Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Interview: Joao de Sousa

Following its Edinburgh run, Joao de Sousa's production of The Curing Room by David Ian Lee has transferred to the Pleasance Islington for a limited run until Sunday 9th November 2014.

Spring 1944 - seven Soviet soldiers have been captured by the Nazis, stripped naked and abandoned in the locked empty cellar of a monastery in southern Poland. Deprived of all resources and ties to the world they knew, the prisoners must redefine their concepts of order and human nature and confront the ultimate taboos - murder and cannibalism – in order to survive...

The Curing Room marks Joao de Sousa’s directorial debut. Last year Joao produced the critically acclaimed theatre production of The Sea Plays (three one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill) at London's Old Vic Tunnels. Before that he worked as assistant director to noted theatre director, Michael Rudman, responsible for casting and directing understudies for productions at the Hampstead Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath (& UK tour), Long Wharf Theatre (USA) and London's West End. 

Joao recently worked for the BBC as an assistant director on their upcoming TV production of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. His other TV work includes first assistant director on the BBC film Coolbox directed by David Farr. He directed the short film Listen to Your Eyes and has worked as assistant to the director on the following films: The Golden Compass and And When Did You Last See Your Father.

I recently spoke to Joao about taking on such a controversial play, the issues surrounding the piece and the extreme ways in which audiences have reacted…

The Curing Room was a huge success in Edinburgh and has now transferred to London. After you first read the play in December 2013 and decided you wanted to direct it, what were the initial challenges?
My first challenge as a director was, ‘How the heck am I going to keep those tensions and relationships meaningful?’ My second challenge was to do with all these props and blood! That was a really interesting challenge, to integrate those into the equation. Once I was able to resolve how I was going to be able to do the stagecraft of this play, then I thought ‘right, now I can get stuck into the play itself.’

There’s no hiding away from the fact that it is a shocking, daring and controversial piece of theatre. That must have brought big challenges too?
It is a show about very dark themes and the dark side of humanity and human behaviour we all know about, but would rather not address. The challenge was to humanise this so these weren’t just nasty, dark themes, but actually part of a very personal struggle for a bunch of individuals in very dire circumstances. The humanity and tone of the piece needs to be right. I think the audiences who have come to see the show have been very surprised; this is not just a play about bloody props and nakedness.

I guess most people don’t know what to expect!
Exactly, they have come to see the show because they are fascinated about the nudity and the grisly cannibalism story, but what’s really rewarding for me is that audiences have left the production feeling profoundly moved by the piece. They forget about the nudity within the first five minutes and then they engage in the struggle of these men and these very difficult circumstances. The humanity reeks through this production! I didn’t know how audiences would respond, but I felt that if I understood the core themes of humanity and dignity and redemption then the darker aspect of the play would fade into the background.

Joao de Sousa & the cast of The Curing Room

How have audiences responded? Have there been any extreme reactions?
[laughs] We’ve had a couple of audience members pass out during the show and one person had to run out of the auditorium to be sick in the bathroom. When I was in Edinburgh I met some Ukrainian and Polish and Russian audience members who had come to see the play because they were interested in the themes. They wept on my shoulders after the play! They were just so deeply touched because they all had stories within their families about the terrible atrocities and degradation and brutality that their grandparents and great uncles had to endure. We’ve had a mixed bag of reactions, but all of them have been very strong.

It seems to be quite an appropriate time for this piece to be staged!
This is a play which is set in a moment in World War II and people are very aware of war themes at the moment. We’re observing the centenary of the First World War, and on the other hand there are still genuine conflicts and atrocities in parts of the world which are referenced in the play. 

How do you think audiences are going to feel throughout? What kind of journey do you take them on?
I think they will go through somewhat of a parallel journey to the characters who are locked in this cellar in this monastery in southern Poland. There is awkwardness in the first few minutes with the nudity, then the tension starts to build when we realise these people have no way out and it’s only going to get worse. We know that the only practical solution is cannibalism. The audience know there is going to be some grisly stuff occurring! Then what happens is that we engage with the story of how these people reconcile what they’re going through. It’s a really awful thing yet they are still human beings and still have dignity and hope. As the play progresses and the body count rises, we are left with this awful feeling of doom… yet there is still a feeling of hope and redemption, and that is what is strangely and beautifully uplifting about this story. The audience go on this amazing journey, but leave the auditorium strangely uplifted. 

The cast of The Curing Room
What have your cast been like to work with? It’s a big play for them to take on!
First of all they really are all brave actors for taking this on. As a production company this is our inaugural production so they didn’t know who we were. One of the interesting things about this company is that they bonded before we actually had out first day of rehearsal. In the callbacks, which was when they mostly met each other for the first time, I asked everyone to go nude for the first time. It was important for me because I had seen many good actors, but I needed to see how they were going to be when they took their clothes off – there were some actors who retreated because they felt embarrassed and awkward. I understand that, but that’s also not something I could work with in the rehearsal room. 

Then we did a photo publicity shoot in a decrepit old factory in Limehouse and these guys stood together naked in four inches of pigeon s**t for this photoshoot so they sort of bonded as a company. Then we went to a Georgian cellar in Essex to film the trailer of our play so they were scampering around naked in this cellar… they got to bond as a unit of men before we had our first day of rehearsal! From that moment is was all about work. They were so eager to get stuck in!

It’s great that they have all transferred to London with the show!
It’s a privilege to have such an ensemble who are so genuinely fond of each other and really trust each other. They’re very supportive of each other! They are also all thrilled to be returning for this run at the Pleasance and… who knows… with a fair wind we might be able to keep this company intact and transfer into the West End! It’s good to aim high, eh?

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

The Curing Room runs at the Pleasance Islington until Sunday 9th November 2014.
Please visit www.pleasance.co.uk for information and tickets.

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