Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Stuart Slade: BU21

By | Published on Monday 14 March 2016


The next show to open over at the fantastic Theatre503 is a new play from acclaimed ‘Cans’ writer Stuart Slade, a highly topical piece about the fallout from a horrifying terrorist incident, and what happens to those attempting to live with its aftermath.
It’s heavy going subject matter but one which, I’ve no doubt, the playwright will handle with an extremely deft touch. To find out more about ‘BU21’, and get an update on what he’s been up to of late, I spoke to Stuart ahead of the upcoming run.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of the show? What happens in it?
SS: First of all, hello again, ThisWeek London. It’s lovely to be talking to you again.

‘BU21’, my new play, follows six Londoners for a year following their involvement in a huge terrorist incident.

Basically, an unnamed terrorist organisation (it’s clearly ISIS) shoot down a passenger plane over West London with an anti aircraft missile, killing many hundreds of people in the air and on the ground.

Incidentally, ISIS do in fact possess more than a hundred of these missiles, so although it’s fiction, it’s quite chillingly plausible.

Oh, and it’s a comedy.

I know, right?

CM: Obviously, the play deals with this act of terrorism, but what wider themes do you aim to address in it?
SS: The play isn’t, as one of the characters accuses it of being, ‘a circle jerk of misery porn’. It’s not about suffering per se, it’s about how people encounter, deal with, and sometimes overcome, suffering.

It’s basically an optimistic play about hell on earth, I guess.

Specifically the point of departure for the play is terrorism, but I hope the themes work more widely than this. One day, after all, bad shit is going to happen to all of us – you may be caught up in terrorism, sure, but if it’s not that it’ll be something else – a loved one will die, you’ll lose your job, you’ll have your heart broken, whatever.

Experiencing how other human beings deal with trauma, even in a fictional setting – in fact particularly in a fictional setting (after all what on earth is the point of the theatre unless it’s a safe place where you can say the unsayable, think the unthinkable?) – I think that’s useful whatever the situation is.

CM: What inspired you to write a play about this particular topic?
SS: My five year old daughter, Lucy.

One summer’s morning last year we were waiting for a play-date with her best friends, sitting in a park in Fulham. It’s on the flight path to Heathrow and the planes zoom over every thirty seconds or so. She looked up and asked me “Daddy, what would happen if one of those planes crashed on our heads?”

I sort of fudged the answer, in the way familiar to all parents. Having kids may have many glorious benefits, but it also turns you into a very plausible liar. Is that a benefit?

That morning, though, I’d read an article in the New York Times about ISIS having a bunch of highly sophisticated anti aircraft missiles, and a chill went through me.

I mean, if I was a terrorist (I’m not, I promise) that’s exactly what I’d do. It’s easy to plan, simple to execute, with minimal risks of detection. Textbook plan, I’d have thought – actually, it doesn’t bear thinking about, so let’s move on…

CM: You have based this on testimonies gathered from recent real life incidents of terrorism. Is this a verbatim sort of piece, or was that just a starting point?
SS: It was really important that the play was as authentic as possible, so I spent a long time – more than a year, actually – reading the testimonies of people caught up in 7/7, the Paris attacks, 9/11, MH17, Lockerbie and elsewhere. A lot of this process was extraordinarily heartbreaking, of course, but I came away from the stories, read as a whole, vastly more inspired than depressed.

What came out very strongly wasn’t how defeated people were, but often, the opposite – how courageous, how brave, how resourceful, how kind. It was a humbling process.

At the end of that process though, the director, Dan Pick and I realised that we didn’t want to just steal people’s stories – that felt very horribly disrespectful and manipulative – but instead we used the themes generated by real-life testimony to produce something that’s a weird hybrid between fiction and reality.

CM: What other research did you do for the piece? Was putting this together an emotionally charged experience?
SS: So I’m a total geeky research freak. I read all the first hand testimonies I could find, and then I ploughed through the academic works on PTSD and Trauma more widely, and then a quick detour through the philosophical stuff about the Obscene Real, and then a bunch of TV documentaries and then – well then I sort of put it all to one side, tried to forget about it, and come up with something that was new, but true. Sorry, I didn’t mean that to rhyme. What a dick.

Putting it together wasn’t particularly an emotionally charged experience – I’m a Gradgrindy plodder, I do 5 pages of dialogue every day until I reach 90 pages, and then I stop, sort of like a very tedious Writing Terminator. I’m naturally a flailing mess, so in my writing I force myself to be almost absurdly disciplined. Have to.

Rehearsing it, on the other hand – that’s been quite draining. I mean, I’ve spent vastly more time laughing than anything else, because the cast are, quite literally, the Best Actors In the History of Acting, but a couple of times I’ve missed my stop on the District Line because I’ve been in floods of silly tears like a big silly baby.

CM: You wrote the play with this cast in mind, didn’t you? Can you tell us a bit more about this compelling bunch?
SS: I try not to be gushy, but our six actors are properly astonishing. I mean, they’re totally next level, blow the top of your head off fucking wonderful. Look – they’re so good they could read out the phone book and it would feel like Hamlet. Honestly, I go into rehearsals each day and I just can’t believe my luck as they take the nonsense I wrote and turn it into – well, I leave each evening, shredded with gratitude, awe and wonder.

And it’s not just the actors – the whole of the Creative Team, the Production team, the PR and Marketing guys, the theatre – getting to work with people this good is like winning the lottery every single day.

Am I being gushy? I don’t even care. I love you, guys. I literally love you with all of my stupid little heart.

CM: Last time we talked to you, you were in the middle of ‘Cans’ – how did that go, and what have you been up to since then?
SS: I always expect my plays to be a total catastrophe, so when they’re not, I’m totally delighted. ‘Cans’ was a fantastic experience – we got some very, very kind reviews, a couple of very flattering award nominations, the audiences seemed to dig it, and we had a total and utter blast.

After we finished our run at Theatre503 the play was on first in Milan and then in Rome – seeing how different audiences responded to it was properly amazing – and I now know the Italian words for all the major swearwords, and in particular how to say ‘Fucking evil fucking banshee fishwife cunt’ in a passable Milanese accent.

That’s something, right?

Apart from that I’ve written a play for older children, commissioned in Italy too. If that sounds implausible to you, imagine how the poor Italian parents and grandparents will take it when their little darlings come on stage, snorting drugs, casually fucking each other, and murdering their teachers. I mean, the kids will adore it, hopefully, but – wow. I might sit at the back so I can make an emergency exit if I need to.

CM: What’s next for you? Anything new in the planning stages?
At the moment I’m halfway through a comedy about involuntary euthanasia. I never learn, do I?

One day I’ll grow up. I promise, Mum, honestly. But it’s probably not going to be any time soon. Soz.

‘BU21’ is on at Theatre503 from 15 Mar-9 Apr. See the venue website here for more info and to book.

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Photo: Dan Pick