Chichester Festival Theatre: humour amid the horror of captivity

Even in the grimmest of situations, humour will break through, says director Michael Attenborough.

Wednesday, 2nd September 2015, 3:27 pm
Michael Attenborough
Michael Attenborough

That’s certainly the case in his production of Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, the first time he has directed in Chichester and the fourth time he has directed a McGuinness.

Based on the experiences of those taken hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me brings together Adam, an American doctor, Edward, an Irish journalist, and Michael, an English academic. The three have little to unite them beyond being human in the same small space. Yet somehow, together, they determine to ward off madness and forestall despair…

“It was first done at Hampstead after I left,” says Michael. “If I had stayed, I would have done it there. It was done a couple of years later, but I had only ever read it. Basically, it is the story of three extraordinarily-brilliantly-detailed characters, three incredibly-different people pushed together in a cell and having to find a way of forming relationships that can pull them through this ghastly experience. It’s an incredibly-grim situation, but without a trace of sentimentality, it is a wonderful play about the triumph of the human spirit. No matter how much you trap or imprison or supposedly make people disappear, you cannot crush the human spirit.

“There’s an Englishman, an Irishman and an American…”

Which sounds like the start of a joke!

“Well, yes, it is surprisingly funny. It is certainly very focused, but even in rehearsals, we had to have humour as a safety valve. You let it in and then you can take it all doubly seriously. I don’t really believe anyway you can have a play without laughter. Life is not like that. In my experience, life is never that singular. People will always laugh even in the most tragic circumstances.”

And in this case, the humour is certainly part of the way the characters cope: “There are only three actors in the play, but really there is a fourth character as well, and that character is the bond between the three of them, but it is a dynamic which is built with great difficulty. The Irishman and the Englishman don’t get on at all to start with.

“We never see their captors. I don’t really think that that’s what the play is about. It is certainly not about Islam. It’s a play about national identity and how to survive, about how we can find a way to live together.”

Michael first worked with Frank on a play with, as he says one of the theatre’s longest titles, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme: “After we did it, it really launched him as a major, major writer and won him several awards.”

Michael also did one of his translations; their third project together was a piece Michael commissioned. Now the Chichester production is their fourth collaboration.

“There are two sides to Frank’s writing. In his best work, they are both there. One is the wonderful, one could argue very Irish, almost musical, poetic quality of his work. He is a brilliant linguist with his sense of rhythm and sense of sound, which is very important to me as a director. He also writes very tight, sharp, naturalistic language. The best plays have got both. This play has got both.”

Minerva Theatre, Chichester, Sept 10-Oct 10.