On 21 September members of the Against cast and director Ian Rickson stayed after the performance to share their thoughts on creating the production. Below are highlights from the Q&A discussion.
[SPOILER NOTE: This conversation contains references to key plot points and character analysis which you may prefer to read after watching the show.]
Ian Rickson: Hello everybody. I'm Ian, I'm the director. Thank you for being such a brilliant audience and for really staying in that demanding, challenging piece. Isn't it? That longing to be known that all the characters have, then this sort of terror of being really felt. And I think the fault line of those things around intimacy is connected to this bigger idea of violence.
I'm so proud to be directing the play. This company is so committed and they've worked so hard to make it and every night they warm up together. I thought that was a really good show. How did you feel a bit about it tonight?
Elliot Barnes-Worrell: Yeah when the audience is willing to go with us, you can really feel it. We do come up against quite a lot of resistance. Because of, I think, some of the things the play is trying to say and it being brand new writing. I really respect it for that - for not pandering and really trying to do something. When you some up against a resistance, it's kind of like you're pushing this thing uphill together, which is a physical exertion and rewarding but very difficult. And when the audience go with you, you can engulf them, you can take them with you.
Philippe Spall: It depends, really very often actually in terms of how I find the play affects me. It really depends on what's actually been happening out in the bigger world. In just the general world, I think that really affected us all during the rehearsal process as well. Because the play has its strands in everything that's going on around us at the moment.
Ian: How do you feel your way, night by night, through the contours of the play? It's a pretty complex journey. Ben you're on stage all the time, you don't get to nip off and have a cup of tea in your room. Even when you're not doing a scene, you're placed upstage. The feat of concentration and feeling your way through it, that must require such effort.
Ben Whishaw: I just try and clear my mind - I think it's about a man who he believes that if he listens to people, if we truly listen to each other and talk honestly with one another and share and we are able to be intimate in that way; we could actually not be violent people. So that's what I try and do. It's really hard but I think I always just try and be present. That's actually it's my only note to myself. Obviously there’s a lot to do but the thing is to try and listen to what the other person is doing, saying to you.
Ian: This old room was a church, it was a kind of Salvation Army meeting room. There is something almost congregational about coming to a theatre. You come individually, you're in this space together and leave together, and you've undergone some ritual, which is analogous to faith or the gathering that can happen in a church. It all does rely on being present. We make this contract don't we? That you will be present with us. The best actors have this ability; it must be nice being in a company where you feel your fellow comrades are really there.
Kevin Harvey: There's definitely an undercurrent of that in the company. It's not to kind of emphasise or make a big point of but, there's a celebration of the moment, of letting it be something new every night. And trying to go with the flow that the actor is presenting you with. It's a real pleasure to do. It has pitfalls because it means, for me personally, on occasion I kind of go down a blind alley and forget where I am and what I'm supposed to be doing. But then, it's worth it I think.
Ian: And when you have a play like this, which is a real choral play, 12 actors, probably 25 characters, amazing transformations; Elliot and Ben run way through the play with Melvin and with Luke. Then there are these really surprising changes - Nancy Crane is four people, it's really lovely I think, that idea of building a world with a company of actors and everyone is equal. And it wraps around you and you wrap around us.
Audience Member: There's a subtlety when Luke meets Kate, Luke is suddenly open to that relationship with Sheila - what is it about the Luke/Kate meeting that kind of unlocks Luke into the last act? How do you feel about that?
Ben: I feel it's a mysterious moment of what I think Christopher Shinn would describe as grace. It is mysterious so it's hard to say much more about it than that. But the gesture that Kate makes to Luke shifts something in him. It's sort of a gift she gives him, without even really knowing it or trying to or anything. Because he's receiving messages, he believes he's receiving messages and that's another message in a way, that moment.
Ian: I think when you say "Thank you for forgiving me," a spell has been released there to actually feel forgiven. It suddenly grounds you and energises you for the end because a lot of people carry shame and guilt. They say shame is the hardest of all the feelings to carry. There might be compensatory things that all of the characters do to manage their shame and their wounds and suddenly, out of nowhere, a kind of blast from the past, a first love releases something with that forgiveness.
