view counter

Q&A: Playwright Stuart Slade on Terrorism, Humour and Misery Porn

Stuart Slade, Artistic Director of Kuleshov Theatre and Creative Director of Ivanov Films, has written plays including Cans (nominated for two Offies – Best Play and Most Promising New Playwright) and BU21, which started at Battersea’ Theatre503 and will be at Trafalgar Studios from January. The play follows six Londoners in the wake of a terrorist attack. We spoke to Stuart about the inspirations - and fears - that drove him to write it.

Eli Goldstone: Hi Stuart!

Stuart Slade: Hi Run Riot. Lovely to talk to you today.

Eli: BU21 is transferring to Trafalgar Studios after a sellout run – can you tell us a little about the play and how you came to write it?

Stuart: BU21 follows the lives of 6 young Londoners, for a year, following a large-scale terrorist attack. Basically an un-named terrorist organisation shoot down a passenger plane over central London, with devastating results.

In terms of inspiration, I knew that I wanted to write about the psychological effects of terrorism on London… and then, one morning, I was playing with my 6 year old daughter in a park in Fulham. We were watching the planes flying over, every minute or so, on their way to Heathrow, and she said to me ‘Daddy, what would happen if one of those planes crashed?’

From then on the plot basically wrote itself. I mean, I probably should give her a writing credit, shouldn’t I?

Eli: How did you collect the stories that you used to write the play?

Stuart: I spent a long time – almost a year – reading up on mass terrorist incidents: 7/7, 9/11, the Paris attacks, MH17 in Ukraine, Lockerbie, stuff like that. I also read a lot of material about PTSD and survivors’ groups. It was really important for me for the stories and experiences in the play to feel as authentic as possible.

On the other hand, though, I didn’t want to just steal the experiences of people’s real-life suffering – that felt, to me, pretty exploitative. So, using the survivor stories as a basis, I created 6 fictional characters: a banker, a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, a van driver, a PR exec, a student and a young Muslim man. We follow each as they deal with the effects of the attack over the course of a year – the tactics each uses to deal with extreme trauma and the ways in which each normalises (or fails to) their situation.

Eli: You’re coming from Theatre503, were there any major changes you faced in terms of making the play work in the new space?

Stuart: I’m fantastically lucky that I was able to take 5 of the 6 members of our awesome original cast with me to Trafalgar Studios, along with the entire Creative Team - they really are the most wonderful bunch of people in the world and I loves ‘em all dearly. So, on one hand it’s great that we get to do the show again together, and on the other it’s an excellent challenge making it work in a new space.

Trafalgar Studios is a wonderful theatre, and having the audience on three sides this time (rather than just in front of us) means that, I hope, the audience will feel even more immersed in the action than was possible before.

Eli: Do you think the threat of terrorism has changed the feel of London? I know that despite myself I have developed a paranoia that has slightly altered my relationship with the city.

Stuart: I’m a massive cheery optimist. According to the statistics you’re more likely to die by being hit by a bolt of lightning or, like, by choking on a Lego Man than in a terrorist incident. Terrorism, clearly, aims to create terror – denying it that oxygen is part of beating it, both personally and as a society.

Writing the play, though, did make me hyper-aware of terrorism, both domestically and abroad. In the second week of the run at 503 there was an attack in Brussels, where my parents-in-law live. For a couple of hours we weren’t able to get hold of them – and it was only really then, I guess, that the knife-sharp edge of it really struck home on a personal level. They were OK, thank goodness.

Eli: How important do you think humour is in coping with tragic events?

Stuart: Personally, I think it’s absolutely vital. Giving myself the permission to laugh at stuff, however dark it is, gives me access to an outlet value for emotional pressures that would otherwise be, potentially, unbearable. I think humour is a basic human necessity, like freedom.

Of course mocking the suffering of other people is one of the cruellest things you can do – so it’s important that humour is about coping, making sense, creating a safe distance – rather than disrespecting human unhappiness. That would be fucked up.

Eli: Previously you have mentioned not wanting to create ‘misery porn’. What are the difficulties of using tragedy to create art in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative?

Stuart: Yeah this has always been a big deal for me. I’ve sometimes been to the theatre (or the cinema) and watched ghastly human suffering, and I’ve come away feeling really dirty and voyeuristic. People sometimes talk about catharsis -  but if catharsis means somehow feeling better about yourself by watching somebody else’s despair, then catharsis, to be honest, can do one, pal.

‘Misery porn’, I guess, for me means gratuitously watching human suffering for entertainment. ‘Tragedy’, on the other hand, is learning something important about humanity, or yourself, through watching how people cope with the worst shit in their lives. Negotiating your way between the two is hard, but I think it’s worth doing.  

Eli: Do you think that politically tumultuous times necessitate a different kind of art?

Stuart: I’m a very firm believer in the idea that every act is political, especially in the theatre. These days choosing to put on a quaint 19th century drawing room farce, for example, is just as much a political act as staging Brecht or Sarah Kane – presenting a safe, apolitical, escapist view of the world is clearly a conservative political position in and of itself. And it should be interrogated as such, I think.

Obviously, these days, ignoring the political reality of the times in which we live is pretty much impossible, whether as a playwright or anybody else.

I guess as a human being I share many of the goals and aims of the overtly ‘political’ plays I’ve seen recently – wanting the world to be more fair, more just, more equitable, and more inclusive, is for me a vital ethical necessity – but to be honest, whenever I’ve tried writing overtly political stuff myself I find I get really journalistic and hectoring, and that’s boring for everybody. I just kinda do the best I can with the range I have, I guess.

Eli: Finally where are your favourite theatres in London that nurture new writing?

Stuart: Without Theatre503 I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. Over the past few years they’ve been absolutely wonderful in giving me a safe place to try out new ideas and develop my work. In terms of writers new to the theatre they really are second to none.

On the back of BU21 the Royal Court very kindly asked me to take part in their Studio Writers’ group led by the wonderful EV Crowe. Working with the Royal Court has been totes and utts amazing. The other writers on the group – Theresa Ikoko, Ellie Kendrick, Lisa Carroll, Joe Ward Munrow, Susie Sillett and Miran Hadzic – are all total legends whose work I admire massively, and working with the Building to develop a play as part of the group has been both a privilege and a joy.

BU21 at Trafalgar Studios

4th January - 18th February