How did an off-the-cuff response to a Theatre 503 show lead to The Ballerina premiering in New York before coming to his year’s VAULT Festival. Playwright Anne-Sophie Marie explains. Read her interview then book your tickets!
Her piece, described as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness meets Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, runs at The Vaults from 18-22 March 2019.
Set in a country not so far away, British diplomat Colin Clutterbuck is brutally arrested by the National Intelligence Agency. Thrown into a cell and accused of conspiring to overthrow the government, Colin fights back with wit and great British banter. Faced with infamous master interrogator Pacifique Muamba, the young diplomat is about to be painfully re-educated and taken to the brink of madness.
The sophisticated and intelligent Muamba represents the individuals behind dictatorships, and compels us to question, who are these individuals really and, more importantly, who could they have been?
The Ballerina, shortlisted for Theatre 503’s 2016 Playwriting Award, explores the aftermath of colonial rule in an unnamed African country and the resulting destruction of a European presence within the continent, exploring how contemporary Western audiences consider, or don’t consider, the impact of their foreign policy around the world. It was first staged at New York’s Theatrelab in January 2019.
The production is directed by James Scotland, who co-founded producers Outer Gaea, a London-based, international theatre company with a mission to create theatre accessible to all. His on stage credits include Dangerous Lady (Theatre Royal Stratford East), Cymbeline (Arts Theatre) and House of Atreus (Keochang International Festival of Theatre).
Anne-Sophie Marie on The Ballerina
What inspired you to write The Ballerina?
Three things happening within the same week: I saw Ken Urban‘s Sense of an Ending at Theatre 503 and a friend encouraged me to write a Rapid Write Response to it. Soon afterwards, an actor I was in class with mentioned he would love to play a spy but never got in the door for those roles. And then someone told me a story about a civil servant who decided to use sarcasm in the middle of a rather frightening situation.
How much research did you do to create the piece?
It doesn’t feel like much now, but it was spread over four years, so probably a fair bit! I spoke to a few people with first hand experiences relevant to the play, read quite a few articles and documents linked to civil right activists and NGOs. James, who I met during the 503’s Rapid Response staging (he played Pacifique) also sent me research material, as did Anoushka Bonwick who directed that version.
Did you draw inspiration from anyone to create the character of interrogator Pacifique Muamba?
Yes, but loosely. Funnily enough though, some things I thought I’d invented turned out to be true to character, or at least according to an article I found much later.
How did it feel to premiere it in New York last year?
Like a homecoming: I trained as an actor in New York and studied in the US before that, so it was an amazing experience to share the piece with my drama school and university friends. It was interesting to see how the piece, though it revolves around a British diplomat and an African intelligence director, seemed to really resonate with its New York audience. The New York premiere also influenced the script, as the play opened during the Government shutdown. Before New York, the play was set “now”. After New York, it changed to the 24 January 2019.
And it was my first time seeing a woman play Colin; it was great to see this character worked as a Gender Blind role (Chelsea Smith was fantastic). In the developmental stages, I’d seen four male Colins (Robin Morrissey, George Johnston, Blake Kubena and Julian Kostov, who all helped me flesh out this character).
Last but not least, I was a bit nervous seeing a new actor play Pacifique (this had always been James’s role), but Robert Hunter was great.
How are you feeling about giving it its UK premiere at Vault Festival?
Like it’s another homecoming, actually! As mentioned before, the play started at a Theatre 503 Rapid Write Response directed by Anoushka, with James as Pacifique and Robin as Colin. After a few people encouraged me to develop it further, James, Anoushka and I reconvened at a Rose Playhouse scratch night organised by Pepe Pryke, then a rehearsed reading and the staging of an earlier full length version produced by Nobody’s Empire at the Landor Space (they had a program for new theatre makers which was the brainchild of Or Benezra-Segal). Along the way, the script was longlisted for Theatre 503’s Playwriting Award and shortlisted for the Park Theatre’s Script Accelerator program, so The Ballerina feels very much like a London baby.
I’m also very excited to see the play at the Vault, as I believe it’s a great physical space, with the audience having to go through tunnels to get to the show. Possibly similar to Colin’s own journey into the interrogation room.
Has the piece altered at all since its US run?
As mentioned before, the play is now set in late January 2019. And there is a third character who I’m oddly excited to see. The Vault show will be 60-minute version of this new script (which I’m guessing would be 80-90 minutes total), so there will be a few cuts…
What can audiences expect from a trip to see The Ballerina?
It might depend on the night and before that, on who James casts. I’ve seen earlier versions that showcased the absurdist, comedic side of it more, while also playing with the political thriller aspects. In New York, I remember some very tense moments, a darker ending and a sense of almost literally going down the rabbit hole. So who knows that the Vault will bring…I look forward to finding out!