Theatre Editor Tom Chandler sits down with Writer/Co-Director of Unsoiled, Ewan Martin-Kane and his Co-Director Anna-Maria Woodrow during the atmospheric Storm Eunice.
T: Hello both of you! How about we start by telling me who you are, and what your role is in Unsoiled?
A: Hi there! I’m Anna-Maria, I’m one of the directors, and I’m also playing a character called the Bard!
E: Hello, I’m Ewan, I wrote it and I’m co-directing it, having brought on Anna-Maria to help me do it because we are both first-time directors, and I’m also playing a little old man called Swaddle who waddles.
T: Amazing! Those are two very erm… interesting little tid-bits you’ve given us there, so what is ‘Unsoiled’ about?
E: So, ‘Unsoiled’ is about a farming community in a village called Briggsley whose people every year plough and till and stroke the soil. They have this great, if casual, relationship with it where they assume that it will always be reciprocal. Suddenly, one spring, the reciprocality ceases, and they realise it no longer wants to be moved, it becomes totally impenetrable to them. So they’ve got to find a way to farm and to eat. The play is about, most of all, the reaction to this immovable object and people trying their very best to be an unstoppable force in response. Was that vague? I don’t know.
A: No, that’s a pretty good synopsis of – yeah that’s what happens at the beginning of the play and you know, the catastrophe unfolds from that first catastrophe of natural disaster.
T: Ewan, is there anything in particular that inspired you to write this play?
E: So, there’s a moment in King Lear where Gloucester, who’s blind at this point, is told that he is about to jump off a cliff and we as the audience can’t tell if it’s true because all we can see is that flat stage. It turns out he’s not, it’s just that flat stage. But reading that made me realise that there’s a whole invisible topography on the stage that we, the audience, have to just feel our way through trustingly. So from that Shakespearean moment I thought you could get a very cheap joke where someone is told to dig their own grave, and when they try their spade hits the floor and they go “I can’t!” The other person says “What do you mean you can’t? Oh my goodness gracious, the ground has become hard.” That joke would have lasted about two minutes, but I was able to carry it through to this bigger question of what would this look like if this were to actually happen. The strange predicament allowed us to explore lots of strange reactions, and strange inhabitants of this strange strange world.
A: Yeah, and there are strange methods of storytelling as well! Because we notice that the stage floor is the stage floor from the very beginning. It’s always kind of lurking in the background in theatre, but it was fun to see what would happen if we made it very explicit.
E: I think productions try to ignore the floor. There’s this whole history of trying to dress it up to be some battlefield in France, or wherever, but we like that in ‘Unsoiled’ we really call attention to this uneasy ground that the theatre rests on.
T: That’s such a beautiful way of thinking about it! Anna-Maria, what’s it like coming onto the project with the writer? How have you approached it?
A: It’s been a really rewarding process, because of course, Ewan, having conceived of the thing, has very specific ideas – not unmovable, but he’s got the idea in his head of how he’d imagined it. So I can then come in as a fresh face and, as we said, we’re first time directors and it was initially very daunting to me.
T: I was just wondering: what aesthetic are you going for with this play?
E: So, first of all, credit to Coco Wheeler, who made the poster, which merged cartography, topography and bodies, and she delivered it in this beautiful story-book way. We’ve avoided the urge to cover the stage with soil, which would defeat the point in a way because it’s all about the invisible stage, the invisible layers and the way everybody in the play is seeing that same floor from a different perspective.
A: We like the idea of it being theoretically stageable anywhere, as long as you’ve got a floor. We’ve got the amazing Anna Piper-Thompson on set creating some really beautiful tapestries of trees and roots painted with ground up coffee. We’re keeping it minimal in terms of how it looks because it’s so explosive in terms of how many actors we’ve got and how much is going on.
E: And costumes – Ella Lowden and Emily Giles are our costume department and we decided, instead of trying to find the uniform of the Briggsley village, dressing everyone up as a plough-boy – and don’t get me wrong we’ve got some plough-boys –
A: Who hasn’t!?
E: We’ve tried to make each character’s costume a direct expression of who they are.
T: Speaking of the cast – my goodness you have a lot of actors! How has it been working with that many people on the Corpus stage?
E: So part of the original pitch to the ADC said “If this show sounds claustrophobic, good. It’s meant to be.” One of the main themes is community as confinement and the temptation to abandon the community, and so we really get a sense of that in this tight, busy stage.
T: Did you have a specific vision for the language of the play?
E: I’ve talked a bit about it being this freely imaginative space, so we talked about Dylan Thomas as a reference point of the idiom of the play and how playfulness and lyricism are part of the eccentricity of it all. One of the things that’s important is that the prosaic musicality –
A: It is musical for sure, it’s at times cacophonous, but at times there’s a polyphonic coming together of a lot of different voices. It is about this particular village as a whole, and who is the main character, who is the hero? We’ve been able to go with the actors really deep into what they think their characters are like and bring in parts of their own life. So I think that’s my most rewarding experience so far.
E: It feels like we’ve found a really weird community of folk ourselves.
A: Aw, isn’t that nice.
E: There we go, tied it up in a nice little bow.
A: It does though!
Speaking to Ewan and Anna-Maria, I was really reminded of the magic of theatre; with each play, you have to form a community and then it dissolves and you move on. Everything we do is impermanent, transient. ‘Unsoiled’ promises to be a lyrical but humorous look at what community means, and how people overcome adversity together.
‘Unsoiled’ by Ewan Martin-Kane is on in the Corpus Playroom from the 1st-5th March. You can find tickets here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/unsoiled/