Merging Metatheatre, Autofiction and Necrophilia

When You Pass Over My Tomb, by the acclaimed Franco-Uruguayan writer Sergio Blanco is being performed at the Arcola Theatre this month. Blanco says, “This play is my homage to London, which is the city where I would like to be buried, near the Thames, the Globe and Turner's paintings”. We invited the director and cast to give us some insights into themselves and this meta-theatrical work of autofiction.

Unashamedly intellectual, challengingly ambitious and profoundly human

First, here is some background to this dazzling new work in which desire, friendship and eroticism intertwine and asks, “How far would you go for love? And will the world allow it?”

Sergio, who is fascinated by necrophiliacs, would prefer death to come sooner rather than later. With the help of Dr. Goodwin and a Swiss clinic, he seizes the opportunity to hasten his end. But what of his post-mortem body?. In a London psychiatric hospital he finds Khaled, whose passion for having sex with corpses makes him a worthy recipient of his remains. He meets with Dr Goodwin to organise his assisted suicide and with Khaled to arrange the delivery of his body. Alternating between these conversations and combining the realms of fantasy and reality, When You Pass Over My Tomb incorporates a breadth of historical, literary, religious, TV and cinematic allusions to death.

Director/Adaptor: Daniel Goldman (DG)

Ghost of Al/Sergio: Al Nedjari (AN)

Ghost of Charlie/Khaled: Charlie MacGechan (CM)

Ghost of Danny/Doctor Godwin: Danny Scheinmann (DS)

Daniel, You’ve said that the play “is unashamedly intellectual, challengingly ambitious and profoundly human…unlike anything else audiences will have seen in British theatre for a long time”. Would you care to unpack that statement?

DG: So. I think we have an inbuilt aversion to intellectual in this country. We don't put intellectuals (or indeed experts) on a pedestal. We do the opposite. We approach intellectuals with suspicion and disdain. And it starts from a young age. We call clever kids swots. Or clever clogs. We downplay exam results, etc. And I think our theatre reflects that. It aims to be accessible, to make sure everybody gets every reference and that nobody feels left out or too "stupid" to get something. When I say that this text is unashamedly intellectual, I mean that it celebrates the intellect. It revels in its references to art, philosophy, and literature. It posits theories and deep reflection. It wears its ambition to higher thought proudly. It doesn't seek to explain or make those thoughts accessible. Rather, it invites the audience to be curious, to rise to the challenges the text offers. If the audience doesn't get something, that's OK. They can go out and explore it after. Like great art, I think this play doesn't give answers so much as it asks challenging questions; moral, philosophical and practical.

Now, of course, all that sounds dry. It isn't. It's the opposite. It's very funny, self-deprecating and has great fun at poking fun at its own intellectualism. In other words, it's deeply intellectual and it's also very fun and light on his feet. But that's Sergio's genius.

Before rehearsals began you said, “I feel like we've got the perfect cast to deliver it”. Now that the process is underway, can you explain why the trio is such a good choice?

DG: The perfect cast. Well, that's something you say isn’t it... and at the same time, it is also something that happens to be true. The cast have been a revelation to work with. Charlie brings a brilliant brooding physicality to one character he's playing and his puppy enthusiasm to the other. Al is this wonderful chameleon who is just being himself plus five percent to play Sergio and the results are nuanced and true and glorious. And Danny brings both an incredible intellectual rigour into the room and is also the warm beating heart of the play. They really are a wonderful ensemble on stage... and, more importantly, a delight to work with.

The other key figure, of course, is Sergio Blanco, the author of this play, who isn’t with us, but you must know him very well having worked with him on two of his plays, Thebes Land and The Rage of Narcissus, both critically acclaimed OFFIE award-winning productions. Can you tell us something about him and what attracts you to his writing?

DG: I first saw Sergio's work at a theatre festival in Colombia. The play was Thebes Land and I remember sitting in the audience and watching the play and watching the audience, because I had this double thing going on: an absolute wonder at the piece of writing that I was watching and a curiosity to see if the audience were getting it and enjoying it as much as I was. And that's always been my feeling when reading or indeed translating and directing Sergio's plays. But to answer more specifically, I love Sergio's writing for its belief that we are creatures of endless possibility and imagination. His plays are completed by the audience who are watching. The audience decides what is true and what isn't, what happens where and why. Sergio is the most wonderful architect, but the building is to be enjoyed and furnished in the imagination of the audience. That's what I love about his writing.

Talking of ‘creatures of endless possibility and imagination’, let’s move on to the cast first. I’d like to observe that you have a collection of remarkable careers in terms of breadth and diversity of experience. I’m sure you’ll reveal some specifics as we chat, so please just say little about yourselves, your backgrounds, your character in the play and the appeal of taking on that role. Al Lets start with you.

