Rehearsals are well underway for The Pulverised, playing at Arcola Theatre on 2 – 27 May. Following a première at the National Theatre of Strasbourg, it arrives in the UK with a new English translation. I sat in on a rehearsal to get an idea of how director Andy Sava plans to realise this complex script, a vital new play about escaping the rat race, overcoming distances and discovering new life.
Director Andy Sava and actor Kate Miles are in the room when I enter, doing some one-on-one work for The Pulverised. Flipchart paper plasters the walls and demarcates the various scenes – it seems at first glance that each actor has separate monologues and so it only makes sense that Sava is splitting these apart to get under the skin of each character. The rehearsal room in the Arcola Theatre has a stripped back feeling to it too, almost as if it itself has shed layers in support of this discovery.
I ask whether Sava thinks the Arcola fits in the play setting and the overall of ethos of Changing Face theatre company:
That’s a very interesting question. The original Arcola building was a textile factory and the whole play is about people spending their lives working for an industry to the point where, for the factory worker in Shanghai for example, her whole life is timed to the second doing delicate manual labour. So, being in this building that used to be an industrial space is incredibly appropriate.
The energy in the room is focused, peaceful and meditative; as I watch I feel privileged to be entering a personal, intimate space where Miles and Sava are finding their way through the scenes as a team.
How have rehearsals gone so far?
Sava: I’m amazed at how well it’s going – I really trust the actors and the designers, everyone is incredibly focussed and have been absorbing things really well. I think there’s going to be a relationship between all of the performers, the audience and the space – it’s quite an important character in the piece actually, the set.
It’s going to be quite layered, it’s an unusual play. We have an almost cinematic video design [by Ashley Ogden] that takes over the space and then we have the set, which is the aftermath of a tragedy. The actors are exploring traumatic memory, trying to find out exactly how it all started, what occurred as the story transforms. They start off as casualties and begin to come back; we have choreographed movement [courtesy of Lanre Malaolu] as well, so it’s a lot to set up.
Has the reality changed from when it was a concept in your head?
When it was a concept you’re sort of set in an empty space, like a husk, something that’s fossilised and solidified. The first idea I had was to use video projections that are essentially nightmares flooding the space. They’re overlaid on each other, people and places.
The back of the set is a false dividing wall (as you would find in offices) that has exploded. That was the one metaphor – the idea that all of these things flood the space but that nothing has any substance, that was the idea.
Then the set designer [Nicolai Hart-Hansen] came in and had this notion that as this destruction occurs, we just suspend it in time and explore the memory of what happened. It’s literally an explosion suspended in time. So, we started looking at pictures of 9/11 and went from there.
Then Miles starts to rehearse; she looks at me in character, fixes me with a glare that catches my breath. Alexandra Badea’s initial script, translated into English by Lucy Phelps, is in 2nd person, intimidating and forceful with every sentence. Miles’ gaze matches that, a fierceness burning in her eyes as she tests the material, shrouds herself in the visage of her character and pulls new personality around herself like a cloak. She uses sound as points of memory, repeats certain lines several times to test their inflection and establish a sense of identity – she is building herself back up, brick by brick.
It’s a very direct language, to work in second person.
Sava: I was very intrigued, I almost assumed that this use of second person was typical in French theatre, but actually it is unusual there too. It’s an arresting choice to any audience.
Did you study the original script as well as Lucy Phelps’ translation? Can you see different concepts that come through based on the intended audiences?
Definitely. We discovered that a great part of translation is in the interpretation and trying to find something that is relatable to a British audience. It seems as though mentioning brand names is key – for a while we almost wondered about whether we should transpose the story and actually set it in Britain. We decided not to because, by association, people will be able to imagine what the original intention in the text was and we worried that going that far might have ended up being a little bit patronising. There was a lot of working backwards to be faithful to the original though.
During the scenes Sava stands back, giving space and patience for the action to occur. She stops the flow sporadically to give some notes, but ultimately observes as the play is slowly assembled before her eyes. She herself remains composed and collected, analysing the scene as the intensity grows. The rehearsal seems to quiver at times, a combination of a classical music crescendo and the ever more exaggerated movement of Miles. A mere twenty minutes that drains me completely as I watch, eyes glued to the action.
