Look Back In Anger – an interview with Sebastian Palka

This spring at White Bear Theatre comes a revival of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, directed by Sebastian Palka.

Look Back in Anger by John Osborne is a manifestation of disagreement with the stagnation of the everyday life. Osborne finds the medicine for this stagnation in manipulation of feelings, constant change of moods and brutal honesty, with its debut press-release calling him the ‘Angry young man’.

Jimmy, disillusioned by the structures of working-class life, constantly insults his beloved but upper-class wife Alison. He balances on the verge of passion and hatred that keeps everyone alive but destroys him and everyone around.

Polish born, Actor and Director, Sebastian has worked in theatre, Film, TV in a wide range of styles, roles and forms. Sebastian is a founder of Big Boots Theatre Company. He received an Offie Nomination for Holding the Man in the category of best director (2017).

Sebastian has written musicals and directed at the Polish Children Theatre ‘Syrena’ in Hammersmith. His other credits include A Little Night Music, The Crucible and Great Expectations.

I caught up with Sebastian to find out more about the play and what its relevance in 2020.

Why is now the time for a revival of the play?

Anytime is good for a good play. Anytime is good for a good drama. We often focused on relevance or themes of the play but we forget about the timeless interpersonal relationships between people in it. Many actors who came to audition said that they felt angry some point in their youth. This might mean that people do still feel connected with the play and what it is really about. And, let’s acknowledge that anger is one of our feelings instead of pretending it is something about the post war generation only. In fact we are not all so very nice and calm all the time. Let’s stop being afraid of our anger. Let’s use for a good cause. And, this play is really about complicated love too. This is timeless.

There’s been lots of talk recently of working class voices being absent in the arts. Do you think this is an issue?

This is a big question to answer in a few sentences. We’d need to define working class first. I, for example, can be defined as working class, I work and saved in order to produce and direct Look Back in Anger. But I’m also educated and I am an immigrant. So what am I really?

The issue is that the arts are divided, elitist and commercialised. Also British theatre seems to me very hierarchal where writers and producers running the show most of the time. Yes, of course working class artists have a difficult take off and often give up quickly before they peak not being able to sustain the competition and working for free.

If we look way back how theatre was before, it belonged to the poor and outcasts trying to entertain the elite. Some point we institutionalised the arts and turned it into a commercial, profitable business. With national schools and academies, we have created an elite. So, no surprise that now it is difficult to break into it. The voice of working class is out there but has no support, money, appreciation… 

What does Look Back In Anger say to us today?

That life has not changed that much. We are probably angrier than ever actually. Little illusion left and hope that the future will be brighter (and I mean also literally). The 1% rules and exploits and we just get the scraps. But, Look Back in Anger also says that we need to try and even it is a futile fight that burn us out it is our responsibilities to fight. If we want things to change. 

Kitchen sink drama like this (or A Taste Of Honey or A Streetcar Named Desire) were most often praised in the 50s for putting settings and characters on stage that hadn’t been seen before. Now those plays have passed into folklore, do they still shock us in the same way? Or can they shock a modern audience in a new way? 

I don’t think it is about shocking, definitely it isn’t my focus. There are new working class dramas around much more relevant to our times that might be making much bigger impact on the society. However, I think Look Back in Anger has a different purpose now. When I first saw Look Back in Anger I was living in Poland. It was way before I learned English and knew about British class or colonial society. What I remember from that performance was the incredible intense energy, the disagreement with mundane routine and stagnation. I felt connected with Jimmy who was “angry and helpless”. In fact, I think many young people today too feel like this. I do not want to shock. I’d rather create opportunity for people to talk, go home and think. Shocking is easy and theatre often looks for it. It is a shock not theatre.

Do the class anxieties that drive the play speak to a modern audience in the same way? Many people have called the 2010s an angry decade (brexit, populism, social media trolls etc) – does this give the play a relevance to a modern audience? ( wonder what the 2010s version of Jimmy would be, angry, disaffected, working class and riven with class anxiety, would he be venting his spleen on Twitter? Voting UKIP? Campaigning for Corbyn?) How are young men today more or less enfranchised than in Osborne’s day?

Very interesting question. As a social worker I deal on daily basis with angry young people both boys and girls. Jimmy today would feel as hopeless as in the fifties but today’s Jimmy would be smoking cannabis and running around with a knife in his pocket. Anger manifests in weird choices, anger is ultimately fear that cannot be contained.

To me, sadly, the world has become a scary place to live in because people have become scared and angry. There are the global issues that really matter now, not the domestic ones.  We need to be joining forces, working together, building bridges not walls and separate from each other. But the people has become scared and some people use it  manipulate us for personal gains and power. Jimmy rebels against all that. This is why Look Back in Anger is so important today.

How has your previous work informed your approach this time?

Every play is a different meal and you need to cook it with different ingredients. But I always cook my meals with a pinch of psychology and sociology focusing on the main flavour that is the energy and emotions. The new territory for me is definitely the kitchen sink drama. It is also a British classic and people either, to my surprise, don’t know it at all or have a very fixed idea what it is and how it needs to be presented. I’m more visual artist and prefer dynamic and textured plays. Look Back in Anger is by all means the most text based play I ever worked. Although I am enjoying the process, it comes with challenges.

Published by Francesca Baker

Passionate about music, the world, exploring, literature and smiling. Writing, marketing and events for all my favourite things.

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