AN: Before graduating drama school, I landed a job on Coronation Street. At that stage I wasn’t much interested in TV, particularly not soaps, and, consequently, I was a bit dismissive of the whole thing. However, having been in the show for over a year, I was able to hold out for the theatre work that I really wanted to do.

Without it being a choice as such, I gravitated towards companies that work physically. In fact, despite my training being rather conventional, I’d always shown a flair for physical performance. So, I ended up working with Steven Berkoff, David Glass and Mike Alfreds. And from this, I went on to co-found my own physical theatre company, Gecko, with whom I co-directed and performed in three shows. It was a glorious time, spent touring the world with our languageless and overtly physical shows.

At the same time, there was always part of me that wanted to develop my craft as a text-based actor and so, since then, putting aside the TV and film work that I have done, I’ve been involved in theatre that combines both text and elements of devised physical theatre, most notably with the director Melly Still, the National Theatre and elsewhere.

My family background is Algerian, which is curious given that the only character in the show who has a vaguely similar background is Khaled, who is Iranian. It’s odd, but every time I say his name, the image of my brother is brought to mind, since his name is Khalid, played by Danny. I have the role of Sergio, who is anxious to hasten his own death while accommodating the wishes of a necrophiliac.

DS: What’s also odd is that I once spent 18 months with David Glass Ensemble in a decade of non-stop theatre jobs that included a lot of Shakespeare work, but I started as a storyteller and set up my own story theatre company with a couple of friends. We used a lot of physical theatre techniques as well as direct audience address - something Sergio invites us to do in this play too. When my first daughter was born I fell out of love with touring and started to write novels. Now my kids are older, theatre seems possible again. In this play I am Dr Godwin, a Swiss doctor working at an assisted suicide centre - a bit like Dignitas. I also play my own ghost. I love the storytelling elements in this play and the profound journey my character goes on after meeting Al’s character, Sergio Blanco.

Charlie, I know you have a story to tell about yourself and Danny, which we’ll come to in a moment, but you have worked together before.

CM: Yes, and I am very excited to be working with him again and also with the incredible Al. He's perfect for the role and it's a real honour to be working with him and to be sharing the name of his brother in this show. It feels like it's meant to be. Another coincidence is that I’m half Jewish and Danny's parents are Hungarian Jews. These connections have made for great camaraderie in working together on this production.

Now you can tell us about the special bond between you and Danny.

CM: Absolutely, and I would really like to share how my relationship with Danny came to fruition, especially as he plays the crucial role of Dr Godwin in this play.

Last year I was in Bulgaria for a month shooting a movie called The World Will Tremble, a true story about the first Nazi death camp. One of my co-stars was Danny. He plays a character called Goldman. (Coincidentally, as you know, our director for When You Pass Over My Tomb is called Daniel Goldman. One of the many synchronicities in this process). I met Danny in the hotel and instantly felt a strong connection to him. We both have Jewish heritage and I started to talk about my life.

I went on to tell him that my Mum was a single parent and that she had passed away when I was just 17 years old. Shortly before that, I’d told my dearest friend Stevie-Jay of my mother's cancer and she said she would come over to see us the following morning. I waited for her but she never came. She had died in a freak car accident the day we spoke. In all honesty, I have never really got over this. I went on to tell Danny about it. Danny then said, “You should read my novel, I think you will relate to it”. In short, the novel begins with Danny's real life, the time when his young love, Stella (although her name is Eleni in the novel) died in a freak bus accident when they went to South America together. I won't go on about the novel too much as I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it. The book is wonderful and about love. It changed my life and the novel also brought me and my partner Nicole together.

Now we’re working on a play based on the book and we already have a first draft. You can imagine how happy I was when Daniel Goldman cast him!

That’s a tragic, yet gripping story of extraordinary coincidences. Danny, the bestselling book in question is Random Acts of Heroic Love, which I confess to not having read, but I have bought a copy. I know it’s intensely personal and Sergio Blanco says of his play that it “is a text that talks about subjects so profoundly part of the human existence that it could only be written in blood”, which is what he did for seven hours at a time. Can you give us your thoughts on bringing this type of material into the public domain and the challenges of performing in a play in which it dominates?

DS: In terms of drawing from personal experiences in my writing I also use truth as a coat hanger from which I hang fiction just as Sergio Blanco does in this play. I also explore the themes of love and death in my novels so in this respect, I have much in common with him. The characters in the play are constantly asking the character of Sergio whether what he is saying is true or false. And I had a similar experience after RAOHL was published, because even people who knew me well would ask me if this or that really happened; to the extent that a good friend who was a lecturer in the philosophy of physics was upset that a character in my book with the same profession kept sleeping with his students. He wondered if this is what I thought of him. As a writer of this kind of work where lines are blurred one has to accept that this question will arise again and again. What is true? In the play, Sergio uses real cases of necrophilia alongside invented narratives and the audience is teased constantly by the uncertainty. This is one of the joys of autofiction, as he calls it. For us, as actors, there are two stories happening at once: the story of the play and the story of the actors performing the play. The interplay between these two stories is complex but often amusing. It has a lot more humour than a play about necrophilia suggests.

