*Originally written for Exeunt*
Three months ago, when I last chatted to Alex Waldmann, the actor was looking forward to starting a run of All’s Well That Ends Well alongside Hamlet and As You Like It in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford, safe in the knowledge that he would be in employment for the near future. Once the company finishes its run in Newcastle in November, however, Waldmann will be joining the hordes of unemployed theatre professionals once again. That’s not to say he won’t be busy, however; a few years ago, he and his wife Amelia Sears set-up SEArED to produce “new writing and neglected classics” (though they “didn’t really know what that meant at the time”), which has in the past taken shows to Edinburgh and produced Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle with Homeland star Rupert Friend. This month they open with a revival of David Storey’s Home at the Arcola Theatre.
They chose the play, Waldmann tells me, because “we were fascinated to see if in our desensitised, violence-exposed, media world it would still be shocking. But the other angle we were more interested in was xenophobia, insularity and fear of the other. Those attitudes in the seventies – when it was first written – actually didn’t seem so different to now. So in a time of economic crisis, when people are down in the dumps and their world is falling apart, we tend to scapegoat”. This “politically conscious” work (which, Waldmann concedes, is a bit of a misnomer as “any play that you put on which people come to watch live is ‘political’ in the broader sense”) continues this year with Storey’s 1970 work which, by situating itself in a mental asylum, tackles questions of mental health.
As this topic comes up, Waldmann sparks off, throwing out questions that Home asks: “at the moment we spend more money on trying to treat mental health than almost anything else, and there’s all kinds of fascinating articles in the Guardian every week, and what we’re trying to question is: have we really come on in the way we treat mental health? Or do we just have more fancy names to diagnose the condition, but it’s still equally taboo? Do we really have a solution? When we’re living in an age with an ageing population, do we really have a solution or are we trying to sweep it under the carpet?” I offer that Adam Curtis’ The Trap may be on to something with the suggestion that increased depression is caused by the pressures of late capitalism, and Waldmann adds that its “isolation and loneliness” that truly terrifies him. “When I go to pick up my daughter from nursery and she’s playing by herself, the thought of that kills me. Loneliness is the thing that really breaks both [mine and Amelia’s] hearts and we can’t really deal with it.”
Citing Jerusalem as a source of inspiration, Waldmann observes that a lot of his work over the past few years has been concerned with the question of Englishness, from the haphazard oddities of King John (which assumed the Mobot into its performances during the Olympics) to the hippy-filled idylls of As You Like It. His work with SEArED has thus also been interested in this question, with Potter’s work interrogating fractured relationships and Home asking “how we feel about home and what it is to people, talking a lot about ‘this little island’ and questioning what it means to be English.”
Storey’s name, however, is not often one which is placed in the rankings of other 70s theatrical heavyweights, however (“there’s something stylistically that’s a bit more subtle”), which means this may be a tougher sell than Brimstone and Treacle. Waldmann and his team, however, are confident that they can bring this work to more people, bringing it “to a new audience whilst hopefully reaching out to those who would have seen it before and might see it in a completely different light”. Naomi Dawson’s “absolutely authentic” design will, Waldmann hopes, demonstrate that “nothing’s changed… the audience will come with a modern mentality and see what they want to see. It’s all about the audience.”
These questions of audience and market potential are questions which need to be asked as a producer but have less importance when actively treading the boards. Interestingly, however, Waldmann suggests that acting and producing “feed into each other”: “When I’m working as a producer I probably have that actor’s mentality of ‘How do we treat people right?’, having been on the other side where things haven’t gone so well. And conversely, as an actor, I can’t help but think about the overall thing”. Ultimately, he and Sears have a dream of “running a building together”, so this somewhat radical idea of a ‘commercial’ producer (“there’s nothing commercial about it”) treating his actors – many of whom will be struggling to make a living – well ensures a contingency for the future.
It seems to me that more and more actors are discussing the issue of employment now than ever before. It’s always been a given that you’ll go months on end without work and has commonly been accepted, but many eyes are looking over towards long-term European repertory companies enviously, as it becomes ever clearer that there are other systems to work within. To this end, more theatre artists are learning and understanding a wide range of disciplines to help their future prospects, “take some control” and encourage collaborative processes. Is this something we’ll see more of in the future? Waldmann pauses. “I think it’s as much for your sanity as much as anything else. The busier I am, the better my brain works. It keeps you occupied and busy, and allows you to put your energies into something worthwhile. So I’d recommend that for people starting out, it is worth having something else to do. Creatively, the more you know about other things can only enrich you.”