Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Michael Mears: The Mistake

By | Published on Friday 27 January 2023

Coming up at Arcola Theatre is a short run of a fantastic play that had a highly acclaimed stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the summer of 2022.

Written by Michael Mears – who also performs in the play – it’s an exploration, partly using verbatim testimony, of the events surrounding the explosion of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

I wanted to find out more about the play and its creator, whose career has seen him working on a huge variety of projects across stage, film and TV. I put some questions to Michael ahead of the upcoming run.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of ‘The Mistake’? What story does it tell?
MM: The play explores the events surrounding the catastrophic ‘mistake’ that launched our nuclear age. It’s about the events that led up to the building of the atomic bomb and then the consequences of it being dropped on a Japanese city, Hiroshima, at the end of World War Two, in 1945.

With two actors, one British, one Japanese, the story is told predominantly through the eyes of a brilliant Hungarian scientist who helped create the bomb, a daring American pilot who flew the plane that dropped the bomb, and a young woman in war-time Hiroshima who survives the blast and then journeys through the devastation in search of her parents.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
MM: In a nutshell, I’d say the central theme explores the dangers that arise when humans dare to unlock the awesome power of nature.

Scenes early on in the play explore the excitement of new scientific discoveries. But questions are raised about who should then have control over how those discoveries are put to use. The issue of morality – in politics, science and warfare – is a theme.

But on a more basic level, another theme is courage – the courage of individuals, in dealing with disaster or in speaking truth to power.

CM: What made you want to create a show on this topic and these themes?
MM: I read an article in The Guardian on Hiroshima Day in 2002 – an interview with the pilot of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb and an interview with a survivor.

Both their stories were gripping and dramatic. When I then came across the story of Leo Szilard, a nuclear physicist who suffered considerable guilt about his role in helping build the bomb, I knew I had the beginnings of a play.

Perhaps I should also say that I am a pacifist, passionately opposed to nuclear weapons and am concerned that fewer and fewer people know exactly what led to the dropping of the atomic bombs and what their consequences were.

It seems to me that certainly no current politicians or national leaders have read about or are aware of what the truly horrifying effects of dropping atomic bombs are.

The play is not ‘agit-prop’ though, to use an old-fashioned term. It is political, but with a small ‘p’. In the play I try to explore everybody’s viewpoint and beliefs.

CM: Did you always plan to perform in it, as well as writing it?
MM: This is the first play I have written for two people – the first that has been produced, anyway. I have only ever written pieces – all solo plays previously – that are specifically for me to perform.

I originally started doing this at a time earlier in my career when I felt I wasn’t being stretched enough as an actor – so I started creating my own roles and parts. In ‘The Mistake’, I even get to play Einstein briefly – which is pretty cool!

CM: What’s it like being in a play that you wrote yourself? Does it have an impact on your relationship with your director?
MM: One good thing is that if something isn’t quite working for you as an actor you can alter the odd line or scene, without having to ask the writer’s permission – because you are the writer!

I am aware that I have various hats on with my own projects, those of actor, writer, producer – even laundry-master! – which I wear at different times and sometimes all at once!

But this doesn’t really affect my relationship with my director – and I think she finds it helpful being able to get various questions answered all in one place.

When I am in actor mode though, I still relate to her as I would to any other director. It’s just that occasionally I can, as the writer, shed light on things in rehearsal that may have been otherwise puzzling or ambiguous.

I do find myself at times saying, ‘who wrote this stuff?’ – though my director will often say, very kindly, “mm, the writer has written a really good speech here…”

CM: The show was on at the Edinburgh Fringe in the summer. How did that run go? What made you decide to stage the play there?
MM: The run in Edinburgh went better than I could have hoped. We were due to go to the Fringe in 2020 with the play when the pandemic struck, so we had to postpone.

Once things started to open up again, I felt I wanted to pick up where I’d left off – but I wasn’t sure that after COVID, and then with the war in Ukraine, that people would want to see a serious piece of drama in 2022 – that they would just want lighter fare, comedy, musicals.

There are some funny moments in my play, I should say – I’ve tried very hard to make it an exciting, dramatic watch and not just a catalogue of sufferings of those caught up in the blast. But it’s obviously a serious piece at its core.

