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Alexander Zeldin: ‘I want audiences to experience intensity and forget their phones’

Alexander Zeldin. Photo: Francesco Squeglia

Writer and director Alexander Zeldin is best known for Beyond Caring, his play about a group of cleaners working on zero-hours contracts. He speaks to Catherine Love about Love, his new show for the National Theatre, and his detailed way of working.

What is the premise of Love?

It deals with families living in temporary accommodation. This is a phenomenon in Britain – 1.1 million emergency food packages were handed out last year, thousands of children are homeless at Christmas. I felt that this situation, of a family on the edge of society living in fear of the next day, was a powerful metaphor for a broader set of feelings that permeate the atmosphere in the world right now.

Both Love and your previous play, Beyond Caring, have taken real-world issues as starting points. What role does research play in the creation of this work?

I try to do a kind of immersion into something. I don’t just pop in and out; I try to spend as much time with people as I can. Obviously people have a limited amount of time, especially when they’re in very vulnerable situations, so you’ve got to be aware of that. That’s one aspect of it. But also, in the case of Love, quite a lot of other source material came in. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [by US writer James Agee] is a really great book from the 1930s about tenement farmers, for example, so other sources that were not from my research of real life filtered in.

Zeldin with Anna Calder-Marshall and  Darcey Brown in rehearsals for Love. Photo: Sarah Lee
Zeldin with Anna Calder-Marshall and Darcey Brown in rehearsals for Love. Photo: Sarah Lee

Has the process for Love been different to your normal way of working?

What I’ve also done with Love is that when we’ve had people come to visit us – homeless people living in B&Bs – we’ve asked them to get involved in the theatre side of things and direct a bit of rehearsal or act in a bit of it. And that participative work has been another layer to what I did with Beyond Caring. Whereas with that work we just showed it to cleaners, and got them to respond to it and occasionally direct bits of it, here I’ve gone a step further and let people actually act. That’s been something that’s existed alongside the play.

Love and Beyond Caring have both been written at the same time as rehearsing with actors. How does that process work?

Love has been a big step forward for me as a writer in many ways. I wrote loads of material before we even started that has then been fearlessly reappropriated by the actors and transformed. And then I’ve gone away and written and shaped and thought and had a lot more space to author the structure outside of the rehearsal room than I have in the past, when I’ve done it in the night time. That’s been a big shift for me and one I’m excited to pursue. But it still involves a lot of devising work, and the actors have played a big part in the creation of their characters. For me, I see it as writing on people. I can’t write in isolation of thinking who the actors are going to be – I’m not able to do that. I think that’s fake.

Actors are clearly very important to your process. You’ve spoken before about your long-term dream of building a permanent ensemble. Why is it important to you to work with actors over an extended period of time?

I’m in a new phase again now, because of the fact I’ve got this wonderful experience working at the National Theatre. I’m having a wonderful time working there, it’s an incredibly supportive environment and it has really got on board with my approach. That’s been amazing for me because it’s meant that I’ve been able to work with a much greater range of actors. In this play, one of the cast members has never acted before. I met her through workshops we were doing with refugees and I just thought she could do it, so I cast her. That has been intense and beautiful. I’ve got two actors from Beyond Caring that have been with me for six years now, since they were students. I really like to develop long-term relationships with people. The group is growing, but I hope a lot of those people stay with us now. It’s important for me to have a very mixed group, not just in terms of where they’re from and what language they speak, but what approach they have. I’m really interested in the next few years. I’m developing a sort of troupe of people from many different horizons and perspectives. You need a mixture; you need some new people but you also need to keep some people from before, keep them going. My aim is 10, 20 years of keeping people together. What then happens is something that goes beyond the professional realm and becomes a common, shared purpose with what we’re trying to do with our time.

What do you hope audiences take from your shows?

For me, I think it’s about allowing people to have a very intense experience where they forget their mobile phone. Just doing that is the sum of what I feel capable of doing. People often ask, “Does it spur to action?”, “Do you feel like political theatre is lacking in the UK?” – I don’t know about any of those things. It’s not political theatre. I’m interested in touching people, and I think if you can achieve that – if you can actually be touched by something in a true way – that’s quite a beautiful and a rare thing. Put it this way: I think there’s a really big difference between sentiment and true feeling.

CV: Alexander Zeldin

Born: 1985, London
Training: None
Landmark productions: Beyond Caring, Yard Theatre, London (2014), Black Battles With Dogs, Southwark Playhouse (2012)
Awards: Quercus Trust Award (2015)
Agents: Nick Marston and Camilla Young, Curtis Brown

Love runs at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London, until January 10

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