Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Anastasia Bunce: Blood On Your Hands

By | Published on Sunday 14 January 2024

Beginning this week at Southwark Playhouse’s Borough venue is ‘Blood On Your Hands’, an intriguing work focusing on two men of different circumstances who are working in a slaughterhouse, and which explores themes of hope, mental health and the need for human compassion. 

Written by Grace Joy Howarth, it’s staged by Patch Plays, a company that specialises in staging work about animal ethics and environmental concerns. 

It’s directed by the group’s founder and Artistic Director Anastasia Bunce. We first spoke to Anastasia ahead of a short run of the play in 2022. I wanted to talk more about the piece and the company behind it ahead of this latest longer run at the Southwark Playhouse.

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘Blood On Their Hands’ is about? What story does it tell?
AB: It spotlights the forgotten victims of slaughterhouses: the workers. The show follows the unexpected friendship formed by two men who work in this industry: one a Ukrainian refugee and ex veterinarian Kostyantyn, and the other a working-class Welsh lad Dan.

Amongst somewhat bleak circumstances, this new-born friendship gives both hope and solace as we see their friendship bloom.

Kostyantyn has recently arrived in the UK in the hope of relocating his family from Eastern Ukraine as tensions increase regarding the threat of war in February 2022. His wife Nina and his two children wait for him in Ukraine.

Dan’s ex-girlfriend, vegan activist Eden, makes it her life mission to liberate the animals taken to slaughter. We see four characters united as they strive for their freedom and to a better future ahead.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
AB: Compassion. Hope. Mental health. The show is about the need for human compassion, the strength required to strive for a better future and the tragedy brought by a society which treats both man and animal as dispensable and the repercussions that this brings.

CM: What made you want to direct this piece? What do you love about it?
AB: The setting of this play is unique – I have never seen a play set in a slaughterhouse as a backdrop to exploring such universal themes as compassion, friendship, hope and social barriers.

Grace Joy Howarth’s play brings people from very different backgrounds together, united in the difficulties that they face presented by a society which does not care about them. It highlights all that is wrong with how the status quo treats those at the very bottom, and I hope encourages empathy and compassion as the two qualities needed to survive.

I love how funny, heartfelt, sensitive yet bold the writing is. It blends naturalism in dialogue between characters with room for expressionism in scenes which swing between past and present, between a small Welsh town and a town in Eastern Ukraine. It is poetic, relatable, humorous and tugs at the heart. All qualities that I want to see in theatre.

Ultimately, I love how universal and original this play is, and I believe it has an important message which is told in an artistic and sensitive manner.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your approach to it?
AB: As I said, the show blends naturalistic dialogue with expressionistic movement sequences and has room for a more poetic approach with scenes which flicker between past and present. I am interested in how these two styles meet and blend with the most important element being creating a strong atmosphere in the play as the story unfolds. 

We have an amazing creative team: sound design by The Araby Bazaar; lighting by Abraham Walkling-Lea; set by Ahmet Buyukcinar, Hazel Poole Zane and Bethany Nias; video design by Alex Powell; and movement direction by Tessa Guerrero; who all come together to create a visceral atmosphere and world for the audience to enter for 90 minutes. 

When it comes to directing methods, I enjoy working with the Michael Chekhov technique, as it unlocks key atmospheres, and the super objective of the play. It is a physical and imaginative way of working that empowers actors. I pair this with text analysis in the room and hopefully these two approaches combined and absorbed by the cast – who are all rigorous and imaginative actors – brings detailed, authentic and creative performances.

CM: Can you tell us about the playwright?
AB: I had the pleasure of meeting Grace Joy Howarth three years ago and we have formed a brilliant working relationship and friendship over this time working together with Patch Plays.

Grace is an incredibly talented and versatile writer who, as well as having written a searingly original show exploring a theme I have never seen on stage before – the effects of slaughterhouse work on its labourers – has also written a Children’s musical about climate change, ‘Birdie’s Adventures In The Animal Kingdom’.

Grace has a strong style, creates a vivid imaginative world and always writes realistic and likeable characters who you can’t help but want to befriend. Grace tells a story with powerful political and moralistic undertones through specific personable human stories, and in this lies her genius.

CM: Can you tell us about your cast?
AB: We have an incredible cast: award winning Welsh actor Phillip John Jones, Ukrainian-Vietnamese Ivan Doan, Ukrainian Kateryna Hryhorenko and Mountview alumni Jordan El Balawi.

We are lucky to have two very talented Ukrainian actors, Ivan Doan and Kateryna Hryhorenko, who have brought cultural insight and authenticity for scenes set in Ukraine and for the context of pre-war tensions, as the play is set in February 2022 over the course of the final two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Welsh actor Phillip John Jones plays Dan, and similarly has brought cultural specificity to his role as well as the wider references to Wales in the show.

CM: And now can we talk about you a bit more? What drew you to working in the arts, and how did your career begin?
AB: As a teenager I went to Arts Educational School and trained in acting at their day school. It instilled discipline and interest in theatre, but I felt acting wasn’t my true calling.

So I then did a 360 as I was interested in the humanities and went off to study a BA in English and Art History at University of Exeter. Here is where I quickly discovered and fell in love with directing – it all fell into place.

I wrote and directed my first play ‘Plucked’, which was a physical theatre piece exploring factory farming, and unlocked my passion for fusing my interest in animal rights with my love for theatre making.

After graduating I attended Mountview Academy Of Theatre Arts and trained in Theatre Directing.

Soon after I began Patch Plays and produced new writing nights where three of our main shows began. Meeting fellow emerging artists passionate about similar themes of climate change and animal rights created a real excitement and catapulted our shows.

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far?
AB: Directing the one-woman comedy ‘Meat Cute’ by my cousin Bibi Lucille, who is also a passionate animal activist, at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Having a month’s run at the Gilded Balloon was amazing and being in Edinburgh seeing so many exciting shows was a real treat. We then adapted it into a short film which is currently in post-production, so I am very excited for it to come out.

And of course, the incredible opportunity to bring ‘Blood On Your Hands’ to Southwark Playhouse this year.

It really is an amazing opportunity as a director, and I feel very lucky to be able to present this original show to wider London audiences at a venue that really supports innovative and bold new writing.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
AB: I would love to continue to develop this show and see what future lies ahead for it. I believe that it can inspire a lot of people to reflect on how their daily choices contribute to an industry which exploits and abuses its workers and animals.

As the Artistic Director of Patch Plays, I am excited for what is in store for 2024 in continuing to develop new writing on the themes of animal ethics and environmental sustainability at a time in which these themes are so pressing.

We have worked with a lot of emerging artists and writers in previous years for our Scratch Nights and plan on continuing to grow these events as ones that bring artists together with common interests with the potential for future development. This is how ‘Blood On Your Hands’ began!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
AB: A brief period of rest… followed by exciting plans on developing a new writing festival on the themes of animal ethics and climate change – stay tuned!

‘Blood On Your Hands’ is on at Southwark Playhouse Borough from 17 Jan-3 Feb. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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