Using theatre to get at life
Writer and director Alexander Zeldin is passionate, erudite and earnest when talking about theatre and his current production, Faith, Hope and Charity, which will be performed at the Grand Théâtre from Thursday 27 to Saturday 29 October.
The play, set in a community centre, is the third in his trilogy The Inequalities, which have been staged at the National Theatre in London, where Zeldin is an associate director, and also in theatres across Europe.
Its recent eight-night run in Paris sold out (Zeldin is also an associate artist at both the Odéon Théâtre de L’Europe in Paris and at the Grand Théâtre in Luxembourg). All three plays have received wide critical acclaim.
The first in the trilogy, Beyond Caring, featured cleaners working in a meat factory on zero hours contracts, and the second, LOVE, was set in a hostel, but Zeldin is at pains to point out this is not about marginalised people.
"The biggest political idea in the last 15-25 years has been austerity, so the idea these plays are about the margins of society is simply not true. It’s 25% of the UK population who are living below the poverty line," he argues.
"The biggest responsibility of the playwright and theatre director is to tell the stories that go behind the mirror of our time. These are the heroes and heroines. These are the destinies that tell us more than the sum of their parts," Zeldin adds. "They reflect the broader conversation, a broader sense of what is actually going on in the world, and anybody that cares about the world, needs to engage with them."
Zeldin is known for his show not tell approach, and he admits that he has “taken from the social realist tradition” of directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. “But I think I’m taking it somewhere else.”
Community centre setting
Faith, Hope and Charity is set in a community centre, where hot meals are served to “people that have been through a catastrophe in their lives to come and rebuild themselves”.
Hazel has been cooking meals for people at the centre for 25 years, and even though the place is facing closure, a choir is started.
A woman comes to the centre looking to find help to keep her child from being removed by social services. “It’s about friendship, the end of the community centre, and how people can nonetheless find hope in the face of disaster,” says Zeldin.
He and his team spent 18 months deeply immersed in community centres and with choirs across England, working with 100 people and 15 organisations to develop the play, and to “allow people who wouldn’t normally connect, to connect with each other”.
Zeldin is committed to knowing the nitty gritty of his subject. For the previous two plays he worked a zero-hours contract and slept in a hostel, so there is nothing voyeuristic about his approach.
Real-life people in the cast
“It’s a very bespoke, very difficult and singular theatrical work. It finds people from life, trains them and makes them actors. It’s a very unusual form of theatre, the lights are on, it’s in real time, it's highly-skilled and unique to see,” Zeldin explains.
The audience may not realise it, but on stage there are people who have experienced homelessness, people with disabilities, and those who have been through the justice system. The cast is a mix of students, those who took part in workshops, and “some of the best theatre actors” in the UK, such as Lucy Black as Beth and Michael Mooreland, who plays Mason.
Zeldin explains that he isn’t trying to create diversity in an obvious way. “You’re in a world so you want to tell a story about that world. I don’t think of it in terms of diversity, I think of it in terms of truth,” he notes.
However, he is keen to show the diversity of perspectives and the “richness of the different experiences that people have and which they bring to the room”.
He writes his plays during rehearsals, learning from the process and the research. “We bring people to the rehearsal room that wouldn’t normally come to the theatre. It’s a very intricate production and that is unique to the theatre, outside of what you’d normally see.”
Part of the uniqueness is Zeldin’s desire to “create a new kind of acting for today”. He feels people have enough theatre in their lives already with the “constant barrage of artificial reality that we’re living in. We experience the world through a screen now”.
Not formal theatre
Zeldin envisages theatre as a place where the audience focuses on looking and seeing the world. He strips back formal or predictable theatre formats such as “turning off the lights, having someone over-act, easy jokes and easy plot points".
“I try to strip all that away so what you’re left with is life. I’m using theatre to get at life," he explains.
Going to the theatre is like mapping unseen corners of yourself.Alexander Zeldin
His writing and directing is designed to show you places and people in a new light. “No one had really done a play with a background of a meat factory, where people are sitting around having their tea break, or the common room of a housing facility,” he says.
Theatre that tells you something you already know in a really articulate way, says Zeldin, is totally boring and really easy to do. Theatre isn’t just words either, he explains, it is also rhythms, bodies, space, and the “experience of being in the room itself”. He likens the performance and his role to a conductor and orchestra, where “every single beat and movement – picking up the phone, moving a chair, it’s like you’re watching a live orchestra with bodies”.
He is evangelical about the power of good theatre: “I really believe that theatre can change the world, that theatre can change you as a person […] it can transform you in a very deep way, can shift the way you see the world. I don’t just mean just change your opinion on a certain policy. It can actually change the way you relate to the exterior. Going to the theatre is like mapping unseen corners of yourself.”
A European palette
He is particularly excited to stage the play in multi-lingual Luxembourg. Zeldin, the son of a Russian Jewish father and working-class Australian mother, attended a European school in the UK, and was educated in French. He speaks fluent Italian too.
People will come away feeling happy and upliftedAlexander Zeldin
“I’ve always embraced the richness of the palette you get from learning from different approaches and traditions,” he says.
Zeldin grew up in Oxford and was “educationally and culturally very privileged” but says he did not feel like he belonged in the UK. He currently resides in Paris.
He describes Luxembourg as “such a crossroads of many different nationalities”, adding that “this play is one I would really invite Luxembourgish citizens to see. It’s the culmination of all the work we’ve done on the trilogy and it’s a major point about community.”
Will the audience come away downcast? Not according to Zeldin: “People will come away feeling happy and uplifted. I try to make shows that really tell the truth but also move you, uplift you and make you feel the beauty of life. I said these people are heroes and heroines and I really mean it.”
You can watch performances of Faith, Hope and Charity from 27 to 29 October at the Grand Théâtre with tickets available here.
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