Theatre Interview: Alan Swerdlow – Family Secrets, Or Soap Up, Sonny

June 14, 2019

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By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Family Secrets, by Italian playwright Enrico Luttmann, stars Dorothy-Ann Gould and Sven Ruygrok, is directed by Alan Swerdlow and designed by Kosie Smit. It tells the story of a mother and son, a fan and writer of soap operas respectively, whose spiky interactions help the to ultimately discover the lasting value of family.

 

Alan Swerdlow provides some insight into the production.

 

What are some of the characteristics of contemporary Italian theatre that might excite or intrigue audiences more used to English, American or South African narratives?

I’m not sure that contemporary Italian theatre shares a roster of characteristics, but what it does have as a common trait is a willingness to break with the historical tradition.  From Commedia del’Arte on, through the sweeping historical narratives of the 19th Century and into the experimentation of playwrights like Pirandello and Dario Fo, the commentary was always on big social issues. Contemporary playwrights like Enrico Luttman seem to be fascinated by the individual and his or her micro-responses to their world, not entire societies. In Family Secrets, the protagonists are quirky, highly individualistic and very stressed, but the joy is that the audience connects with them and recognises them immediately. In addition, Luttman breaks a lot of rules. He refuses to stick to a single genre. For example, he’ll write one scene as comedy and another as near farce and a third as tragedy, as he needs for that particular moment.It’s a “memory” play, but it seems to take place in the here and now, characters break the fourth wall and play fast and loose with conventions. It’s a very refreshing approach.

 

How are soap operas (an oft-derided phenomenon) used as a mechanism to develop the characters and plot in Family Secrets?

A running motif in the play is a repeated discussion on the difference between soap operas and telenovelas. The protagonists are both saturated in the world of soapies – Adamo writes them for an Italian television station; his mother Grazia is an obsessive viewer, not necessarily restricting herself to her son’s creations, despite the fact that she is a highly educated literature teacher who reads Bertrand Russell and Iris Murdoch for pleasure. Luttman bravely lets some of the soapie tropes peek through at key moments, and I have chosen to  treat a a key scene as an episode in an ongoing soap. Oh, in addition our set, designed by Kosie Smit, suggests a television studio.

 

Dorothy-Ann Gould is well-known as a serious dramatic actress and Sven Ruygrok has just come off Equus, which is hardly a barrel of laughs. How does the process of creating a piece that includes a good deal of comedy work, using those skills to bring out the meaning amid the humour?

In my experience I’ve always found that serious dramatic actors make the best comedians and vice-versa. Dorothy-Ann has a very wide range and can flip from comedy to tragedy in a single line without breaking a sweat, and Sven has a wonderful instinct for the unexpected, which is one of the essential requirements of comedy. And Luttman is using just that, the unexpected comedy treatment of certain serious moments to jolt the audience into considering things differently. However, I must make it clear that South African audiences tend to confuse knockabout farce for real comedy, and this is not a farce, though it veers into that territory for one key moment. But our day-to-day experiences are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and I think Luttman has given this naturalism to the play. From a directorial point of view, I always try to suit the approach to the needs of the particular moment.

 

Family (as a theme) is universal, but hardly consistent – we all have our issues. What do you hope to connect with (or warn against) via this script?

It was EM Forster who said “Only connect”, wasn’t it? I think that Luttman is pointing out a simple truth that because for most people being a part of a family is a default position, we stop truly listening to each other in that unit, and he’s saying we have to get back to hearing the truth of the moment. The notion of “family”, then, becomes so much more complex and rewarding. Of course, nowadays “family” covers a much wider range and our ideas of what constitute a family keep shifting, making the whole thing much, much richer. If I truly hear you and you truly hear me, we’re going to get along just fine and gain a lot along the way.

 

Family Secrets runs at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre in Fourways, Johannesburg, until 30 June; and then at Theatre On The Bay in Cape Town from 3 to 13 July. 

 

 

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