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.

Haemin Sunim – Love for Imperfect Things

We are more than the jobs we do. More than the roles we play. More than the labels society puts on us. But it’s not always easy to remember that. We are constantly striving for perfection, and when we inevitably don’t achieve it, we beat ourselves up.

It doesn’t have to be that way, says Haemin Sunim’s Love for Imperfect Things. The struggle may feel real, but we don’t have to be struggling.

This million selling book is part essay, part poetry, part compendium of inspirational quotes. It’s not a page turner, more a guide to dip in and out of when the mood strikes and you’re in need of some inspiration. A Zen Buddhist teacher from Seoul, Sunim’s writing is permission to just be, rather than always becoming. Covering everything from family to empathy, courage to acceptance, this book is full of wise sayings, which yes, sometimes veer on being cliched aphorisms, but there’s a reason why these things get repeated.

It’s gentler than some ‘motivating’ self help books. It is about changing mindset rather than offering any practical advice. But what do you expect from a monk? It’s not dripping in spirituality – it’s subtler that that.

This book reminds us that we are all imperfect, that we all struggle in our life and work – and that we are all worthy of love. Which is a great message that we would all do well to remember.

An interview with Sarah Dickinson, author of Silver Spoons ; One’s Journey Through Addiction

An interview with Sarah Dickinson, author of Silver Spoons ; One’s Journey Through Addiction. The book takes an intimate and raw look at the current face of addiction and recovery. Talking about the current opioid epidemic, we follow a young couple while one of them goes through the recovery process. Told through letters, we get an understanding of their relationship as it struggles through his addiction and resulting recovery. From detox, rehab, sober living and the 12 steps of A.A, you get a raw and honest look at the effects of addiction and how they affect relationships.

Why did you decide to write this book?

The main reason I decided to write this was because when I was in the middle of experiencing life with an addict who entered rehab, I had no clue how to be supportive and not lose myself. Every story I found about addiction ended when the addict entered rehab. There were so many of these stories that exploited the bad behavior of an addict but not much more than that. With the opioid epidemic growing at such a rate you’re hard pressed to find someone not affected by addiction. Struggling with it or watching someone they love struggling.

Is the story drawn from life?

While there were so many cathartic moments writing this book and the feedback has brought me such happiness it was painful. It was painful enough to go through some of these experiences and writing this story forced me to re-live some of my worst moments. I was unprepared to feel the level of pain that I did when other addicts shared their own painful experiences with me.

Was it ever painful?

Every aspect of the book was drawn from life, but not solely mine. There are many situations and conversations that are direct from my own personal life, but they have been fictionalized in one way or another. There are also a handful of situations and experiences that have come from other addicts, or the people who love them. People who shared their stories when I was researching addiction. Every character in the book is inspired by someone that I personally know as well.

Why take an epistolary approach?

I decided to use an epistolary approach for freedom and emotion. I felt it was the most effective way to create empathy and understanding for addicts. So often people struggling with addiction are stigmatized to the level of being dehumanized. They are viewed as their addiction and not the people they are fully. I felt that using letters put their humanity in the face of the readers. It also allowed a level of freedom in my writing, to introduce information without sounding like a textbook, to use some of my personal language. Mainly words and phrases that are not proper grammar, but that I use.

If the story is drawn from your own life, was writing cathartic and therapeutic?

Writing this book was extremely cathartic, and many times sitting down to write felt like entering a therapy session. It helped me do more than just purge my feelings and events. I was able to reflect on so many aspects of my life. Not just addiction. My father suffered from dementia, as well as the MC’S mother did. So, there were many personal issues I was able to look at as well. In all honesty I probably was only able to heal and grow from these experiences as quickly as I did because I wrote this book.

How did you do your research?

I did my research by reading everything I could find about addiction and recovery. I read the Big Book of A.A. and quite a few scholarly articles as well. Articles from a scientific as well as psychology standpoint. I also went to A.A. and ALANON meetings. I was given a sponsor, talked to many addicts at these meetings, and worked the 1 step. When I say I went to A.A., I would like to add that there was full transparency. Every person at those meetings knew why I was there, and I was not an addict myself. There were many closed meetings that I was not allowed to go to because of this, and I was extremely grateful how willing people were to help me understand who they were.

Harkin – Nothing The Light Can’t Change

Harkin has just announced her debut self-titled album is set for release April 24th via Hand Mirror, a new label set up by Harkin and her partner Kate Leah Hewett and is sharing new single Nothing The Light Can’t Change from the record. The record features contributions from Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and Wye Oak and Bon Iver’s Jenn Wasner and was completed over 16 days dotted between Harkin’s gruelling tour schedule.

Spiky and brilliant, it’s a firey track that evokes dark nights and moody feels. It’s vibrant and vital, and full of energy. Denser that previous tunes, there’s layers of fizzing guitars and simmering tension.

Harkin has been touring since her teens and is one of the most prolific collaborators of her generation. Now, a lifelong collaborator steps into the singular. In addition to her own bands, including the utterly fantastic Sky Larkin, she has been a touring member of Sleater-Kinney, Wild Beasts, Flock of Dimes, and Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett.

A Curious History of Sex – Kate Lister

Sex is a funny thing. It’s an odd thing. It’s a curious thing. And that’s what Kate Lister’s new book is about. The quirks and trappings of something that is so fundamental to our life yet still causes embarrassment and squirms when we talk about it.

Based on the popular research project Whores of Yore, and written with her direct wit and playful humour, A Curious History of Sex draws upon Dr Kate Lister’s extensive knowledge of sex history. She knows her stuff, but there’s no dry academia here. Rather solid facts and funny stories are presented with wanton abandon in what is a riot of a book. She covers everything from ancient Greek customs to Victorian porn to modern day doll brothels, rooting around to challenge stereotypes and debunk myths. She digs deep – chapters focus on the clitoris, dildos, and the penis, and graphic images mean that this isn’t a book for the faint hearted. But she also explores sex’s role in society and medicine, as well as its role in feminism, and changing attitudes to religion.

Language plays a big part in our experience of sex. Should we use the word ‘c*nt?’ Lister thinks so, describing it as a glorious word that is evocative and can be empowering. By grabbing hold of the words and unashamedly shouting them from the page, Lister energises the conversation. Why are there so many words for men’s parts, and women’s are forgotten? It’s all about social convention.

The book is a blast. It’s funny and educational and interesting. By the time it has reached its climax you’re left feeling exhausted but emboldened, with your curiosity whetted for more.

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