How surprised we were then when we realised there was an audience for the play in Edinburgh and that word of mouth was really spreading.

It helped, I think, that I had decided to take a morning slot – so people would come to the play, fresh in the morning, ready for some thought-provoking, moving drama, and then when it was over they could go and have lunch – and then see a comedy or whatever in the afternoon.

Why Edinburgh? It’s always a mad-house, always a risk, but it’s such a great place to put on a play – with the possibility that all kinds of people, from all over the world, might come to see it – and some of those might give it a further life. Despite all the difficulties, financial and otherwise, of performing there, it still feels incredibly democratic. Open to all.

CM: What plans do you have for the play going forward?
MM: We were thrilled when the Arcola said they’d love us to come and reopen their Studio 2 space, which had been closed since the pandemic.

But I was already planning an autumn tour of the play this year, for a couple of months around the UK, to theatre studios and non-theatre spaces, as well as some schools, hopefully.

Further afield, we’d love to take the play to the States and to Japan – the two main countries involved in the events dealt with in ‘The Mistake’. Fingers crossed we can make that happen somehow.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, now? How did your career in the arts begin?
MM: I’m an oldie! I find it hard to believe but I’ve been acting professionally for – wait for it – over four decades now!

I started writing and putting on plays when I was seven or eight – at home for family, then at school. In fact, the first play I ever wrote was called ‘Fun At School’, it was five minutes long and was encored four times during the class when we performed it!

Later on, I was lucky enough to go to a comprehensive school in north London which had drama on the curriculum and I got involved in school productions and also with an excellent local youth theatre, Enfield Youth Theatre.

By then I had the bug, and applied for drama school at eighteen and got into Drama Centre, London – just after Pierce Brosnan’s time and a little before Colin Firth’s.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
MM: Hmm, there are so many to choose from. Most of them are in theatre, my first love. Early on I spent a year on the road with the Actors Touring Company playing both Malvolio and Orsino in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’.

We went all over the UK – to places like Salisbury, Scunthorpe, Shropshire… Oh, and also to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, did I mention that?

Playing Fagin in the musical ‘Oliver!’ at the Belgrade, Coventry was great fun too – though trying to handle about 20 local schoolkids as ‘Fagin’s gang’ was quite challenging at times!

Nine months in the West End in ‘The Woman In Black’ was quite an experience. I’d never heard the sound of screams coming from an audience before.

I took my last solo play, called ‘This Evil Thing’, to seventeen non-theatre venues in the Eastern USA in 2018. One performance was to 300 people in a large modern church in Pennsylvania and I remember thinking, no British actor has ever performed a play – and certainly not his own play – in this church before. As the Americans might say – awesome!

On screen, it was a hoot playing Alex Kozobolis – who ran the kebab house in Brixton where Lenny Henry – as Delbert Wilkins – had his pirate radio station – for two series of ‘The Lenny Henry Show’ in the mid-80s.

I could tell even then that Lenny was becoming interested in exploring straight dramatic acting as well the comedy he was so brilliant at.

More recently, I made a tiny appearance in ‘Fleabag’. The chance to watch Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott acting at close quarters for a day was too good to resist.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
MM: More writing. I have another two-hander well on the way – about environmental themes this time – which will also have some music in it. I will probably write another solo play or two.

But I’m also keen to do some more plays where my only task is to act – while someone else writes it, directs it, produces it, administrates it, and does the laundry!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
MM: A long lie down. Though actually it probably won’t be that long! The tour of ‘The Mistake’ this autumn. And who knows what else?

I’m one of those actors lucky enough to usually find work but not knowing – like the bigger names – what I’m doing for the next two or three years. I like not knowing though. You never know what might turn up.

Main thing is, I still love it – theatre particularly. Being in a rehearsal room, and then the buzz of putting the play in front of a live audience – I still get such a kick from it. It keeps me young. And no, I’m not telling you my age!

‘The Mistake’ is on at Arcola Theatre from 31 Jan-4 Feb. Find all the details and book your tickets here.

LINKS: | |