Theatre in Wales

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“Not arguing with me? I want you to argue with me"

Radio Arts Feature

Behind the Scenes: Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic , Foghorn Producttions Radio 4 & i-Player , October 18, 2018
Radio Arts Feature by Behind the Scenes: Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic It is the toughest gig to succeed a success. David Lan did 18 years at the Young Vic and went out in glory, earning a special award at the Oliviers. He used the public stage this last winter to speak. He was there, he said, only because of a Britain which had once offered refuge to a family fleeing persecution in Lithuania.

There are no doubts about Kwame Kwei-Armah's launch. I was there last week and the critics were spot on. Michael Billington dissented, unable to enter into what the production represented. The write-ups prompted the wise Dominic Cavendish to even say: “If he gets things right running the show here, he could be the one to follow Rufus Norris into the top job at the National in the future.”

Susanna Clapp, the Guardian fellow-critic, saw the joy but she nailed the import. “Kwei-Armah has eschewed the idea of a right-on agenda, but he is helping to change the theatre: making it less totally white, male and young-loving. That is political and it is admirable.”

“Twelfth Night” is an explosion of joy. The “Behind the Scenes” interview between Peter Curran and Kwame Kwei-Armah provokes guffaws of laughter.

The word “joy” is recurrent. It is a word that hardly dares speak its name in the official theatre of Wales. Its absence is a reason why we are where we are. It makes all the difference. It is why audiences and critics alike adore “Sugar Baby.” It is the difference, why the Sherman and Theatr Clwyd scooped UK Theatre awards this last weekend.

The 45-minute programme speaks to the choreographer, the musical director, a carpenter, members of the cast. One is aged 86, another was homeless two years ago. Martyn Ellis: “I've got to the last stage in my life where I'm old and grotty with a big fat paunch and I get to play Sir Toby Belch.” But it is about Kwame Kwei-Armah.

In excerpt:

“I love joy. Joy is a wonderful primer for anything political. It just opens you up for so you're ready. You're ready to hear what's next.”

“The thing that made me afraid the most was trying to work out most when I got the gig what people would expect of me, and that frightened me. It's going to be diversity and it's going to be black working class plays all set in Hackney. But I have always tried to fight being placed in a box.

“So that's why it was important that I didn't start off with a high state of the nation piece that I have a diverse stage filled with energy and fun and love but also about who we are, and what masks we wear in order to succeed in this world and sends out its own message. But it's not a blatant one.”

“People will know me, if they know me at all, as a playwright and as an actor...but as a director, and an artistic director, there is a big question “what is it you want to say, and here it is what I want to say, I believe in love, joy and community.”

“If you want to know what I learned in America this is what I learned, it is that community, art, and joy right in the middle of it and this feels like a joyous celebration of all these things. It doesn't mean that there will be an absence of the hard-hitting, I'm a political animal, but joy and politics are not separate for me.”

“I've never worried about the burden of responsibility. I worry far more about the burden of paranoia.”

“The interesting thing for me at the moment is trying to work out how I shape the organisation so that it feeds my strengths and that I can also feed the organisation and that takes a lot of thought and it takes time and it takes thoughts, it's not something you can just say “yeah, there it is”. But I think we're making progress.”

“Forgive me for often referring to David [Lan]. He brought the theatre to great success. But David didn't have a literary department, David did the finding of plays, the reading of plays and he did all that by himself, and then working with writers. But that's not how I work. Part of the Young Vic under my tenure will be to create some kind of literary department, some kind of discourse-provocateur, to link my love for theatre, my love for discourse, my love for community exchanges.”

“Getting 5-star reviews and stuff is brilliant and having shows that jump off commercially...but that's not the be-all and end-all of why I'm in theatre. I'm in theatre because I want to challenge the status, when I leave, have I widened the canon?”

He describes the difference between actors in Britain and America. The actors over there receive their notes with silence. “No arguing with me? I want you to argue with me.”

The programme can be heard on:

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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