Audience Member: We don't know what Luke's vision is, but as an actor and especially for the central character do you have an idea what this vision is?
Ian: I think really great playwrights like George Bernard Shaw or David Hare would write Luke's vision and it would be given to you and you'd go off, having consumed the message and you would have received the answer. I respect that. But I think Christopher Shinn's dramatic method is to withhold that so that you go away active and thinking, ‘I wonder what it was’ and ‘oh, I wish I had it’ and ‘perhaps if we treated each other better and looked after each other and tried to save the planet, we'd hear a vision like that’.
What's great about the question is Ben knows what the vision is, the playwright's written it all out for him, so he's carrying that into that last sequence and no one else in the company does. So, Jon asks Sheila, "What are we doing? I need to know these plans" as a sort of compensatory way of dealing with oncoming trauma. Chris, the second character that Philippe plays, has a kind of "What is he going to say?" And I think Elliot’s character Melvin is kind of shocked because his investment in this vision - this mission - has been removed from him. And then, a sort of Mary Magdalene or whoever, suddenly you get this surprising communion, don't you with Tracy?
Elliot: It's kind of like, I think, Melvin if he had the privilege and money that Luke had, he would be a Luke. He doesn't have those things, so he attaches so much of himself to Luke and he doesn't have a father figure either. That is so important in the communities that I think Melvin is from. So he kind of grafts his whole self-worth onto Luke.
So when Luke disappears, that's when you get that "Suck my dick" line, which is so hard to say every night. He's looking for a ‘how to’ guide to live from Luke. Because I wish I could know his plans, like those three days that Melvin has by himself not replying to texts, I think are awful. So awful, so traumatic, so difficult to live in that in between place. He really needed that and what's really beautiful about that scene is someone real, someone that cares about him - that loves him - reaches out and touches him through the darkness.
Luke can't touch Melvin because he's never meet him. He's one of the only characters who never has anything to do with Luke. For someone real to be like ‘this is a purpose to live for’, in a life of packing boxes - I know it's abysmal but his life sucks anyway – so for him to pack boxes with someone that he loves, it's a huge change for him to packing boxes by himself. That's the redemptive road for Melvin, I suppose. It kind of takes Luke to die, this almost fictional character for him, this super hero, for him to see the reality of the person in front of him.
Ian: How are you feeling about ending because you've got one more week after this. What's that like? How are you feeling because you're shot every night? It's a complex, let’s be honest it's a very complex zone to live in. What's it like for you there?
Ben: I'll miss it. I really love the play. I like what it is, I like what it raises. I do find it difficult too because it's not a comfortable thing. I imagine it's not a comfortable thing or necessarily an easy thing to watch because it's probably not ‘entertaining’ in the way that people like to be entertained. It's been a beautiful thing.
And Christopher - I had a message from Christopher Shinn earlier on. He wrote this play and nearly died because he had cancer and he lost a leg a few years ago, he didn't think he was going to be here. This is the first play he wrote after he knew he was going to live. That's a very, really every night I feel that kind of... that's the area of the play came out from. That experience. In a way it's almost, because I think it's very hard, we can't live in that space of contemplating that. The end, what it means to not, potentially, not be here and then find you are here. I think he was dealing… figuring all that stuff out. It's very charged, the play. Quite difficult sometimes to be in that - put yourself in that place.
Ian: Most of the best art is - I'm talking about songs, novels, plays, films - they're really about one thing. How we process loss. How we deal with mortality and yes, there are lots of great things that are ‘entertaining’ and I love to be entertained. The best work, the deepest art is about us coming together and going through something together, which is challenging, about the big things. I just feel very grateful. You've not only sat through nearly three hours of an engrossing, hopefully, challenging play but you've come and sat with us. We care about it. Thanks for coming to the Almeida. Thanks for seeing a new play.
Against | Until 30 September
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