“Three men sit in the belly of the beast, playing and living in their dreams, with nothing but their memories to haunt them.”
Written on the back of a poster, the description for “Ninevah” written by New York University in London professor and playwright Julia Pascal promises a story of woe and triumph.
The piece, now playing at Riverside Studios, is based on the testimony of international soldiers and follows the story of three soldiers trapped inside a whale. Forced to meditate on their actions in, the soldiers must atone for their pasts.
It has been described as a provocative and an emotional roller coaster from students in the audience as well as critics.
Pascal spoke with WSN about Nineveh.
Washington Square News: I saw on the poster that this story was based on the accounts of international soldiers. What was your experience interviewing these people and hearing their stories?
Julia Pascal: Well, actually the research was a collaborative experience between the director and myself. I’d been reading such material for about thirty years. After a while, you just begin to treat it as material. I know in the beginning, it can affect you—it still affects me. It takes you off-guard. In fact there are moments when you are watching that you realize this isn’t just a play, that this is happening to people everyday, but you have to learn to suppress that [effect] or else you can’t write.
WSN: What inspired you to turn these stories into a play? Did you literally transcribe their words or did you reform and rearrange their stories to fit the meaning you were trying to convey?
JP: Well when I heard this African story about a boy having his arms cut off and being swallowed by a giant fish, it woke up in me the idea of Jonah and the whale, the Old Testament story. I try to teach this to my students, you have to find a structure. One of the techniques for a playwright is to look for a myth to try to encapsulate the stories. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the play, for me, was the realization that I was writing about perpetrators. I have written many things but I have never written about perpetrators—four characters that are murderers—so there was also the question of how to portray them.
WSN: And that is a perfect transition into my next question. Can you describe the writing process that you went through as you were writing Nineveh?
JP: I suppose it was kind of hell receiving all this material and not knowing what to with it (laughing). I wanted to make it anywhere and everywhere and not country-specific because I think it’s an international story.
WSN: Finally, are you satisfied with the outcome of this play? Is there anything you would may be want to change or improve after seeing it one
JP: I was pretty satisfied. I just think it needs an audience and enjoyment. I think this will all come in time. A play takes time to run and for the cast to totally own it. It always feels to me like—since it is four actors—four people on a wild horse. That’s what you have, the play is a wild horse and you have to get on the back of it. Sometimes it gets controlled, sometimes it controls them, and sometimes they control it. That’s theatre, you can’t control it; it’s not like a movie where you can take it again and get a perfect clip. It will always be changing.
Nineveh is being presented at the Riverside Studios in London from 16 April-11 May.
Stephanie Lam is a foreign correspondent. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org