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“I feel I’m finding my voice as an actor and a contributing artist in the world” - an interview with Nabil Elouahabi

25 August 2017 Will Rathbone

Nabil Elouahabi is a British-Moroccan actor with a habit of appearing in politically charged new writing. Fresh from a recent appearance at the Almeida Theatre in Oil, Ella Hickson’s multi-generational epic spanning thousands of years of society’s dependence on black gold, he is currently rehearsing for the London transfer of the Tony award-winning Oslo at the National Theatre. London Calling spoke to Nabil about the play and his career to date.

London Calling: Good afternoon Nabil, thank you very much for speaking to us today! Please could you start by telling us about Oslo, and your role in it?

Nabil Elouahabi: Oslo has transferred over from New York, where it won a Tony Award, and follows the story of a Norwegian couple who, in 1993, brokered the peace accord between the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) and the Israeli government of the time. To put that in context, the PLO were considered a terrorist organisation and in Israel, politically, it was a huge deal. The play looks at the events leading up to the treaty, and I play Hassan Asgour, a senior PLO negotiator, who worked with lead negotiator Ahmed Qurie. It’s real life,  and these are real characters dealing with history, which I find really fulfilling.


Bartlett Sher and Nabil Elouahabi in rehearsal for Oslo © Brinkhoff Mögenberg

LC: There is a lot of buzz around the play, and it already has a West End transfer before it’s even opened at the National! Does it feel like an important production?
NE: I’m tentative about using the word ‘important’, but I think it’s a really powerful work. I think looking at a historical situation through the characters involved - and they are some pretty remarkable characters - is fascinating, and it doesn’t really get much more dramatic than this. You’ve got sworn enemies in a room together, who start to get to know each other and take incremental movements toward each other as human beings. That was the style of negotiating Terje Rød-Larsen, played by the fantastic Toby Stephens, used; his model of negotiation is now used all over the world. It’s not just entertainment, though it is very entertaining; it gives you a perspective on something that, whether we choose to engage with it or not, affects our very existence daily.

LC: You’ve been involved in a lot of topical plays over the last five years - Fireworks (Royal Court), Another World (National Theatre), Oil (Almeida Theatre) – are you drawn to these sorts of plays in particular?

NE: I’m really proud of being part of each one of those productions because, as you say, it’s definitely a world I like to explore. I think it’s great to have an expression and an exploration of these worlds and ideas, and to contribute to the debate through what I do – which is acting. I guess you could say that my political involvement comes through my work. It’s stuff I’m really interested in - it excites me – and that’s important.

I was reading an article about this year’s Edinburgh Festival that said politics is back on the agenda. It’s sexy again and there’s an appetite for it; people want to talk about politics. Brexit, Trump: it’s cool to deal with these topics again, and I’m really pleased to see that. I’m not a purist - I think there should always be a wide spectrum of work for people to see - but I also feel that we need work that reflects the world as it is.


Peter Polycarpou, Karoline Gable, Nabil Elouahabi and Bartlett Sher in rehearsal for Oslo © Brinkhoff Mögenberg

LC: How have rehearsals been? What is Bartlett Sher like as a director?

NE: Bartlett Sher is like a little wizard in action. You see him sat there, almost conducting – I call him The Conductor. I don’t want to sound too gushy about the whole thing, because I’m not a particularly gushy person, but it really is a wonderful company full of good people, and it’s a very happy rehearsal room.

LC: So it’s good to be back at the National Theatre?

NE: It’s super nice – I feel very privileged to be back. It was great seeing Rufus and the team again at the beginning. It’s a wonderful place to be a part of – especially as a Londoner. I grew up in Harrow Road, and I’ve taken my own path in life. My family are from North Africa, I’m a child of immigrants, so it’s great to be part of our National Theatre and have a space here.

LC: What role are you most proud of in your career so far?

NE: I produced a play that was directed by Nicholas Kent about three years ago, that we took to the Arcola Theatre. It was based on a short story by an Arab writer called Hassan Blasim. Getting that from page to stage with Nick Kent was a highlight for me as an artist, because I wasn’t just engaged as an actor. It’s funny how these things connect further along the line. I’d worked with Nick previously on the The Great Game: Afghanistan – a mountain of plays that we took to the US, which was about the history between Afghanistan and the UK. After that I did Another World – about losing our children to Islamic State. Each job has lent itself to the next, and I feel I’m finding my voice as an actor and a contributing artist in the world. Straight after this, on 2 January I fly out to Washington DC to do a new play called Nora by an American-Iraqi writer called Heather Raffo.


Paul Herzberg and Nabil Elouahabi in rehearsal for Oslo © Brinkhoff Mögenberg

LC: What’s on your cultural radar at the moment?

NE: I’m slightly obsessed with documentaries at the moment. Welcome to Leith is a fantastic documentary about a small town in rural America, where a chap turns up and starts buying up plots of land. It turns out he’s one of the foremost white supremacists in the US. He puts a callout to other supremacists to come and inhabit this small town, and the documentary focuses on how the town deals with him – it’s phenomenal.

Nabil Elouahabi stars in Oslo at the National Theatre from 5-23 September, and at The Harold Pinter from 2 October till 30 December. Tickets from £18.
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