Kicking off the New Theatre’s in-house season, Stef Smith’s drama Swallow follows the physical and emotional journeys of three individuals struggling to come to terms with the direction their lives are taking. On the afternoon of the first run, Impact sat down with the cast and crew to discuss the New Theatre’s hard-hitting start to the term.
Anna refuses to leave her flat, instead occupying herself with smashing up objects and avoiding solid food. Rebecca is tumbling into a cycle of anger and despair following the collapse of her long-term relationship. Sam, previously Samantha, is trying to get to grips with a new identity amidst the pressures of a discriminatory and violent society. All it takes is for the trio to meet and their lives will be changed forever.
For producer Rosa Morgan, who has already worked on two previous New Theatre shows, it was important to start the season with something powerful. “There’s a really strong message in this play, especially for a student audience, about how important it is to communicate your problems and not just bottle them up. I think that really appealed to us when choosing the play.”
“We really wanted to accurately portray the mental health issues in the script”
Ted Marriott, an NNT veteran who alongside Essie Butterworth is directing the production, believes that Smith’s script helped them approach such a sensitive subject as mental health. “It’s such an open-ended script: there are no stage directions so you can pretty much do what you want with it. I found that, along with the message of the play, really exciting.”
“I think what drew me to it was how it explored every single emotion,” explains Emily Wightman, playing Rebecca in her first role at the New Theatre. “It’s quite a feeling to be able to go to rehearsals and just emotionally exhaust yourself.”
“I was really drawn to the character of Sam,” adds NNT regular Charlotte Sanders. “He’s a pre-op transgender man, so that was quite a challenge for me as an actor and was something I really wanted to embrace and experience from a completely different angle.”
“We … approached local LGBTQ networks in order to gain a stronger idea of the issues”
Producing a deeply challenging play in a mere two and a half weeks requires a pretty intensive rehearsal process. Luckily for the team behind Swallow, the holistic nature of the process allowed them to get to grips with their characters.
“We really wanted to accurately portray the mental health issues in the script,” stresses Morgan, who along with the rest of the group approached local LGBTQ networks in order to gain a stronger idea of the issues they were about to represent.
“The connections with the local LGBTQ community have really helped with the characterisation of Sam. I don’t think anyone can imagine how difficult transition is until you speak to someone who has been through it.”
“We’ve done a lot of research into our characters because they are so unlike us as people,” agrees Sanders. “Trying to portray these issues as sensitively as possible was really important to us.”
“everyone’s experience of mental illness is completely different”
For Lucy Chandler (Anna), whose previous work includes last term’s topical drama A Doll’s House, removing oneself from the character and acting through the experience of others was vital to the roles.
“I think we really learnt to just detach ourselves and avoid linking our personal experiences to the character’s experiences,” she explains. “One thing I’ve learned is that everyone’s experience of mental illness is completely different.”
As Morgan goes on to state, this is represented in the characters’ different approaches to coping with their situations. “They all deal with each issue differently. Anna destroys everything around her and feels more in control as a result. Rebecca is quite sassy as a character and uses that to deal with problems.”
“It’s important to make the difference clear between people’s individual stories,” agrees Sanders, “Sam’s transition is Sam’s story, not that of someone else going through the same process. Everyone has a different experience.”
“Powerful, gritty and compellingly relevant”
Of course, staging a play based around an emotional rather than linear plotline is far from easy. As Marriott explains: “It’s not really got much story. It focuses more on the character’s journeys and their resolutions towards getting better.”
“The original production is set on a bare stage. We wanted to keep that, as the play isn’t particularly grounded in reality and jumps between the three of them a lot.”
“But we have invented the idea of Anna’s flat on stage. We created a bird’s nest and trashed the back of the stage with rubbish and feathers. Over the course of the play the set gets messier. We’ve also incorporated a lot more tech and music. We’ll be using projections as well, showing TV clips to show what’s going on inside the characters’ heads.”
“It’s uplifting to see that there is a way out for all of them, and that’s rare in university productions.”
Powerful, gritty and compellingly relevant, Swallow takes an uncompromising approach to the experience of coping with mental health problems. However, the team hope that the production will have a more profound effect than simply presenting the issues to the audience.
“It’s heavy but not so much that you’d be crying all the way through,” notes Chandler. “It’s uplifting to see that there is a way out for all of them, and that’s rare in university productions.”
“We’re not trying to bring ourselves down through what’s happening. Instead we’re acknowledging what’s happening and just trying to portray that naturally.”
“I think the play demonstrates just how difficult life can be when living with a mental health illness,” adds Marriott, “but beyond that it also deals with how difficult it can be to survive in the modern world.”
“It shows that you can be very different beneath the surface, and warns people not to judge others on a purely surface level.”
“What we want the audience to take away is that, yes, life can be tough, but you can overcome it.”
Swallow is on at the Nottingham New Theatre 28 February – 3 March.
Play poster courtesy of the Nottingham New Theatre.