An Interview with Theatre Unlimited’s Rupert Wickham

Ahead of Theatre Unlimited debuting their Living History series next week, a collection of two plays focused on the rise of the Nazis and Stalinist Russia, Impact managed to meet with artistic director, Rupert Wickham. After the success of Defying Hitler adapted by Wickham himself, he has now penned another, Stalin’s Favourite, starring himself. Here, he gives us more information about the upcoming performances.    

So what can audiences expect from the two plays?

Well I adapted Defying Hitler a few years ago for the National Theatre. It’s about a man in Berlin in the 1920/30s, a very civilised, intelligent German person and it is a very ordinary view of the rise of the Nazis. It’s actually based on a book, the autobiography of Sebastian Haffner, quite naively written without the hindsight of the Holocaust which I think makes a gripping narrative for a modern day audience. It brings attention to how easy it is for evil to triumph and how hard it is to judge people, quite soul searching.

Stalin’s Favourite was adapted more recently, about a writer in Stalinist Russia who had written a sentimental wartime poem and this bought him to the attention of Stalin so he quite literally became Stalin’s favourite. It is a play about the not so happy consequences, the character himself is not so admirable, he is vain, not really brave or loyal but he does have a redeeming feature and that is that he cannot forgive himself.

Both plays tell their stories honestly involving people that were not really implicated but were emotionally engaged and so there is a degree of objectivity there, asking the audience what would we have done in their positions.

As they are both one-man shows, did you find working on the monologues quite an intense process?

It was. With Stalin’s Favourite I’ve taken on the role of Konstantin Simonov and having performed Defying Hitler as well, they’re not plays which you could work on in long bursts or straight through, it was important to have thinking space in between, I think. Especially as these were characters which had to be lived, fleshed out. Russell Bright, whose a fantastic actor that I’ve worked with in the past, has taken over from myself as the lead in Defying Hitler. It was time to hand it over and he’s bought a completely new presence to it. We did not want a replica of the previous performance so Russell and the director worked on it, rewrote some of the dialogue to make it more personal to him as an actor. It keeps the play afresh.

For Defying Hitler, how did you choose which parts of Sebastian Haffner’s memoir to include in the performance?

The challenge was making it so that it wasn’t just like a person standing in front of an audience doing a reading of the autobiography but picking and choosing dramatic moments so the audience believes the character is thinking of the dialogue spontaneously. With both plays, they cover a long period of time and I had to be careful not to make it a ‘great history’, instead with the characters grabbing at the past, relaying a muddied history from what they could remember, as they are based on real people.

I read that you got in contact with Haffner’s children. How was that and have they seen the play?

Well it was Haffner’s son, Oliver Pretzel, who translated his father’s autobiography to English and I did consult with him quite a lot through the process. His children, so Haffner’s grandchildren, did come to see the play.

Was that a daunting experience?

It was quite weird actually. I spoke to them afterwards and they were slightly resentful of the play, only because they said they recognised their grandfather in the performance. The things talked about were things they wished their grandfather would have told them himself and not, I suppose, second hand. It just shows how people in that time period were so burdened with feelings of guilt that they couldn’t talk about it, even after so much time had passed.

So after the success of Defying Hitler, how did you approach Stalin’s Favourite?

The main source for Stalin’s Favourite was not actually an autobiography. It was taken from a book by Orlando Figes which was an account of Stalinist Russia in the form of interviews he conducted with people who lived it. There were about 800 people featured in the book and once we had chosen our person, I spoke to Orlando who knew Simonov’s son so some of the personal details were based on that and some are fictional.

You describe these characters as ordinary people. Why do you think their stories should be heard?

Take Stalin’s Favourite. Simonov’s son became a human rights activist, documentary maker and he’s involved in the democratic movement in Russia and I think a lot of his actions have actually gone towards redeeming his father. And in the play this is a concern Simonov has, trying to rectify the situation and this genuinely was achieved through what his son has gone on to do. These people did have an impact. This is the legacy he passed on.

Both plays are set in periods of history that have been scrutinized from almost every angle, in your adaptations did you try to put a new spin on the subjects?  

The growth of this most extraordinary communication system we have, although great, has seen the decline of theatre and an aural tradition, where history was relayed through poetry and troubadours. I think now it’s very difficult for people to grasp notions of the past. My daughter is doing GCSE history and although, yes, you need to know the facts, it is all so dry and far away from people’s experiences. I think there is something in seeing a live performance, a person in front of you, that makes people feel they need to engage with it, makes it interactive and people can empathise.

Was the aim then to move away from facts and figures?

For me, it was a very important thing to write. I lived in Germany for a while and felt on their behalf for the stereotype they have been given. Defying Hitler definitely doesn’t downplay the horrors experienced but I think shows we can’t make a blanket judgement over a group of people who were put under immense pressure by their state to be anything but morally upright citizens. There’s a bit in the play which underlines this which is that the “Nazi revolution blurred politics and private lives, seeping through the walls like poisonous gas”. I think the most important role of theatre concerns empathy and in this way it acts opposite tabloid journalism which aims to make people feel good about themselves by judging or putting down other people. With theatre you get that change of perspective and reflection, putting yourself in someone else’s position and whether you would have the courage to resist that big of an influence.

As the plays are part of the ‘Living History’ series, have you tried to make them work as individual pieces away from the series?

Yes, certainly. We market them as a collection because we go into schools as well as performing them for the general public. I think it’s important to combine both conventional and educational theatre and that’s one of the reasons we’ve come to Nottingham. We’re not really targeting the blockbuster west end audience and The Lakeside Theatre is accessible to schools, has a large student population and an informed general public so there is a wonderful dialogue of generations in the audiences we reach. It’s great as an actor to feel you have a communal audience, especially when after a performance you hear people talking about what they’ve just seen.

And finally are you looking to expand upon the ‘Living History’ series or are there any other upcoming projects you’re working on that we should look out for?

At the moment we’re working on another play which will be a part of the series. That’ll probably be launched next year, and it concerns Nixon and the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. So that’ll be the fourth in the series, the first one being Not About Heroes, so yes we are expanding the series.

Kiran Benawra

You can see ‘Stalin’s Favourite’ on the 26th March and ‘Defying Hitler’ on the 27th March, both at The Lakeside Theatre in Nottingham.

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