Cabaret Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Sarah Kewly: Song, dance, and Magda Goebbels

By | Published on Wednesday 6 March 2013


The rather interestingly-entitled play ‘I’m Just Like Magda Goebbels’ comes to Camden People’s Theatre this week as part of the venue’s four week Sprint Festival. Tackling the subject of how we perceive people who commit criminal acts, this one woman show from producing company Wonder explores its themes in a cabaret style setting, and incorporates song and dance. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? We thought so, so we asked writer and star Sara Kewly a few highly pertinent questions.

CM: Is the play actually about Magda Goebbels, or inspired by her?
SK: Both! It isn’t a ‘biopic’ but there is biographical material about Magda in there, so that the audience can enter into her choices and why she made them. It’s more about my relationship to her and the audience’s relationship to her, than just about her. So I haven’t dyed my hair blonde… yet.

CM: What made you do a piece about her?
SK: I was thinking about how we perceive women who have committed serious crimes. Magda killed her six children at the end of World War 2, which is a highly unusual circumstance, but still a very serious act that contravenes the law. Despite the idiosyncrasies of her situation, I decided to make the show about her because time and geography provided a helpful distance from which to explore. And in the UK, I didn’t feel like her or her story had been over-exposed, so it offered something new.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
SK: The piece looks at how we empathise and how we vilify. What changes how we perceive someone, especially someone who has committed a crime. The Pistorius case is fascinating here – the attitudes towards him and his alleged crime are largely predicated on his hero-who-triumphed-over-adversity status; whereas most people in his situation are primarily judged on the criminal action they are accused of.

CM: The play has some song and dance, apparently. How does this gel with the dark subject matter?
SK: I start with the song and dance! It’s a cabaret style setting, which has always been a place to unpack the dark side of life with a wry smile and hold the fullness of human experience without the false binary of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. If we’re not going to run away from the tragedies of life, we need to find spaces to think and talk about them to help us collectively grapple. Songs are a good way to do that. Also, you have to know what you are dealing with and what is appropriate in any moment – it’s about navigating, knowing when it’s time for a humorous turn and equally when it’s a moment for stillness and solemnity. The show quickly cuts between those two modes, but that also means that the audience know they aren’t going to be in the dark place for too long.

CM: You’ve written this play, and you’re performing it yourself – have you done a lot of one person shows? Why does this medium suit the show you are doing?
SK: This is my first one person show. It’s a bit terrifying. It’s interesting to see my ego in action. But it feels right for this show because it contains autobiographical elements and it’s a personal preoccupation. It also gives me more opportunity to talk with the audience than I might in another show, very helpful here, and which then stops me from missing performing with other people too much.

CM: You work with women in the Criminal Justice System. Can you tell us a bit about what you do with them?
SK: I work as a child-loss counsellor and an arts workshop facilitator in a variety of prisons. I’ve worked in prisons for almost 5 years and done a little work with women leaving prison. The counselling work is one to one over a 3-4 months and the arts facilitation can be anything from a one-off morning workshop, to a three day intensive. Usually the workshops are focused on something like healthy relationships (at least 50% of women in prison have experienced domestic violence) or discovering your skills and talents, with an eye to future employment and they use the arts as a way in. Most women in prison have terrible, terrible self-esteem, so part of anything I do tries to empower the women to make good choices for herself and for society, affirming the idea that what she does and who she is matters, which is directly related to offending (ie what she does has an impact on others). I’ve also done some work on the policy and campaigning side.

CM: You’re also a co-director of Wonder. Can you tell us something about the company and how it works?
SK: Wonder has just relaunched! It’s a participatory arts company that I run with Katherine Maxwell-Cook. We play, poke and provoke to make new multi-sensory new work. We like to seek out undiscovered audiences often in unusual places – for example, prisons or high streets. We work collaboratively with a variety of artists and bring people in to work with us, depending on the project. We are in the process of setting up some theatre-based work in prisons.

CM: Do you have any other shows coming up? What’s next for ‘I’m Just Like Magda Goebbels’?
SK: Later in March we are developing a new show with South Street in Reading with a working title of ‘All Shall be Well’, which will be performance-ready in autumn 2013. It uses the lives of 14th century mystics Marjorie Kempe and Julian of Norwich as a leaping off point. Marjorie wept loudly, frequently and had extraordinary, often sexual, visions of Jesus. She claimed to have thrown herself off towers and survived in between her pilgrimages all over the known world. Julian was an anchorite who lived in one room for 40 years, writing a devotional book Revelations of Divine Love, and was considered a wise woman and near saint. It’s very early yet, so we don’t know how the show will pan out, but we’re working with community performers on it and are keen to start outside on a cart, reminiscent of a medieval mystery play. Magda is hoping to tour festivals and venues later this year!

‘I’m Just Like Magda Goebbels’ runs from 8-9 Mar at Camden People’s Theatre – book tickets from the website here  – as part of the Sprint Festival, which runs until 27 Mar. 

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