Joao de Sousa is the director of The Curing Room, a show about seven Soviet soldiers who, stripped of clothes and trapped in an abandoned monastery’s cellar, are reduced to cannibalism in the Spring of 1944. The play premieres this year at the Pleasance Dome. Features Writer Alexander Woolley caught up with de Sousa over a beer to discuss the challenges involved in putting on such a graphic show.
The cast is naked for the entire duration of the play, their only covering being dirt and the blood of their eaten comrades.
After flicking on my Dictaphone, and before I have the chance to ask my first question, de Sousa is already telling me about how, later on that day, he will be meeting the author of The Curing Room, David Ian Lee, for the very first time. For nearly a year their relationship has been conducted solely through telephones and Skype.
“I’ll meet my playwright for the first time today; he’s an American, and so he’s flown all the way over today this show today. He’s very pleased – he couldn’t stop saying he’s grateful for actually getting the play from his words onto Edinburgh,” says de Sousa.
“We’ve had discussions on the script a bit, he’s been very helpful in terms of – even things like casting decisions, when I was trying to weigh this type of actor against that type of actor, when I needed to drill a bit deeper into the author’s understanding of a character, just to make me feel secure in my choice of casting. He’s been with me every day for nigh on a year, but today is the first time we actually meet."
Despite only knowing Ian Lee through electronic means, de Sousa has no worries that the pair will fail to get on in person: “We’ve got trust with each other, we enjoy each other’s company... It’s pleasing that the show is doing quite well, so I know it’s a good show for him to see. And he’s actually sat in the rehearsal room through Skype for runs.”
“We’re going to have dinner, and a couple of drinks,” de Sousa continues, “then my company is going off to a late night rave, which is called Hot Dub Time Machine, and we’re all going to let our hair down – it’s the first day off for the company so it’s nice to cut loose for a bit. We’ve invited the author, and we’ll see if he’s game. We’ll see if his jet lag helps him or hinders him.”
Moving on to slightly more professional topics of conversations, we discuss why de Sousa chose to put on The Curing Room. “I think the aspect that attracted me and my producer colleague to the play is that it has a lot of challenges to it. The broad headline facts of nudity and cannibalism seem rather bold choices, bold ingredients for a play, but it was looking at the humanity, and the struggle for dignity, and struggle for redemption within the play – that was the real hook for me.
“But with those ingredients of nudity and cannibalism, we thought Edinburgh would be the perfect place, because it’s such an important arts festival, but it’s also a highly saturated arts festival, and we thought, how does one get noticed? Stripped Down Productions is a fledgling company, with an unpublished author in this country, and for some of our cast, this is their debut. We thought we’ve got to have something that’s strong and impactful. All the ingredients came together to make us think that this would be a breakthrough kind of production.
“It’s also disturbing and original, and I thought it would be really exciting to announce ourselves with a show with impact – that’s primarily what intrigued me. Like I say, it’s more the humanity than the Grand Guignol aspect of it; there’s something else beneath the surface here that intrigues me.”
Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol, home of naturalistic horror shows in Paris from 1897 to 1962, would, indeed, have been a suitable place to stage The Curing Room. The cast is naked for the entire duration of the play, their only covering being dirt and the blood of their eaten comrades. Matt Houston, as Private Georgi Poleko, does a particularly convincing job of disembowelling Senior Lieutenant Sasha Ehrenberg, at that point a prop and left-over animal innards, but previously played by Harvey Robinson. Such gruesomeness would not, one might think, have endeared the festival organisers to giving The Curing Room a slot at noon, just before lunch. But ninety-minute slots at the Fringe are rare, and de Sousa was reluctant to cut the play down to an hour. “I thought the piece was so balanced that that would compromise the piece beyond justification for putting it on."
A convenience of putting on the show at noon is that, as first production of the day, the company have more time to set up. “Plus it might just churn a few stomachs – that might be fun too."
“And we have had one person that has thrown up, two people that have fainted, and I found that quite entertaining really,” de Sousa continues. “It’s a visceral production, and to have that visceral reaction from the audience, you don’t get more immediate feedback than that, do you?”
I ask for more details about the vomit. “Fortunately the audience member who threw up was able to scramble to their feet and get out of the auditorium in time,” de Sousa replies. “But with fainting, the show has carried on; the house lights have come up a little bit so the usher can come in with water and help escort someone out – it’s quite dramatic but the show keeps on going at its heady old pace.
“I don’t think the ushers are necessarily trained medics, though; perhaps we should have the St John’s Ambulance.”
