Rafaella Marcus is directing what is billed as the first professional UK production of Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead in 80 years. She talks to Giverny Masso about the relevance of the First World War play now…
Tell me about Bury the Dead.
It’s an anti-war play that was written in 1936. It’s an expressionist play that begins with six soldiers who have died being buried. It’s about war, but also about class and being trapped in systems that exploit you. We’re doing the play at this time because it is the centenary of the end of the First World War. I’m thrilled to be doing the play at this moment, not only remembering those who died, but commemorating the men and women who continue to die for causes that are not their own.
What was your process of bringing this to the stage?
This is unlike anything I’ve ever directed before. There’s a lot you could potentially play flippantly, but it’s 2018 and the stakes feel very high in terms of global politics. The process involved asking the cast, particularly those playing the dead soldiers: “How do you feel about this?” The play is very choreographed, we worked with movement director Chi-San Howard, who created a physical language with the 11 cast members that put them all on the same page.
Why was it important to work with an all-female creative team?
I do a lot of female-led work. A lot of the work I do is about women’s stories, but this story is so much about men, although masculinity itself is a feminist concern. Part of what is keeping these men trapped is this idea of toxic masculinity. There are nine men in the cast and two women, which is why I decided it was important to have an all-female creative team.
What are some of your other career highlights?
The biggest, most-recent thing I’ve done was I Have a Mouth and I Will Scream that was at the Vault Festival in London. It plays with the idea of creating mess on stage. I love the idea of mess as a feminist act. The play ends with the stage being trashed – and they’re not having to clean it up. Continuing the theme of mess, I did The Wild Party at the Hope Theatre in London in 2017. It’s based on an incredible jazz poem from the 1920s that contains a lot of sex. We had people fighting each other with bananas on stage.
How did you get into theatre?
The directing started by accident. The school I was at was not great for drama if you didn’t do it as a subject. I asked them if I could put on a play and they said yes, if you can do it all yourself. When I went to uni, I knew putting on plays was a thing. At that stage I still thought I was going to act, but somewhere along the line I admitted to myself it’s directing for me, not acting. I like having that bird’s-eye view of a project.
Training: Theatre directing (MFA), Birkbeck, University of London (2012-14)
First professional role: Assistant director at Sheffield Theatres (2013-14)
Bury the Dead is at the Finborough Theatre, London, until November 24