A break in the rehearsal lets the other actors return to run pace on another scene. Rebecca Boey, Richard Corgan and Solomon Israel lie on the floor in sync, ready to bounce their lines off each other like a tennis match. Miles and Sava pause every so often, collaborating to unpick and overcome a character block – a single line that feels out of place lends a jarring energy to the scene and Sava is keen not to let the momentum fall. This might be a scene that needs some further work, quickly identified and efficiently scheduled in for another rehearsal.
The Pulverised is a show that transcends nationality, looks past cultural idioms and behaviours to a world where internationality has become the overriding identifiable norm. Sava is keen to explore this on multiple layers, adding complexity and depth to the production:
The Pulverised looks at the evolution of international corporations and how they’ve normalised and standardised the world – we start off with someone that wakes up in a different hotel room every night as they travel the world, but never remembers where he is because they all look identical. It’s almost impossible every time to find clues – he scrolls through the news and it takes a really long time to backtrack where he is, his itinerary. Essentially all of these identical places recur, from New York to Singapore, Shanghai and across the world – they have essentially layered on something that’s quite superficial but feels artificial.
They’re people stranded in this multi-national space; wherever you land them they are equally challenged by the circumstances.
“It’s quite an important character in the piece actually, the set.”
As a director, there is the opportunity to take advantage of the multiple nationalities within the play. For this, are you having to ignore the differences and look past that?
To be honest, yes that’s quite a challenge within the play itself. The Pulverised has been staged in France, in Germany, in Holland, in several other countries, but has never before had a multi-ethnic cast. This is the first time that we’ve done that so we are probably finding it less challenging than we normally would.
It’s all there in the language; one of the central problems is how the characters have to adapt themselves to working in this globalised corporation by trying to strip away their cultural identity – by virtue of that, that identity features quite prominently. One of the locations for example is in a call centre in Senegal, but because they’re selling to French clients the staff have to take on French names and eat French food, so they have a premise to connect with the person they are trying to sell to. The same in Romania, in Shanghai – everyone essentially is trying to imitate the parent company in France, trying to apply the same standards.
It’s an active disregard for the differences in culture in favour for applying the corporate blueprint.
But while that active disregard is being imposed we see quite a lot of the culture coming through. It’s definitely very layered! Because the set is quite abstract and the language is very intimate, you have these people confessing; everyone will very much be able to have their own relationship with it and take something different away from it. The characters are almost a vehicle to go on the journey.
“Being in this building that used to be an industrial space is incredibly appropriate.”
After rehearsals, I briefly catch up with Sava to talk about the future of the production and her own personal background as a director.
The Pulverised plays at the Arcola until 27 May and then goes up to York Theatre Royal, which is where you started your career. How does it feel to go back there?
I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience. I haven’t been back since I moved down to London; it’s always nice to return home. I’ve never staged anything in the studio there, I’ve only done the main house.
Why did you get into directing?
I’m naturally a storyteller – when I was first drawn to the theatre I didn’t know why, I think I originally wanted to be an actor like everybody does. Then I realised that with my accent I would probably end up being a Polish prostitute in BBC dramas! But also, I didn’t quite enjoy being watched, which is quite essential if you want to be an actor. Directing just sat naturally with me, there are certain things you try that just click and you know.
“It’s all there in the language.”
Who do you consider to be your inspiration?
I think nowadays if you want to be a theatre director, you have to a bit of an entrepreneur. You have to be able to get your work on, which can be quite interesting. When I moved to London from York, I thought that I had quite a good CV. I signed up for the Young Vic Director’s Network and I realised I was one of 990 people that were breaking in at the same level, so it can be quite an interesting challenge to break in! You need to be an entrepreneur as well as an artist, so I’m probably going to go with Warren Buffett.
Is there any hope for the show to continue after Theatre Royal?
We’d like it to travel, it’s such an international piece and given where we are, with what’s happening in Europe, it’s quite important to explore the realisation. It’s perfect for Changing Face and the Arcola because they’re both dedicated to diversity, to different cultural identities. I think both companies are very much focussed on European work and it’s the first time it’s been staged in the UK.
There feels like a real hunger for international work at the moment.
When I first started developing it and thought about bringing it to the UK, I had no idea that it was going to be so topical, so now it’s charged with a completely different energy. It’s a different play from what I set out to stage initially. The time period completely changes the context and the reception as well.
“It’s an arresting choice to any audience.”