Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Alex Swift: An Injury

By | Published on Wednesday 12 July 2017

A few months ago we interviewed Keiran Hurley about his recent success ‘Heads Up’, which stormed the Edinburgh Festival last year, and we were pleased to hear that a new play by the acclaimed writer and performer makes its way to Ovalhouse this month.
Another thing these two shows have in common is Alex Swift, who co-directed ‘Heads Up’ and who is director and co-creator of the new peice, ‘An Injury’. I spoke to Alex to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the show is about, and how it is structured?
AS: An Injury is a play about violence and the many ways it shapes our lives and our world.

As for how it’s structured – well… I’ve literally never read a play like it, so it’s pretty difficult to describe. Ummm… imagine Bertolt Brecht smashed through the prism of late Sarah Kane. We’ve been trying to find a language which lets us talk unflinchingly about violence, but which doesn’t reproduce or replicate that violence. It turns out that’s pretty tricky, but we think we’ve gone some way towards doing it…

CM: What themes does the play explore?
AS: Umm, violence (big and small, loud and quiet), the distance between us and the need to cross that distance, alienation, the way we become complicit in stuff we would oppose if only we knew how, surveillance, the ways in which you can know that the world is fucked up on a systemic level, but somehow that thing and the hurt it causes is so slippery you can’t even name it, can’t even talk about it without finding a special language to do so, you know, the usual.

CM: Who are the central characters and who is playing them?
AS: There isn’t a straightforward answer to this, so…

There are the people the story is about – they’re a drone pilot, a temp worker at the home office, a blogger who wants to make a difference but doesn’t know how, and a 9 nine year old called Asma who we don’t know much about.

And there’s the amazing cast we have – Khalid Abdalla, Julia Taudevin, Yusra Warsama and Alex Austin, who are all immense in their own ways, as artists and as people. But they don’t match up to the people the story is about.

Then there’s A, C, L and M, played by Yusra, Khalid, Julia and Alex respectively. They are fragments of people, and they tell the story, try to understand, jump into it, play different characters at different times.

And then there’s the dead, who are with us always, even if we might prefer to pretend otherwise. No one plays them though.

CM: What made you want to work on this particular play and explore these ideas?
AS: I’d been feeling for a long time that there was a play to be written about this, about the way that violence was operating in the world now – the modern ways in which the perpetrators of violence are deliberately kept removed from the results of their actions, the way violence damages everyone involved, the way some things might not look like violence but actually be violent, and the way some things might look like violence but actually be based on deep commitments to care and consent. Because that’s the kind of thing i think about.

CM: We’ve fairly recently spoken to writer Keiran Hurley about ‘Heads Up’, which you also worked on. How did you come to be working together?
AS: I met Kieran at a Devoted And Disgruntled event and I really liked him and the things he said. Then I saw a bunch of his work (‘Hitch’ and ‘Beats’) and it turned out he was brilliant. And I was looking for a writer to work with on this project and I thought Kieran would be perfect (which he was). But in the process of starting work on this we started asking some pretty fundamental questions about the kind of work we wanted to make and how to go about doing it, and about how we might make work which reflects a kind of set of shared political positions, even when the world we operate in might be hostile to them. And I guess work always grows out of conversations, and, hopefully, interesting work grows out of interesting conversations where you challenge and support each other in meaningful ways.

CM: How did your recently created company Permanent Red come together? What aims do you have?
AS: The company actually grew out of the early development of this show. Basically, I don’t know how to do anything on my own – I’m literally useless. Everything I do comes out of conversation and collaboration, and it quickly became clear that the conversations I was having with Kieran and with Annabel Turpin, our executive producer, were ones that were taking us to interesting and difficult places, and that they’d be ongoing. I guess that’s how you get deep into the stuff you want to explore.

Also, I have an awful lot of fun with them.

Permanent Red is set up to make playful, rigorously political work across forms and genres and to provide alternative spaces for living, thinking and feeling in the contemporary world. We run a roving performance in development space called The Territory which aims to create a place for artists to perform work they feel they are not allowed to elsewhere. We want to make work in a way that respects our collaborators and audiences as fully as possible, by creating spaces of care in which we can meet those things which might be too difficult for us to meet elsewhere.

CM: You are a “performer, director and theatre-maker”. Which do you do most of?
AS: Directing. Which is odd, because about eight years ago I swore I’d never direct again, but then I got asked to direct a really beautiful show by a really beautiful theatre maker (Caroline Horton’s ‘Mess’) and I gradually got back into it – it’s funny how things work out.

CM: Is this what you always wanted to do?
AS: I wanted to be a director from when I was 17. Before that I think I wanted to be a famous actor, but when I was 17 I directed my first play, and I got excited about the idea of telling other people what to do. And then I learned more about it, and it turned out it was more complicated than that, and that actors have feelings and thoughts and most of the time don’t do what you tell them anyway, but actually, they end up doing something way better than you thought in the first place. So I carried on. Apart from that bit where I swore I’d never direct again, but what’s the point of being an artist if you can’t have a massive crisis and quit the thing you’ve spent your whole life trying to do?

CM: What grand plans do you have for the future?
AS: The future? let’s talk about the future again if we make it past the end of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House… But we’d like ‘An Injury’ to have more life and be seen by more people. If we’re still here.

CM: What’s coming up next?
AS: Kieran’s ‘Heads Up’, which I co-directed with Julia Taudevin (who’s also in ‘An Injury’) is going to the British Council Showcase up in Edinburgh. ‘How To Win Against History’ by Seiriol Davies (which I directed) is going back to Edinburgh, and then touring England and Wales, and then running at the Young Vic in December. And I’ve directed Daniel Bye’s ‘Instructions For Border Crossing’ which will be at Northern Stage in Edinburgh. I’m making a solo show/spoken word thing/gig/piece of theatre called ’21 Abuses of Power and a Song About the Stars’, and I’m working with a bunch of super exciting people on new work, including Seiriol Davies, Luca Rutherford, Caroline Horton, Susanna Hislop, and Daedalus Theatre Company.

‘In Injury’ is on at Ovalhouse from 18-22 Jul, see the venue website here for info.

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Photo: Alex Brenner