As de Sousa then suggests, when the show moves to London, they might just have to invest in proper medical attention on hand. But medical attendance, like much else concerning The Curing Room’s proclaimed transfer to London, is far from confirmed. The show’s programme talks merely of an “exciting” transfer “this autumn.”
“I have been talking to a couple of different theatres in London,” de Sousa says, “and I thought really it would be a good idea to see how the show went on here, before we commit to a London venue. We had a London venue in today that came up and asked us when we would be available to come into their space, and we talked some specific dates.
“But we’ve got a couple more weeks here before we have to make any decisions. I think that’s a prudent way forward. We want somewhere that has the right sort of catchment area, that can appeal to a fairly broad demographic, and a theatre that has the right sort of ratio of seats in the auditorium to sell to the house, maintaining that intimacy. I think if it’s too big a theatre, we’d lose a bit of that intimacy. We’re still weighing our options.”
Nor is touring out of the question: “I think it’s a show that perfectly positioned to tour, as well. It’s an economical set – we’ve already invested the money in props – so to tour this production wouldn’t be too expensive, and it’s got appeal beyond London.”
It would be near impossible to talk about The Curing Room without discussing the nudity in the show. When I ask about how de Sousa has been working with his cast, this aspect of the production quickly becomes the topic of conversation.
“The nature of the beast is that, being a show coming up to Edinburgh, it has its own particular time-scales, and deadlines, which are a bit different from a normal approach to theatre production. For instance, we had to submit marketing materials long before we went into the rehearsal room. So I cast the show, and we did a photo shoot, down at some decrepit old factory at Limehouse in London.
“This was the first time the cast actually met each other, and they had to take their clothes off for the publicity shoot, and they stood in four inches of pigeon shit together in this knackered old factory, and then two weeks later, I took them to this basement of a Georgian mansion in Essex to make a promo video for the production, and again they scrambled around naked in the house’s cellars. So they had actually already bonded as a company weeks before we read the play together for the first time – which is an unusual way to go about things.
“But then in the rehearsal room, I had them wearing shorts for the first couple of weeks or so. We blocked the play – there are fight sequences and stuff like that – and by then the actors were very comfortable, physically, with one another. So by the time I asked the actors to disrobe, they were so familiar with one another, and had already gone through this before; for them it was the right time in the rehearsal process, so that they were familiar enough with their characters, and what they wanted to achieve with their characters, that this wouldn’t hinder their performance.”
I ask whether de Sousa got naked, too. “I thought about it, and I wouldn’t have minded – personally I think all bodies are beautiful bodies – but I thought that just to maintain the relationship between the director and the cast was that what I had to do was somewhat distance myself from them, not be in the same troupe with them. So I didn’t sit with them at all in any coffee breaks or lunch breaks, even though I like them very much – I wanted them to bond together as a military unit; it’s definitely them against the rest of the world; or, as in the case of this play, them inside this particular world. And so if I did that, it would be like me trying to become one of them, and it’s important that they stay their own unit. Maybe at the cast party we’ll all take our clothes off.”
Of course, the second headline-grabbing part of The Curing Room is the show’s cannibalism. How did de Sousa get his actors to embody such an extreme state of mind? “I did a lot of research. It was a real eye-opener for me, because I didn’t know that these sorts of part of the Soviet Union – this play is set in southern Poland, but they’ve just come from military operations in the Ukraine – were exploited for the richness of the land, both by the Russians and the Germans. And during the war something like eleven million people died of starvation, so there’s quite a lot of recorded information about cannibalism, including photographic evidence of cannibalism. I tried to understand the deprivation of these people and the drive to survive.
“So I shared not only the information but also some research into some philosophical research into basic human needs, and what we need to be alive – the basic things like clothing, water, light, nourishment, and when these things are taken away, how far you’d go to survive, what your motivators are.”
De Sousa feels it helps that the characters form a military unit: “it has its own structure, its own chain of command, so I thought it would be a particularly interesting group of people through which to analyse this particular dark side of human behaviour. Survival cannibalism is something we kind of allow if there are no other options; we, as a society, may not like it, but it’s okay if it happens under extreme circumstances. With a chain of command, with a unit in place, there’s even more of a structure to how one contemplates these things.”
I push him further on how his actors could possibly come to terms with what they are supposed to be acting. “Really, I think it’s the very nature of this being an ensemble piece – they’re all in it together, they’re all onstage together – until they’re not – and I think that that really helps unite this group of actors, and accepting this is a journey we’re all going on together, that as long as we’re on this together, it’s safe, and it makes sense, however twisted the world is, it’s not just me, I’m not the outsider here, we’re all in this together, and I think that helped.”
Photo credit: Rebecca Pitt.