Friday, 4 March 2016

INTERVIEW Simon Dormandy, director of Luce at the Southwark Playhouse

WITH the threat of extremism and terrorism ever present in our lives it is perhaps timely for a play about such a subject to be staged.
Luce, written by JC Lee, comes to the Southwark Playhouse next week where it will get its UK premiere. Directed by former actor and teacher Simon Dormandy it boasts a six-strong cast including Bake Off star Mel Giedroyc.
For Simon it is an exciting prospect - not only to work with Mel and on a play which he says is both thrilling and gripping, but also for it to receive its UK premiere at the Elephant & Castle-based theatre which he describes as "wonderful".
“It is very exciting and I’m thrilled to be directing this fantastic play,” he tells me in a break from rehearsals.
“It is disturbing, thought provoking and a bit like a thriller as the audience is presented with the story but really have no idea what’s going to happen and how it's going to be resolved."
The play itself is set in an ordinary American town and centres on a nice American family of two white parents who adopted an African war orphan, Luce, when he was seven.
Now 17, he is every mother and teacher’s dream - he’s hard working, clever, a great athlete and destined to go to a top university. In short he's an inspiration and a role model for other students.
That is until one day his teacher reads an essay he has written in praise of extremism and terrorism and in which he extols the virtues of right wing European nationalism.
His teacher is so unnerved that unable to let it pass, she searches his locker and to her dismay finds lethal explosives.
It is at this point that the lives of those involved unravel.
"It's every parent and teacher's nightmare," says Simon. "Throughout the play it raises troubling questions about parenting, schooling, racism, terrorism, extremism and growing up as a young black man in a mainly white society.
“The audience will be challenged by it and it will certainly resonate with anyone who is a parent or teacher.
“A very big part of it is about what happens when you put someone on a pedestal, live your life through them and what damage it can cause – and how you can kill someone with kindness.
"What the play exposes is how teachers and parents put their expectations on young people and create the pressures that lead to rebellion or that lead them to do things to get some freedom.”
Despite its dark storyline, Simon insists it's also very funny and bringing Mel Giedroyc in to play Amy, Luce's mum, will bring the humour to the fore.
"It's extremely tightly and beautifully written," he enthuses. "I came across it in 2012 after the events of 7/7 and before the atrocities of San Bernadino and Boston. Of course since then there have been other incidents such as the Paris attacks which make it even more relevant.
"Apart from the fact Mel's in it, and she's brilliant, there is a hairaising sense that it is a play about something that not enough people are writing about - seeing these things from the perspective of those who may or may not be perpetrators in these dreadful atrocities.
"But the sheer quality of the writing is what makes it. Every page is exciting to read and to act. It’s fast paced, lean and witty and puts the audience in an uncomfortable position. It definitely holds a mirror up to our society.
"It was also important to me to cast people who the audience can identify with," he adds. "Mel is a case in point. She plays Amy, a sweet, lovely, funny and eccentric modern young mum and as the play evolves she makes decisions which will make the audience sit up and think.”
Although Simon started his career as an actor, performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at The Old Vic among others, he says he has no desire to be on the stage with the rest of the cast stressing his acting days are very much behind him.
Instead he's very much loving directing, a career that he's enjoying after a 15-year stint as a teacher at Eton College.
It was here that he taught the likes of actors Tom Hiddleston and Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne although he dismisses any idea that he might have had something to do with their successful careers.
"They were both academically very able and I knew they were both extremely good actors at school," he says.
"They are phenomenal actors - the finesse and detail of their work is incredible - but they would be so even if they’d never met me.
"I went into teaching as I didn’t find acting completely satisfying and wanted to work in a slightly different way.
"However, I had always tended to think a bit like a director and was fascinated by the structure of drama and how to make it.
"After about 15 years teaching I wanted to see what it was like working with professionals again so I changed tack and moved into directing."
And he says he doesn't regret his decision and is pleased to be working at the Southwark Playhouse, a venue he's not worked at before.
"It's an exciting place," he says. "It's one of those wonderful small venues where they take on new writing and make brave decisions.
"I really admire their programming and I'm thrilled to be here and directing such a great piece of work with such a talented cast."

Luce is on at the Southwark Playhouse between Wednesday, March 9 and Saturday, April 2. Tickets cost £20. or call the box office on 020 7407 0234

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