Theatre: Preview: Life Raft, Bristol Old Vic
Assistant Director Miriam Battye (co-founder, Tap Tap Theatre, and now writer-on-attachment at BOV) and young cast members Tilly Bennett (11, from Bristol) and Callum Harrison-Deans (13, from Shepton Mallet) tell us about Bristol Old Vic’s new show Life Raft.
Fin Kennedy’s play, an adaptation of George Kaiser’s The Raft of the Medusa, is inspired by a true story from World War II. In a mysterious wartime dystopia, a lifeboat filled with children is adrift at sea, their passenger liner sunk by an unknown enemy. As darkness falls and their rations dwindle, fear, superstition and madness take hold. Melly Still (Beasts and Beauties and Coram Boy, both BOV) directs.
Tell us a bit about your character and how they fit into the story.
Tilly: My character, Margot, is very religious. We talk a lot about the superstition surrounding the number 13 running throughout the play, and Margot brings up images from the Last Supper to add to everyone’s worries.
Callum: Sam comes from a working-class background. He doesn’t think before he speaks – even though sometimes what he says can be pretty clever, he can also be pretty disgusting! He tries to stand by Alfie, who he thinks is the strongest in the group – he thinks Alfie can protect him. Sam isn’t very high up in the hierarchy of the group, but as the ‘saved’ and ‘cursed’ split, he steps up to become something of a leader of the ‘cursed’ group.
How has it been in the rehearsal room?
C: Amazing. Just to be in the rehearsal room with Melly – she is an inspiration anyway as she is such an amazing director. It’s been quite challenging at times, especially when we’re tired and we’ve run the same sections over and over. We will bring it together, though, and the show will be amazing.
T: It’s really good, especially working with people with all different levels of experience – some have acted professionally before, others are working on their first show ever.
Are you looking forward to performing at Bristol Old Vic?
T: We saw the set for the first time today. It’s so cool.
C: I’m excited that we have our own dressing rooms. It’s a big deal! We’ve been rehearsing in a small, confined room. We will certainly have to adjust to our new surroundings and to how big the space is. We’ve really found that we work better when we have an audience – I think we’re going to kill it!
T: It’s quite nerve-wracking. This is the biggest audience I’ll have performed in front of, so I’m quite nervous… but probably more excited than nervous.
C: When there’s an audience, it pushes you to do your actual best. When just a couple of people are watching, you just do it – but when there is a full on audience you give it everything!
There seem to be echoes of Lord of the Flies in the plot. Any similarities?
Miriam: A lot of the children have read Lord of the Flies, or are about to read it, at school – so it has been a point of comparison for everybody. There is a line in Life Raft, “we’re not savages” – like the line at the beginning of Lord of the Flies: “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages”.
There are certainly similarities, especially in the examination of children who are pushed to the limit. We see children in a certain way, and LOTF pushes them to a point where they aren’t children anymore – they are forced into being adults, decision-makers, aggressors. In Life Raft, Fin argues that in war, children aren’t actually able to be children anymore. They are children in an adult’s world, and they are being brutally forced into playing these roles. I think it goes further than LOTF: these children are a product of war. They have been entirely brutalised by it. They’re trying to navigate an adult world, as opposed to creating their own hierarchy. It’s pretty extreme.
We’re promised that the story “offers perspectives on our own troubled times”. Tell us more.
M: I’ve been struck by how politically charged the storyline is. Though the characters certainly aren’t archetypes, they do offer different viewpoints that align with various political stances – utilitarian, socialist, fascist even. It really speaks to me, with all of the current talk of the immigration “crisis”, the idea that there could be people that are “less useful” to society – and that’s certainly mirrored in how some of these children might be measured as “less useful” for the boat. There is a line in the play that really hits home – it’s about people being only as good as what they can physically contribute to a society, and not having an inbuilt human value within themselves.
I also find the blame culture of today’s society really disturbing. An undercurrent in the play comments on this, and on the way we scapegoat people or groups into being the source of the problem, when actually the problem is much wider.
What about the staging – are you going for something simple and elemental, letting the physical drama predominate?
M: I think what designer Max Johns (BBC Performing Arts Fellow, Bristol Old Vic) has achieved is to make the design so theatrical that we are able to constantly ‘break the rules’ as to how we interpret the space.
For me, the main thing is that we get to see how small these young people are on the vast Bristol Old Vic stage. The set is adorned with broken chairs, everything and everyone is so fragile. The enormity of their plight really hits home.
Max’s design evokes an ominous, near-future dystopia. Actors stand on plastic, navigating chairs with their legs sawn off, everything is so precarious. They’re not safe on this boat: are they safe in the world? There is no limit to how we can explore the space – while all the boat scenes are confined within a small playing space, we’re able to break free of this during dream sequences. The imagined threshold of the boat can be broken and we can see the extent of the children’s dream worlds.
Life Raft is at Bristol Old Vic from Thursday, September 3 to Saturday, September 5. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/liferaft.html
Pics: Jack Offord