This week The Loaf by Alan Booty opens at The Bridge House Theatre in Penge, SE20. We spoke to him about his background, the play and its development.
I hope it promotes understanding, empathy and maybe a reassessment of human values
Alan, you studied German at university and then went into teaching.
Yes. I graduated and then obtained a PGCE in secondary education and began a career as a modern languages teacher, specialising in German. Later, I was required to teach another subject. There was a vacancy for a drama teacher just as the University of Hull was starting up an MA course. I had years of experience in amateur theatre along with a couple of professional appointments. However, I wasn’t confident about my competence to teach the content of the syllabus so I asked for financial help from the college to pay for the MA, to which they agreed.
So you’ve always been involved in theatre in one way or another.
Yes. I wanted to go to drama school when I was 17/18, but back in 1969/1970 I had no idea how to go about that. I was the youngest of three children and my parents were careful to treat us equally. As drama school seemed impossible for financial reasons, I took the assurance that I was good enough to study German at university and keep acting as a hobby. That endured for a long time, but deep down I had always known that acting was what I really wanted to do. I brought it into everything I could and it suited the teaching of languages. I started drama groups in the community and where I taught. I was a fully fledged drama teacher for 13 years. My move to York brought me into contact with the York Mystery Plays, first of all at York Theatre Royal’s production of them in 1996 and then in York Minster for The Millennium Mystery Plays directed by Gregory Doran. On both occasions I played Abraham, whose story lends itself to being highlighted and I was singled out on BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope. That made me think that maybe I might be good enough to become a professional actor.
Then, on a chance Sunday visit to my pigeon hole, I discovered a postcard that read, “Come and train to be a professional actor in Camden”.Though intended for students (I did tell them later) I took the card home and made some enquiries. Developments at college and in government at that time were starting to make me less happy with things. I found out that I could take early retirement. I applied to drama school, was successful and have since worked for the English Theatre of Hamburg five times [handy for this play, as it turned out], the National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival where I have played, amongst others, Capulet and Falstaff. In 2019, I played King Lear at the Brockley Jack.
How did you discover the story on which The Loaf is based ?
As a teacher, I was always on the lookout for new and stimulating ideas. When living in Hastings I would treat myself to a day out in London on Saturdays. To gain inspiration I would go to Grant and Cutler in Great Marlborough Street, the standalone foreign language bookshop. At the start of one book was Wolfgang Borchert’s Das Brot, a short story about an elderly couple surviving in post-war Hamburg. Its captivating simplicity had a great effect on me and proved to be a valuable source of discussion for A level students, as much for what is not said as what is actually written.
How did the process of turning it into a play proceed?
As the story lived with me I started to explore the possibility of turning it into a play. I had no careful plan. Writing came randomly. I tried out ideas as they came to me. The plot runs over two days, so I knew I would have to find a way of dealing with that. I explained my ideas to the then administrator at the English Theatre of Hamburg and she invited me to meet her mother who had lived in Hamburg during the War and witnessed the entry of the British Army in 1945. I wanted to know what it was like in occupied Germany. How did people live in terms of what they ate and drank and how did they socialise? What was it like knowing that, no matter what one’s personal resistance may have been, now everyone is ‘all as one’? She was very helpful and I was able to combine what she told me with what I already knew from the allies’ side in England through my parents.
I soon felt that I needed names for the characters, as there are none in the original. I chose Hermann, because I had a friend who hated his name: his mother had been a fan of Hermann Göring. He had a similar-sounding surname, so he changed his name to Hans-Hermann. Martha is pronounced in German the way English pronounces martyr, which seemed appropriate.
Next, I discovered newly published social history books and began to ask questions. What was Hermann’s? How might Martha spend her time at home? How would Hermann be paid? What was the nature of any guilt or denial of it? How did the denazification process evolve? Was there any cinema? How did people socialise, if at all? What they would have worn? Photos revealed knitted slippers. We could not source any, so Rose (Set and costume Design) researched German knitting patterns of the 1940s and knitted Hermann’s slippers. There were also discoveries: a period breadboard and bread knife and the sort of loaf they would have eaten.
Without any spoilers, what is the storyline?
Hermann and Martha have agreed to ration out their bread so it will last til the next time that she can go and queue up for a fresh loaf. Hermann wakes up hungry one night and sneaks down to the kitchen. It would not take enough bread for it to matter and Martha need not know. Unfortunately for him she wakes up and catches him red-handed. This apparently small incident takes on an ever-increasing emotional significance as past, present and future come under close scrutiny. An ironic question underpins the whole story: can an act of betrayal lead to something good?
How did the writing progress from the first version?
An important decision for me was that I wanted an audience to be constantly reminded that they were watching the plight of two Germans. This is not a play where two actors just speak with German accents; as I wrote the script I translated it into German. Sometimes Hermann and Martha speak an English that Germans speak. I found that had to be modified, though, as it made the language a little stilted at times and I thought it could be hard on the ear of a British audience.
As I developed the writing I was getting further away from the intensity of the short story, so I worked on Martha’s inner tension, wrestling with Hermann’s reluctance to own up and her constant worry about her mother and Hermann’s lack of treating her worries seriously enough. She feels it as a hurtful lack of empathy on his part. She tolerates, even fights shy of mentioning what he has obviously done in the story. I decided to broaden it out so that what she really wants is his confession.
You’ve also revised it several times. What lay behind the changes?
The first version lasted just under 20 minutes, so more was needed to make it viable as a stand-alone piece and revisions have come because the play has had to be extended for other venues. Also, experience of performing has led us to reassess dynamics, highs and lows and also the historical context. Audience feedback has been very encouraging, so we also wondered about whether we needed to change something that has proved successful so far. But there were certain elements that some had questioned afterwards, such as what may have happened to their children or even if they had had any - so further clarification was workshopped in the writing.
It’s a play is set soon after WWII. How relevant is it to our own times?
Martha’s fears about her mother resonate a great deal with events in Ukraine and other areas affected by military attacks. We can also reflect upon the strength of the poor in adversity. I hope it promotes understanding, empathy and maybe a reassessment of human values.
Previous versions have been performed elsewhere, but now you’re staging it in The Bridge House. What’s the attraction of this venue?
There is a great sense of encouragement for new work here. There is also the challenge of performance with an audience on three sides, when we have hitherto played end-on. For us that means looking again at the staging of it, which in turn has helped us to re-examine the dynamic between the two protagonists and the dramatic cadences in the performance.
There seems to be a sense of community in Penge and pride in the theatre. Luke and Joe are willing theatre to be as accessible to as many as possible. Everyone associated with our company, Pogo Theatre,will be proud to be part of that.