Alexander Zeldin: ‘We need to find a way to talk about things we don’t want to see’ | Theatre


There is one no-no in an Alexander Zeldin rehearsal, and that’s being theatrical. As the cast of his first French play, A Death in the Family, rehearses carefully choreographed entrances set in a care home, the British playwright and director keeps returning to the theme. “Factual, simple. No theatre here,” he tells one actor. “You’re wonderful as you are,” he says to another. “If you do more, it becomes theatre.”

It’s a delightful paradox for someone who is singularly obsessed with theatre, as I realise when I meet him close to his Paris flat. The 36-year-old, who found international success with an arresting trilogy, The Inequalities (Beyond Caring, Love, and Faith, Hope and Charity) that laid bare the human cost of austerity in Britain, moved here temporarily last September.

He was worried, he tells me, that Covid restrictions would make travel difficult for his rehearsals. Still, when I ask him what daily life has been like in the French capital, he is stumped. “Well, I’m working all the time,” he says, stressing “all”.

Putting on a new show with a majority of actors over the age of 85 certainly proved an all-consuming endeavour in a pandemic. Any Covid case triggered stringent protocols; as a result, the premiere was pushed back three times. “It’s an incredibly difficult project,” Zeldin admits. Yet he had wanted to work with elderly people for a long time, and the past two years – “when there were so many numbers on screen of deaths happening” – only reinforced that.

Rehearsals for A Death in the Family.
‘It’s an incredibly difficult project’ … Rehearsals for A Death in the Family. Photograph: Ketchup Mayonnaise

When Zeldin was 15, the loss of his own father had ripple effects. A Russian-Jewish refugee who came to Britain and worked in Oxford as a lecturer in education, his father developed progressive supranuclear palsy and died after years of illness. One of his father’s last projects was to write a novel, and Zeldin shared the first pages he wrote as a teenager with him. Zeldin had long been a student at the multilingual Europa School UK, formerly accredited as the UK’s only “European School,” a utopian intergovernmental venture supported by the European Union. (It lost that status last year due to Brexit.) He learned his fluent French there, but “kind of got thrown out” around the time of his father’s death: “I was smoking a lot of weed and being a bit …” he trails off.

He threw himself into theatre instead. By 17, he was at the Edinburgh fringe with a play inspired by Marguerite Duras. Glimpses of the Dying Process had the dubious honour of being voted the worst play at the fringe that year by one critic. When he got into Oxford University – “I went because I thought my father would have wanted me to go, if I’m honest” – he set up his own theatre group outside the university, working “for six or seven hours a day, six days a week.” What about his French degree? “I didn’t go to any lectures. I just read the books.”

Zeldin’s restless appetite for all forms of performances then led him abroad. He went to Egypt, where he rehearsed one play for a full year; to South Korea, Georgia and Russia, where he dated an opera singer and decided to stay to explore his roots. Since his father never spoke Russian at home, he had to start from scratch in St Petersburg, scraping by with translation and teaching work.

Nick Holder and Susan Lynch in rehearsal at the National Theatre for Faith, Hope and Charity in 2019.
Nick Holder and Susan Lynch in rehearsal at the National Theatre for Faith, Hope and Charity in 2019. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Eventually, the prestigious Mariinsky theatre asked him to direct several opera productions. “I did it very badly, probably,” Zeldin now demurs, but his Russian years – when he would go to ballet, opera or drama performances nearly every night – shaped his understanding of theatre. “I learned how to direct by doing opera. You’ve got three bars where there’s thinking music, or longing, and each bit is a space for something to happen. When I direct people now, I’m imagining what the music would be.”

Back in the UK, however, Zeldin’s peripatetic CV didn’t help much. “The only place I could get work was at drama schools,” he says. A job at East 15 Acting School allowed him to develop plays with students; Beyond Caring, his first major hit, featured several of them. Inspired by people on zero-hours contracts, it was picked up by the National Theatre, which then produced Zeldin’s Love – this time focused on families living in temporary accommodation.

Zeldin’s ability to create characters who speak to a social malaise, yet never feel preachy or impersonal, has earned him comparisons to Ken Loach – which he refutes. “That’s simplistic, because those plays are not just about social issues. They’re about human beings that are living stories of our time, because the defining idea of the UK in the last 15 years has been austerity.” While touring has grown more difficult for his UK-based company since Brexit, he is proud to be working between the UK (he is an associate director of the National Theatre) and Europe: “I just feel enriched from working in French and English. It makes my English work better and my French work better.”

For A Death in the Family, which is set to be performed later in the UK, Zeldin looked back on his experience with his father – and his grandmother, who died shortly afterwards. “We went to visit her in a care home, and I remember that time as being one where we were sort of exhausted from one death, having to confront another,” he says. “Something about that moment – the care home as a setting – felt to me like it had the ingredients for a dramatic situation.”

Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk in Love at the National Theatre in 2016.
Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk in Love at the National Theatre in 2016. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

In rehearsal, Zeldin watches for details with rare intensity, stopping a scene every time it starts to feel artificial. He learned a lot, he said, from assisting Peter Brook and his co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne on their 2010 production of A Magic Flute. One of his tasks was to write a page about the show every single night. “You don’t know what to write, so you have to keep looking and looking and looking, until you see something else,” Zeldin says.

A Death in the Family features both experienced professional actors and amateurs – although “they’re all professionals to me,” he says. “They’re all paid.” How does it feel to act with the likes of the 77-year-old Marie-Christine Barrault, a 1975 Oscar nominee who worked with Éric Rohmer and Annie Mercier, a legend of the French stage? Their new colleagues looked unfazed in December, and the seasoned pros love it, Zeldin tells me. “Annie says: ‘I feel like I can’t cheat in front of these people.’”

Like the Inequalities trilogy, A Death in the Family forces the audience to confront a quasi-taboo – here, the reality of old age and the end of life. “I think the theatre has crippled itself by being a simulacrum of reality. That’s a mistake, in my opinion, about what theatre is,” Zeldin says.

“Theatre has always been a way of getting us closer to the force of life,” says Zeldin, before catching himself: “I’m getting a bit philosophical now, but fuck it. I mean, I care about this shit. I think we need that in our society: we need to find a way to talk about things that we don’t want to see.”

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