Interview with Nigel Harman and cast of Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses at Trafalgar Studios

Actor turned director Nigel Harman is maybe not the first person you think of in relation to the plays of Stephen Berkoff. Highly experimental, non-naturalistic and often controversial, Berkoff's plays have a history of challenging audiences and seem quite a step away from the 'Eastenders' star and Olivier Award-winning Shrek actor, who has gone on to direct the UK tour of that very same musical.

Meeting him in the rehearsal room for his upcoming double bill of Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses he spoke about the “consuming and powerful” nature of both plays and how difficult it is to step away from them and sit back to talk about them. With Berkoff's name looming over both pieces he begins by talking about the preconceptions that audiences can have when coming to his work in a modern context.

“It's an inheritance from the 80s” he explains. “Part of the reason we wanted to look at it was to revisit him and see where he sits now. He's such a recognisable image, I just wanted to get rid of that. Part of the reason I was attracted to doing this in the first place was trying to do it without the preconception of a Berkoff play. I think you just take out the words Berkoff and just treat it like any other play - it definitely wasn't a case of doing Berkoff first and then looking at the play. I would encourage people to come and watch what we're doing without any of those preconceptions, as I think that's quite an outdated way of looking at it.”

Shaun Dooley and Emily Bruni

As a writer, director and performer Berkoff certainly made his presence felt on modern British drama and his distinct performance style is studied in drama schools around the country. “I'd never really worked on him before so I stayed clear from watching anything” explains actor Shaun Dooley who stars in this two hander alongside Emily Bruni. “I knew there was a specific style so I avoided that but watched a lot of interviews with him at the time to get into his world, the same way as I was looking at any other playwright – you look at the time they were writing it, the world they were writing in and what was causing that kind of stimulus. I looked at interviews about how he was feeling about the theatre, I went that way then explored it as truthfully as possible. I find it hard to go huge unless it's based on something real.”

Dooley also encouraged audiences to approach the play with a fresh perspective. “Some of the writing is so incredible, so poetic and so beautiful. Don't come in with a preconception of the kind of play it is – come open minded and listen to the poetry,” he explains.

Bruni went on to explain how both performers approached the text initially and continue to work on two demanding plays side by side.

“One of the things Nigel said when I met him which I loved, the first time you read it there's this surreality in it, there's lots of violence and lots of sex, but actually underneath it there's a lot of tenderness and a romance,” she explains. “The characters are very vulnerable – it's not initially what it seems. The second play is four monologues so there's about five pages each of speaking. In some ways rehearsing it is interesting because the first play breaks up into sections and each section has different requirements, so you're making different elements work. Some bits are very naturalistic, some bits require lots of physical detail. It's fascinating, the whole form keeps changing.”

“It's a massive learn for both of us. There's no breaks – we're on all the time and we never leave” laughs Shaun. “I'm utterly knackered by the end of the first page...then you remember you've got the whole play to do. I think what is incredibly freeing and frightening at the same time is being open and honest enough to go wherever it feels right to go. To honour the text, if it's in bold capital letters you do it in bold capital letters. It's very exposing. It's raw and frightening.”

Director Nigel Harman

Written twenty years apart Berkoff uses the second play to pick up where he left off with his two characters continuing their story in a new context. I ask Nigel how this time difference matters when presenting both plays together, and if it makes the rehearsal process any easier.

“Very interestingly he wrote the first play in 1983 then he wrote the reply to it which is the same characters twenty years later” he explains. “That in itself is really interesting as a choice for a playwright. Also he is twenty years older, the second play is less verbose although there's a lot of text but he's not as poetic in his language, he's a lot blunter. He's completely acknowledged that's where the characters are. For me it's all in all the pages. I think it's very clever what he does in the second play – his observations of the older generation's rhythms of speech – their bluntness. It actually makes it extraordinarily funny. On one level you think it's so harsh how they speak to each other, then you recognise it in yourself maybe. I think putting them back to back is an incredible thing for two actors to do. The first play is so energetic and forceful, like being on a roller coaster, and the second one is so still, it's just language. You really need two actors who are incredibly brave and have a great range.”

Playing a diverse age range is certainly challenging for actors, and I wonder how both Shaun and Emily have approached the twenty year gap in their characters.

“Most things are completely literal – I just try to think that I'm older”, Emily responds.

“It's in the text and the tempo of the speech patterns of somebody who's not thinking as quickly as they once did”, Shaun continues.

“We're not doing any tricks” confirms Nigel. “It is literally two actors, we give them a coat, that's it. There's been no help from us. It's very much in the body language.” He goes on to explain that the confines of Trafalgar Studios 2 helps this process, providing an intimate setting for both actors to be able to explore their characters in a subtle manner. “We want the audience to be in the play with the people and we've designed it so the audience don't have an easy ride either” Nigel states. “It makes the delivery of the piece more instinctual and the play demands it. That's another reason for doing it small. I think it lends to it – you feel like you're in a pressure cooker.”

Shaun Dooley and Emily Bruni

In discussing the appeal of both plays this challenge to the audience is certainly part of the overall experience of not only Berkoff's work but the production itself.

“I think you'll be surprised at what you find funny but you'll also be incredibly moved” states Nigel. “There's an aching loneliness and by the time you get to the end you really feel for these characters.”

“It would be shame if Berkoff's plays didn't have an audience because of preconceptions of what a Berkoff performance is” continues Shaun. “He is an incredible writer who deserves a platform now, and I want people to see the plays and go back and revisit his other plays to look at them through different eyes.”

"If you're a fan of theatre you should come because it's diluting it right down to its skill set – two actors going at it with an incredible piece of writing” explains Nigel. “We literally only give them a bench and maybe a few sound effects but it's all about performance and being taken on a journey that not many other plays are doing. There's an emotional energetic drive to these plays that is really unique. You may come away with ideas and thoughts about all sorts of things – they're so challenging and so compelling that they have to be witnessed in the room, and that's why I wanted to do it. They are a love letter to plays.”

Lunch and the Bow of Ulysses runs at the Trafalgar Studios 2 from 6 October to 5 November 2016.

Looking for the best seats...