Al, as far as I’m aware, necrophilia never featured in Coronation Street, so this play is a far cry from playing Samir Rachid nearly thirty years ago. Since then you’ve made films, appeared in Bridgerton and worked as a movement specialist on the Oscar-winning film Gravity and as a movement director with the National Theatre on War Horse and From Morning to Midnight and created the very successful physical theatre company, Gecko, as you mentioned earlier. How does accumulated experience and working in movement transfer into a new role?

AN: As you’ve suggested, I have a breadth of experience both as a conventional actor and as a devised, physical theatre specialist.

In a play like this, I think that breadth is key. Many of the scenes involve real conversations between characters and our approach to this draws on the skills and detail one might associate with naturalistic acting.

At the same time, the play messes with theatre form: We break in and out of character, speak directly to the audience, speak directly to ourselves as ourselves, comment on the show that we seemingly create as it unfolds. And this playfulness requires a flexibility that one might associate more with devised physical theatre. Indeed, our director, Daniel, who himself has Le Coq training, brings with him a collaborative, experimental approach to excavating and staging the show. So, that spirit of experimenting physically, emotionally and intellectually, which I feel I bring from devised theatre, has been deployed in the making and discovering of the show.

Charlie, I saw you in the stunning OFFIE-nominated production of Harold Pinter’s The Dwarfs, but your background is quite different as you’ve probably done more work on film than stage and as a producer. What’s it like to be in rehearsal for a live theatre performance again and how do you feel about the emotional content of this play?

CM: Thank you so much! I'm really proud of that production. The Dwarfs marked the first time I'd been on stage since drama school, which was 15 years ago! I was also producing that show and I remember saying to myself after, “I will never produce and act in one of my shows again”... and here we are just 2 years later! As an actor, I've done mostly TV/Film, but I have to say that theatre is where my heart is and it's great to be back working on another incredible piece of writing for a live performance. The depth of this play means endless discovery and every time I feel I get a grasp of my character and the story, I then realised that I've discovered a whole new plot and meaning. I LOVE IT! It's both liberating and terrifying. What a gift to work on something like this.

We started off talking about oddities and it’s odd that I never saw myself as a producer, but incredible projects keep landing on my lap that I just can't say no to! Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something. Ha! I have to say that producing Philip Ridley's Theatrical World Premiere of The Poltergeist last year was a dream come true. He has always been a favourite writer of mine and a good friend. I look forward to working with him again soon, but also I can't wait to produce the stage version of Danny’s Random Acts Of Heroic Love.

It sounds as though you’ve all had a wonderful time working on this script and with each other, so what would you each regard as the challenges and rewards of this play?

DG: I think Sergio Blanco is a bona fide genius who writes incredibly well-crafted, supremely intelligent plays, as we’ve established. When he directs them, I think his focus is on the brilliant ideas he's sharing. When I direct them, I'm always looking for their heart. His productions are brilliant and sharp and make your brain fizz. Mine aim to do most of that, but what I want to do is make the audience care. That’s the challenge and rising to it is the reward.

AN: I think the biggest challenge of this play is the demands it makes on our dexterity. We are constantly oscillating between playing ourselves and our characters and between addressing the audience and speaking within a scene that has a specific time, place and context.

DS: For me the biggest challenge is remembering the lines! They are among the hardest I’ve ever had to learn, simply because of the play’s structure which constantly folds in on itself, bouncing around from action to narration and from digression to digression. It’s like a maze. The reward is the direct contact with the audience and the playfulness between the actors. And I think our audiences should also find it challenging. Will they be offended by the necrophilia theme? Some of the descriptions are true and don’t pull their punches. On the other hand, there is so much humour, love and intellectually stimulating dialogue in it. And it is intricate, eccentric and labyrinthine in its structure which I am sure they will revel in. I hope they are surprised and moved.

CM: For me the reward lies in the depth of this play. It basically means endless discovery, but the challenge is that every time I feel I get a grasp of my character and the story, I realise that I've discovered a whole new plot and meaning. I LOVE IT! It's both liberating and terrifying. What a gift to work on something like this. It's the most uncommercial play I've ever read (which is why I love it so much). It’s wonderfully layered and unapologetic in what it’s saying and I hope we can convey to our audiences the extent to which this is original, challenging, enigmatic theatre.

Thank you all very much and we wish you all the best in your run at the Arcola.

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