JT Rogers and Max Stafford-Clark: Interview

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Can any play truly do justice to the story of genocide that resulted in the deaths of 800,000 Rwandans? American playwright JT Rogers and director Max Stafford-Clark tell Time Out how ’The Overwhelming‘ explores the tensions before the killings

  • How did your play come to be premiered in London?

    JT Rogers: My agent had told me that the National Theatre was reading my play and that they really liked it. And then Nick [Hytner] called me out of the blue and said, ‘I’ve given your play to this director. I don’t suppose you know him – his name’s Max Stafford-Clark…’ Now, this is the Hollywood romantic part of it, but it’s absolutely true. When I was 18 or 19, I was here for a summer and saw something like 90 plays in three months. I have two very strong memories. The first was standing in the National as an acting student thinking, ‘Some day I’ll work here’, whatever that meant to me at the time. The other was seeing ‘Our Country’s Good’ [by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Stafford-Clark in 1988]. It was a seminal moment and I wept at the end of the play. It was such a fine play and the production was incredible. I saw it five times and I’ve seen almost nothing else twice.

    Who came to the rehearsals?

    Max Stafford-Clark: Fergal Keane [Special Correspondent for the BBC], David Belton who made ‘Shooting Dogs’, Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4’s International News Editor, and Sophie Okonedo who was in ‘Hotel Rwanda’, have all helped in different ways. It’s an experience that touched all those who went through it. Far from there being a rivalry – ‘Our film’s out before your play’ – there’s actually a kind of support. Fergal said: ‘Afer Rwanda I couldn’t just be a journalist any more.’ And David Belton is the same. People are enormously supportive of you telling the story.

    You went to Rwanda together. What did you discover?

    MSC: We got a sense of the geography.

    JTR: And the claustrophobia. We had a great experience. We sat in Max’s room in the Mille Collines hotel and we basically acted the play out line by line, asking what could be clearer now that we’re here.

    The same hotel that’s mentioned in the play?

    MSC: It’s a bit ’60s. Slightly run down. We met a woman who had stayed there during the genocide. There were 28 people who stayed in her room for a month and they were only able to send the kids to get water from the swimming pool once a day. So details like that became very vivid.

    JTR: In the States, there’s been an argument about whether it’s genocidal pornography to make films about this. Who are Westerners to do this? But in Rwanda there was a real sense of: we’re a tiny country and we’ve been forgotten. People wanted to talk.

    MSC: The new buildings are all day centres for widows. We met a number of women in their mid-30s who were widows who had had several children of which three or four had been killed. Some of them were still in a state of post-taumatic shock. Some were able to relate their stories – things of such cruelty, with a Shakespearean or Edward Bond-like imagination behind it. We spoke to one woman who was told, ‘If you drown your children yourself, then we won’t chop them up. Otherwise we are going to chop them up limb by limb.’ So this woman drowned her three very young children and then the men walked away, laughing. People have been through unimaginable cruelty. The good thing about this play is that it doesn’t attempt to be redemptive. You do sense that people can only cope with stories like this if there is a redemptive element, if there is somebody who behaves well. And it’s true, there were people who behaved extraordinarily well…

    JTR: If you do that, there’s a feelgood factor and the truth is that most people behaved badly. We were overwhelmed with material.

    MSC: there was another play there.

    JTR: For me – I don’t know about Max – it was very clear that there was no scar tissue even after 12 years. It was a raw, gaping wound and will take a lot more time for it to heal.

    Did you come to understand how people became killers?

    MSC: I understood more about why people did it by doing the play. What I’ve come to understand through rehearsal is that it’s fear that drove people. Fear of a Tutsi invasion, fear of having their power taken away from them.

    JTR: The person who perpetrates the horror sees himself as the victim. And when you see yourself as a victim then that’s the end of the conversation. I know in the States that there’s a sense that if you show evil as anything other than evil with a capital E then you are somehow condoning it. I would respectfully disagree with that. To say that certain things should not be looked at because they are too awful is to not understand them and then they just keep happening.

    MSC: What’s been strange is that it’s been such fun to work on. Occasionally there have been tears, when we’ve met the journalists and they’ve brought us up against it. But on the whole solving the problems of the play, getting the scenes right, has been, perversely, enormously enjoyable. It’s not been a misery to rehearse.

    JTR: If we’ve done our job, the play will not be a misery to watch. The play does not say: ‘Britain bad. Africa good. Shame on the West’. That’s just not interesting.

    Is there something that theatre can do but film and journalism can’t?

    MSC: They think there is. In the case of the journalists, they are very restricted by what they can cover in a ten-minute section on ‘Newsnight’ and by their ability to sell the story. Rwanda happened at the same time as Mandela was, as it were, being crowned in South Africa, so the journalists couldn’t get their stories on. There are certainly thing that films can’t do. In order to sell, films almost always have to focus on the redemptive ending, the person who behaves well. We don’t have to do that.

    JTR: And they have to show the thing itself.

    MSC: I’ve never lacked confidence in the fact that the fucking theatre can do things that neither film nor journalism can.

    JT: Hear, hear!

    MSC: And all with just eight chairs.

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