Faithful to its abundant exclamation points, new play iAy Carmela! opens tonight, at the Shaw Theatre in Kings Cross, with a gala event. As we like to grab all opportunities by the balls, we catch director Tom Wright (above right, being grabbed by the balls) for a quick chat about the Spanish Civil War, vaudeville, fart jokes and 1930 fuel economics.
Tell us a bit about the play...
iAy Carmela! was written by a Spaniard, Jose Sanchis Sinisterra, in the 80s and Steve Trafford has produced a brilliant new adaptation for this production. During the Spanish Civil War, two vaudeville artists are caught by the fascist forces and are forced to perform for the International Militia who are due to be executed the next day. It’s an elegy to the Spanish Civil War with songs, jokes, magic and flatulence.
iAy Carmela! is a performance about performing - what was that like to direct?
In order to show how these two perform their routine under immense pressure we first had to learn the routines, to become trained singers, dancers, magicians (fartists – more on that if you see the show), before we could worry too much about acting it. So the rehearsal was split between endlessly repeating our list of Tricky Things until they became Easy Things, and slowly getting our heads and hearts around the play itself.
The most fun thing for me as a director was trying to work out who Sinisterra imagines the audience being at each moment – they fluctuate from being treated as 21st Century theatre goers, to evil fascists, to poor, imprisoned militiamen. It’s quite a journey.
Tell us about the gala night - are there special guests? What is the International Brigade organisation that is taking part?
Sinisterra is coming over, which is very exciting/terrifying, since I put a lot of effort into nailing what the playwright wants, so the acid test is when they rock up and tell you if you got it right. Although as he’ll be telling me in Spanish I’m not sure I’ll glean too much. We also have the
people he wrote it for in attendance – he always wanted the play to be seen by the (few, now) surviving International Militia members, the people from all over the world who came of their own free will to fight fascism in Spain. We got in touch with International Brigade Memorial Trust and have arranged for as many militia members as we can to attend, in addition to holding the Gala to raise funds to commemorate their actions.
What are the difficulties of directing a play in translation? What are the pleasures?
The pleasure is that I like a challenge, the challenge is trying to figure out exactly what the author intends, what the effect on their original audience would have been, and what effect he would want it to have on ours. I’ve gone on a crash course on Spanish culture and the history of the Civil War for this, from a starting point of nada. That’s one of the best thing about my job; eventually you end up a cod-expert on a lot of very different topics. I’m pretty hot on medieval gender politics, medieval Chinese beliefs on the soul, and 1930s fuel economics.
What would like the audience to leave with after seeing iAy Carmela! ?
I think Sinisterra wants them to come out with an awareness of the importance of remembering the horrors of the past, and for a lot of us, who know nothing about the Spanish Civil War, that involves learning too, so if we inspire people to find out more then that’s a success. Every time I watch it I ask myself how I would behave in a similar situation; if I was faced with a regime that committed unspeakable atrocities what would I risk to stand up and speak? Or would I opt for the easy life. Then I remember that our country is committing atrocities through its aggressive foreign policy and support of the arm trade. So if people come out of it a little more willing to speak out against the unacceptable then we’ve done our job.
What is the best thing you've seen in London this year?
I still dream about the Sultan’s Elephant from time to time. I went on a Shamanic journey a few weeks ago (don’t ask) and it popped up as a spirit guide. I was going to ask the Shaman if mechanical animals counted but I let it lie. So obviously that’s had a huge effect on me. I’m also big fan of smutty puppets so Avenue Q was also a hit.
Which London theatre / London space would like to direct a play for?
I first came to London to work for the Young Vic, where I was assistant director for two years. I’ve done a lot of projects for them since then and every time it’s like coming home. But the big dream is to do a show on that main stage – the best theatre space in London, large, but intimate, you’re never far from your audience, and when it works the place practically crackles with magic.
What would you most like Londoners to see or do that you don't think we see or do enough of?
Walk. It always amazes me that my friends who grew up in London have no idea how to walk from A to B, even if it’s a thirty minute stroll, but can tell you exactly which tube stops you’ll go through and which end of the platform to stand to avoid the crush. It’s surely one of the best cities in the world for a wander – why travel under it if you don’t have to? Also you can walk around the City on a Sunday and imagine that you are the last surviving human being, in a 28 Days Later kind of a way.
I also feel more Londoners should walk up and give me money at random. I can see why that won’t catch on.
Favourite place in London and why?
In terms of eating - Ev, under the railway arches off the Cut, because a) it’s near, b) reasonable priced and c) instead of a mint you get Turkish delight when you pay your bill. I am easily pleased.
In terms of showing off to northern friends that I live in London and they don’t, Tate Modern. Do they have huge slides? Well yes, if you count Blackpool, but not in the middle of art galleries.
The world is ending in 24 hours. How would you spend your last day in London?
I’m a Buddhist so I’d pop down to the Buddhist centre opposite Brixton tube stop to have a chant and get my karma in order, then I think I’d wander the South Bank and say goodbye to it – it’s by far my favourite place in the world for a stroll, so it might as well be the site of my last.
iAy Carmela! from tonight until 18 November, 7.30pm, £10.00 all tickets until 10 November, after 10 November tickets are £12.00 or £15.00. For more information and to book, go to the Shaw Theatre website here.