Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Anastasia Bunce: Blood On Your Hands

By | Published on Friday 3 June 2022

I was very interested when I heard about ‘Blood On Your Hands’, a new play by Grace Joy Howarth that has a short run at The Cockpit Theatre this week.

Set in an abattoir, it’s a piece that focuses on the lives of those working in slaughterhouses, their backgrounds, and how their work affects their day to day existence. It’s an interesting topic and one which seems rarely to be spoken about. 

To find out more about the work, and about Patch Plays, the producing company behind it, I spoke to director Anastasia Bunce. 

CM: Can you start by giving us an idea of what ‘Blood On Your Hands’ is all about? What story does it tell?
AB: ‘Blood On Your Hands’ is a new play that tells the story of two men who work in a slaughterhouse and the moving friendship that they form.

Ukrainian ex vet Kazimir and working class Welsh lad Dan form a surprising friendship that provides a source of connection and relief from their somewhat destabilising working conditions. It follows their paths, their pasts, their relationships, their fears and their aspirations.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
AB: It explores important themes including toxic masculinity, mental health, xenophobia, classism, connection and the importance of human kindness, and what happens when compassion is absent from the working environment and what this can result in, on both a personal and societal level. 

CM: Is there anything actually gory and/or distressing to contend with?
AB: The nature of slaughterhouse work is innately gory and distressing. Whilst the play certainly doesn’t depict actual animal slaughter, there are references to it through dialogue and visually through expressive movement and projection. We aim to raise attention to the cruelty that occurs behind the closed doors of modern day abattoirs without depicting it in explicit detail, so as to communicate the emotive core of this abusive work.

CM: Does the play have a message to convey? Would you regard it as political?
AB: The play addresses many themes which are inherently political, such as the abuse entailed in the intense labour of slaughterhouse work on the men who are employed, often illegally, in these corporations due to their significant lack of options.

The make up of slaughterhouse workers are often immigrants and those with criminal records; the industry exploits those lowest in society and gets away with terrible conditions believing that those it employs will be too afraid to speak up against it.

The disposable nature of the slaughterhouse work force provides an allegory too for the animals which suffer at the end of this corrupt industry. The lack of compassion that the industry breeds leads to PTSD, mental illness and violence in its workers, which the piece also addresses.

Due to its central themes the play certainly has a political heartbeat, but the way in which the story is told focuses minutely on the personal experiences of its main characters, their relationships and emotional arcs, as a way to access these vital topics.

CM: What made you want to stage a play like this?
AB: Grace Joy Howarth’s play is incredibly original in that it manages to explore the cruelty of slaughterhouse work without practically any mention of the animal suffering. It draws attention to the immense cruelty of this work by focusing on the human expense, and in doing so gives voice to an area of labour which I personally have never seen a play discuss before!

Despite its somewhat heavy themes, the beauty of this play also lies in how well it captures male friendship. The friendship developed by Dan and Kazimir throughout the journey of the story is incredibly funny, moving, inspiring, life like and soulful in its detail, and truly brings its audience into wanting to be in on their jokes too!

It’s a real writing talent to be able to combine both the political and the personal, weaving in so many different vital themes into one story line, and it has been incredibly exciting to bring this piece to life on stage.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright – and what inspired the play?
AB: Grace Joy Howarth is one of the most talented writers I’ve ever met and has immense range. She’s written both ‘Blood On Your Hands’ – a gory new drama exploring such hefty and important themes – and a children’s musical about climate change for four to eight year olds, all within the span of the past year and a half. I feel incredibly lucky to have met her!

A real talent of hers lies in the ability to write shows on such sensitive topics without making them too didactic or moralistic.

Her style of writing focuses on the personal and, as a result, brings audiences into such close contact with the characters’ inner lives that we almost forget what the grand overriding message is – if there even is one for that matter, as she is incredibly generous and trusting in her audiences to think and decipher for themselves. So any message lies in between the lines and in the emotional journeys that the characters go on together.

This script in particular succeeds, in my opinion, in the level of detail that is paid to the individual characters, which earns the audience’s investment in their fates. Grace says she was very interested in bringing light to conversations surrounding mental health and in particular male emotional suppression. She feels these themes can and should expand to include working class and global narratives.

She’s been interested in writing a play about slaughterhouse workers for quite a while as its an area of labour that is spoken so rarely about. The industry is one that is widely ignored by those who do not wish to kill their own meals, and often misunderstood by those who find meat production abhorrent, so the show begins to raise awareness to this cognitive dissonance that is at the heart of our society.

She is a lifelong vegan, and wanted to explore the nuance and grey areas around slaughterhouses, and how animal abuse is almost always followed by a chain of exploitation and abuse of humans too. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
AB: Our cast are an amazing bunch of actors. We met the three lads – Leyon Stolz Hunter, Fred Rawicz and Phillip Jones – at The Greenhouse Theatre last Autumn, when a shorter version of ‘Blood On Your Hands’ was workshopped as part of Patch Plays’ scratch night.

