“Unexplored anger”: An interview with the director of SWALLOW

Sophie Dickinson 29 April 2016
Image credit: Louis Rogers

With a few days until the play opens at the Corpus Playroom, I chatted to SWALLOW director, Avigail Tlalim, about Beyonce and the theme of female anger in the play, the challenges of working on such a new piece and why it is so important for more trans parts in Cambridge theatre.  

What are the principal themes of the play? 

Stef Smith wrote in an interview that she wanted to write a play about characters who are “angry with the world”. To me SWALLOW is about characters who are filled with unexplored anger, which is swallowed down in such a relatable manner. In rehearsals we are often amazed at how many of layers of meaning there are in every scene- every time we hear it we find more. One of the threads is definitely the taboo of female anger. 

Beyonce dealt with this so effectively this week in Lemonade, and I definitely think (and hope!) that it’s a concern that is bubbling to the surface. I think we are badly educated in how to process emotions in general; of course, this is often a gendered and cultural issue. This play both vividly challenges and exemplifies this.

Could you tell us more about the trans character? 

Sam is a trans man who is transitioning, and the play deals with trans issues in a really understated and nuanced way. I’m really passionate about representing trans people’s life experiences on the Cambridge stage. I think theatre has a duty to put the under-represented on its stage without forcing their presence to be a statement. The truest way to represent someone is to allow them to exist and not shroud their presence with their political significance.

I began casting with the intention of finding a trans actor to play the role, reaching out to the community here in Cambridge and it was really unfortunate that we weren’t able to find anyone. But I know that Georgie Henley will do the part justice as best she can. Behind every label there is a person. These individuals- their hearts, their worlds and their internal lives-are what this play is about.

I don’t want people to call it ‘the trans play’. Sam exists alongside everything and everyone else; he is a complex, developed character whose role in the play is not at all confined to his transition. 

What are the challenges of working on such a new show?

Something really exciting about working with a play that was only published a few months ago is how contemporary all its concern are. Structurally it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read – there are no scenes – and narration, monologues, asides and real time scenes all flow over and on top of each other. It’s really beautiful to have to piece all this together.

It’s lovely because Stef Smith tweeted us to wish us luck, and it’s quite motivating to have the writer’s blessing, especially because I admire her so much! The fact that this play has so rarely been staged keeps us even more creatively engaged- and we have the privilege of being able to relate to the words in a personal way, which might not be possible with a more established piece. 

How have the cast responded to the piece? 

SWALLOW has an absolutely stellar cast. Georgie Henley, Isla Cowan and Emma Corrin are about as bulletproof as it gets. One of the original reasons I was so excited to put on this show was to offer three complex, nuanced and challenging roles to three incredible actors- and I couldn’t be happier with those who have answered this call. There are so many wonderful actors in this town and it’s such fun to offer them complicated roles to work on.

Something that has totally taken us by surprise is how easily the lines have just flown into the actors memory; they suspect it's something to do with the rhythm of the piece, but of course, I think it’s because they’re brilliant! 

Why should people come to see the show?

I truly feel like SWALLOW is a play everyone in Cambridge should see; the honesty of the portrayal of pain puts exam term into perspective, and the moments of humour are beautifully real. If you are lucky enough to get given one of our bookmarks, see it as a personal invitation!


SWALLOW is directed by Avigail Tlalim, and opens on Tuesday 3rd May at 7pm, at the Corpus Playroom.