Thursday, 15 December 2016

INTERVIEW Nick Holder, Love at the National Theatre

Nick Holder as Colin in LOVE. Credit Sarah Lee

THIS Christmas more than 50,000 families in London will be spending the festive season in temporary accommodation. In the UK as a whole, 120,000 children will be waking up homeless this Christmas Day.
These stark figures, released by housing and homelessness charity Shelter in November from official government data, also reveal that the number of families living in emergency B&B and hostel rooms has risen by 18 per cent in just a year, as local councils battle to find homeless families anywhere else that is stable or affordable to go. 
Not only that, many families are being forced to live in one room and share bathrooms and toilets with other residents in the building. 
Officially people classed as homeless should only be in temporary accommodation for a maximum of six weeks. However as playwright and theatre maker Alexander Zeldin found out, this can often last much longer.
It prompted him to write a play exploring and showing the issues faced by those forced into temporary and emergency housing. Now, a year after he began the process, LOVE has just opened on the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage.
The play was written through a devising process with the cast and focusses on three families who find themselves without a home - a middle aged man with his elderly mum, a young family with a baby on the way and a newly arrived woman from Sudan.
They are all strangers but they are forced together in a building in which they have no personal space and no privacy.
Among the cast is Nick Holder, who has appeared regularly on stage at the National Theatre over the past 26 years.
The Honor Oak-based actor says that far from being a work of fiction, this is very much the reality for thousands of people across the country.
And he is unapologetic when it comes to being angry about the situation which he describes as a “scandal”.
“We are living in a first world country in the 21st century and yet here we are with thousands of people living in temporary, shared and squalid conditions,” he says.
“And not only that, most of these people are there through no fault of their own and at the mercy of greedy landlords forced into living in one room, sharing a bathroom and paying over the odds for it. 
“It’s a national disgrace.”
I speak to Nick in a break from rehearsals in which he tells me they are still working on the play, tinkering with it and refining it for its month long run at the National before it goes to Birmingham.
He tells me it took a year to write and has been a “long haul” to get to the stage, not least because the subject matter is harrowing, and emotionally and physically tough to act out, but also because they wanted it to be true to the testimonies of people they spoke to and met during the research period.
“Initially we were given a document from Shelter which contained first person statements about the lives of those in temporary shared accommodation,” he says.
“It made for shocking reading. People are made homeless for all manner or reasons - whether it’s the delay in a benefits payment, being made redundant, being kicked out of your home by your parents or other reasons.
“By law, people are only supposed to be put into temporary accommodation due to homelessness for six weeks but we found many were there for up to two years and left waiting for something more permanent.
“That started our investigation into who these people are and how far away are we from being those people ourselves. In many cases it’s just one month’s salary.”
It was from this starting point that the cast alongside Alexander got together and began to write and devise the work through rehearsals. They also went out across the country meeting and speaking to as many people as they could who had been forced into temporary accommodation and seeing first hand the conditions in which they were living and recorded hundreds of hours of video tape testimonies. 
It was, says Nick, a “complete eye-opener” and one that was far more harrowing and shocking than he had ever imagined.
“I come from a working class background and I was appalled by what I’d seen,” he says. “You do think there is a welfare state that at some point would provide a soft landing but there is nothing there for some people. It’s terrifying and Kafka-esque.
“Thank goodness for Shelter who are trying to address these issues.”
In the piece, Nick, who was last seen at the National earlier this year playing Mr Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, plays Colin who is 51 and lives in one room with his 80-year-old mother. And it’s a situation Nick says is more common than people may think.
“On our travels we met one family which comprised an 80-year-old woman living in one room with two grown up sons,” he says. 
“One had severe special needs and the other had addictions. They had been chucked out of their home by the council and put into temporary accommodation while the council tried to find something more suitable for them. What they were left with was two mattresses on the floor and a sofa.
“And this is not an isolated case. Elsewhere we found a family living in one room and sharing a bathroom with other people, some of whom were drunk or drug addicts and where the mum had to get up at 5am to clean the bathroom so her children could use it. 
“What’s more people end up languishing in these places for months and sometimes years on end. It’s shattering.
“The cramped, dirty and dreadful conditions these people find themselves in are utterly Dickensian and yet here we are in 2016. This year is also the 50th anniversary of Ken Loach’s brilliant and seminal film Cathy Come Home. You would think that things have got better since then but actually what we have seen is that austerity is worse now than it was then, people are poorer and there is less work - it’s terrifying.
“It’s dehumanising, utterly appalling and it’s happening now.”
Throughout our chat Nick speaks with passion about the issues and it’s clear it’s been a project he’s not only proud to be involved with but that he’s proud of the National for staging it.
“I’ve worked here for 26 years and I’ve never felt the building be more alive,” he says. “It is all as a result of the programming by [artistic director] Rufus Norris.
“They are making work that reflects society - it’s the nation’s theatre and they are being more diverse and inclusive and representing the society in which we live. It’s not elitist, it’s hugely diverse and exciting and staging this play proves it.”
Indeed he says LOVE aims to hit audiences, showing them the reality of what is going on in the country around them - in the next street, the next borough and the next town. And he says that while it doesn’t pull any punches it does aim to see if it’s possible to maintain a connection or love or humanity when someone feels out of control and in this kind of situation.
“It’s going to be quite electric,” he says. “We have a government pushing through all these austerity measures and blaming people for being poor. It’s a conscious cruelty being inflicted on those who don’t have a voice by those who have the ability to stop it.
“Everyone can read the stats. What we are really trying to do is show the effects of that brutality on human beings. How do they react and respond to it and how do we in turn respond.
“During our research we met so many people who aren’t able to help themselves due to their circumstances - whether it’s being born into poverty, having mental health issues or an accident of birth.
“Some do manage to maintain their dignity and we try and show some of that but most find themselves stuck in these places not knowing how to access people with a voice to help them. They either die in these places or end up on the streets.
“So, yes it will be hard hitting and hyper naturalistic and a lot of it is in real time so we want people to come and bear witness to things we hear about on the news. And as there is no interval, once you are in there is no escape!” he chuckles.
“There is also some humour in it - it’s not all misery porn! People find humour in situations and being pushed together it creates really interesting scenarios.”
I ask what he’d like audiences to take away from the play and his answer is genuine and heartfelt.
“I would like people to be really really angry and realise that talking about it on Twitter won’t do anything,” he says.
“People are dying in these rooms, poor, cold and hungry. What’s important is action, giving a few quid to Shelter or going in and helping these people.
“I wouldn’t get involved in something that’s tokenistic. But the fact is people are dying every day and all we need to do is build houses and give them jobs.
“Ideally we would like to take audiences into the temporary accommodation shelters we have been to so they can see it first hand as these people will tell their story better than we can but it’s not possible so we are doing it here.
“It’s not been an easy process getting it to the stage. It’s been emotionally draining and we are on our knees with it, but it’s a story that is worth telling - and tell it we must.”

LOVE plays in the National’s Dorfman Theatre until January 10, 2017 and is produced in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre where it will appear between January 26 and February 11, 2017. Tickets cost from £15. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

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