The chemistry between Leyon and Phillip as our Kazimir and Dan is palpable and one directorial challenge is certainly bringing them back to the script as they have so many in jokes that they like to adlib – they do get a bit carried away and the amount of laughter in rehearsals makes me forget sometimes we are staging a play about abattoirs. 

We have two wonderful female actors who have been new characters developed since the shorter version of the script and who have brought so much to the play.

Anastasia Aush is our wonderful Nina – Kazimir’s Ukrainian wife – who is so motivated, compassionate, feisty and certainly the driving force behind many of his actions. Anastasia shared a very apt slavic saying in the first day of rehearsals that says a lot about the play: ‘whilst the man is the head, the woman is the neck – wherever the neck turns, the head must follow’. 

Megan Louise Wilson plays Eden, Dan’s ex girlfriend turned scary animal activist. Megan and Phillip bounce so joyfully off of one another in dialogue about such insignificant things – like KFC and moisturiser – you just want to soak in their company.

I’m very lucky to work with this group who are so dedicated to the play and to their characters, it’s rare to have such a tight knit, dedicated, entertaining and lovely cast. 

CM: Can you tell us about Patch Plays? Is it a relatively new company? How did it come together?
AB: Patch Plays began in August 2020. I started it with a friend, Maria Majewska, and we have been running the company for two years now so we are still very new!

We wanted to create a space where new writing could be developed that explored themes that we believe need to be addressed more in theatre and the arts, being animal activism and environmental sustainability. We have staged two yearly scratch nights where we find amazing artists, writers and actors to collaborate with and two years in a row now they have given birth to our full length productions.

Last year our first show was an original comedy – ‘Meat Cute’ by Bibi Lucille – which I had the honour of directing. It was a farce about a woman who attempts to veganise all of her Tinder dates in the name of animal activism and was a finalist for an Offset Award, which we are so proud of.

We recently staged Grace’s children’s musical which I mentioned – ‘Birdie’s Adventures In The Animal Kingdom’ – with a showing at Polka Theatre, and are continuing to develop it next year.

We have also started to programme variety nights that bring together an eclectic mix of artists and are so excited to see what happens next for our company. It’s been a wonderfully exciting first two years. 

CM: And now, can we talk about you? Did you always want to work in the theatre? How did your career begin?
AB: There is a video of me four years old – with a very strong lisp and, somehow, inexplicably, a Russian accent, despite being born and raised in London, probably from my mother – being filmed by my father and the whole fifteen seconds I spend yelling ‘Papa, Papa, my turn, I want to film Papa’.

Ecstatically, I sort of jumble the camera around once I get it, before it falls to the floor, of course, so my parents say it was pretty clear who was boss from the beginning. I did grow up acting, singing, dancing, doing all those sorts in drama groups and loving it. I even had a flamenco dancing phase. 

I wanted to perform whilst growing up but then discovered directing at university, where I started writing and staging my own work. I started my first theatre company there and that’s where my passion for directing all kicked off! I love so many art forms and in directing I discovered a way to fuse my love for music, dance, art, dramaturgy, stage craft etc, all together.

I then went on to do an MA in directing at Mountview in 2019 and, because of the pandemic, the end of year showcases never happened, which kind of kicked off this appetite to stage my own work and ultimately set up Patch Plays – silver linings!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
AB: ‘Blood On Your Hands’ wise, I would love to continue working on the show and take it to more venues across London, as it’s a script that really deserves to be platformed and heard.

It would be wonderful to bring in more people with the lived experience of having worked in these horrific conditions in development of the play to gain their feedback on it too, and to hopefully bring awareness and give a voice to a group so marginalised in society.

I’m excited to see what comes next for Patch Plays and we will continue staging our scratch nights as fantastic ways of meeting new creatives and breeding new plays that address such important themes that are so close to my heart.

I think the world is growing in the direction of speaking more about animal ethics and reflecting on the part that we play in regards to our natural environment, its creatures and the planet, and I sincerely hope to see more plays in the future that tackle these topics as a part of a wider cause to bring back more compassion to our world, its creatures and, as a result, each other.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
AB: About a week after ‘Blood On Your Hands’ opens I have another show called ‘Darkie Armo Girl’ opening at the Finborough for a month’s run, which I am terribly excited about. It’s a fantastic new show exploring British Armenian identity, intergenerational trauma, mental illness, and a woman searching for love in all the wrong places… The month of June is an exciting one for me certainly!

‘Blood On Your Hands’ is on at the Cockpit Theatre from 9-10 Jun. See the venue website here for more info and to book your tickets.

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