characters in it to be seen as Palestinians and human beings and not as political pawns in one way or another… that, for them, was the single most important crucial thing that a Palestinian play could do.”

It seems to me that the work of the whole department could be looked at in much the same vein. Throughout our interview there are stories Twyman tells me of artists harassed by the police as a result of continuing to write, a workshop held recently in Lebanon where “deeply traumatic” conversations were being had, tales he’s been told of people finding heartbreaking ways to exert control over their lives when power has been taken away from them by the continual threat of war outside their doors. There are also tales of creativity, of discovering new ways of working and joyous collaborations. The work is about capturing this humanity and offering a place to present voices often overshadowed by history or politics. In doing so, as Twyman so vehemently believes, we can continue to tell each other stories and hear these voices from as many cultures as possible loud and clear.  

Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya) plays at the Royal Court Theatre until 14 March. You can find out more in our First Night Feature and watch a video above here.

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