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Building the Wall at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet

‘It wouldn’t take many wrong turns to arrive here’

1 May 2018 Suzanne Frost

Building the Wall was written, produced and put on stage with enormous speed because its timely topicality allowed for no dalliance. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan imagines a future as uncomfortably close as 2019, where fascist rhetoric has led humanity towards unspeakable crimes once again. The Park Theatre secured themselves the UK premiere of this most urgent play and London Calling secured an interview with Trevor White, who plays the character of Rick, waiting on death row. The very busy actor talked to us two days before opening night and while getting a last minute hair cut but like we said – this play allows for no dalliance!

London Calling: You are just days away from opening with a really exciting and important new play. The general consensus seems to be that this is a play that needs to be put on stage right now!
Trevor White: Very much. It couldn’t be more topical, also with the things happening Britain at the moment. All this talk about deportation and illegal immigrants and quotas, these are a lot of things that this play deals with. Obviously I’m not happy that these things are going on here at all, but I think the play will resonate even more than it would have done normally because of what is in the news at the moment.
 
LC: Can you give a brief summary of the situation your character Rick finds himself in?
TW: I would describe it as a Black Mirror style dystopian drama. It’s set in a very near and very plausible future that it wouldn’t take many wrong turns to arrive at. It’s 2019 in America after Trump has been impeached and some very very bad things have happened that you will discover during the play. My character is in the middle of it, quite literally: there are people above me telling me what to do, people below me that I told what to do, and I am the guy caught up in some catastrophic events. Gloria, the other character, is my last hope to talk to someone and to come clean about what really happened before I will be executed. What the play seeks to do and does very well is to disturb and unsettle, to challenge people’s views on the times we live in today.

Building the Wall at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet
 
LC: It’s drawing some pretty straightforward comparisons with Nazi Germany.
TW: There are not unintentional similarities in how things progress and when these are revealed, it is truly shocking. But of course it has happened before and could very well happen again. Robert Schenkkan, the brilliant playwright, wrote this as a very quick response to Donald Trump being inaugurated because he believes that art has a responsibility to respond to the current climate and you can’t wait a year or two years because at that stage, it might already be too late.
 
LC: Usually we do need a bit of distance to see clearly what is happening in an era, and to translate that into a dramatisation but there is such a sense of urgency at the moment, it needs to be addressed right now!
TW: It is incredibly current and it’s a very important story to be telling at this moment in history. In Britain, the Windrush scandal is getting so much overdue attention in parliament and in our newspapers. How human beings treat other human beings and continue to, is quite shocking, and this play is an example of a potentially very ordinary person getting involved in some extraordinarily horrific incidents.

Trevor White and Angela Griffin in Building The Wall at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet
 

LC: He is pretty horrified himself by what he was capable of?
TW: For me the most important thing is to make sure the character is not just an out and out monster. That would make it very easy to distance yourself from him and to condemn him. Ultimately this is a human being who up until certain events led a relatively normal life.
 
LC: This is a conversation between two opposed ideologies, and these conversations don’t always happen, because we tend to stay in our own bubble and probably get confirmation of our beliefs from our friends and don’t tend to engage with the other side
TW: That’s a very good point. In the echo chamber of social media everyone can easily find a lot of people that are likeminded and therefore justify their opinion, however extreme. The writer has intentionally put two people from different sides of the political and racial spectrum, even religious spectrum, in one room for a very short period of time and they are forced to engage with each other about very difficult issues. They hold up a mirror not only to themselves but to the audience as well. Our set design excitingly reflects this, we are in a glass cage which makes the audience invariably the jury, if you will. It is like a one-way mirror into this uncomfortable interview and makes the audience a bit more complicit in it.
 
LC: Gloria, the liberal journalist, wants to understand the motivations behind Rick’s actions and how he arrived at that point. What is his motivation to pick her as his last human contact?
TW: As a human being presented to the world as a monster because of his complicity in the events that have occurred, it is very important to him to set the record straight.  Even more than that, the play mentions he has a wife and a new born daughter so I think he is trying to clear his own name but also correct the legacy he leaves for his young family. I really think it’s crucial for Rick to get the point across that yes, he wasn’t a part of the solution, but neither did he create the problem. There were many people above him that put him in a very uncomfortable, very dangerous position if he dared to go against what they asked him to do. So I suppose this asks a wider question of our responsibility as a society to make the right decision. This is someone who just wants his honour and his humanity back, which has been taken away not only by what he did himself but also by the reaction afterwards. He would have been a hero in the previous administration and now he is the opposite.

Trevor White and Angela Griffin in Building The Wall at the Park Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet
 

LC: One of the words that keeps coming up in all the conversations about Building the Wall is ‘inevitable’? Are we inevitably headed for a catastrophe?
TW: I am an optimist. I can also see that if we’re not careful, society can very much head that way. As history has shown, it doesn’t take a whole lot for tough talks to turn into something as horrific as the holocaust. People are more attuned to the possibility because it has happened. So I like to believe that there are enough people out there that are decent and will fight in whatever way necessary to stop that from happening. But we need to be very vigilant.
 
 
LC: Does theatre have any power to affect change?
TW: I think if it didn’t we probably wouldn’t do it. Theatre doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that technology has but I think the live experience of theatre is magical, and you walk out of that a changed person from how you walked in. Not every show has to be political, ultimately we are here to entertain and keep people engaged but this play, I think, does both. I think it will unsettle you, challenge you and I think you will walk out a different person.
 
Building the Wall is at the Park Theatre 2 may – 2 June.
 
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