Writer Mark Norfolk on his latest play Naked Soldiers and changing face of British culture
Set in London, Naked Soldiers explores the ever-changing face of British culture. The play follows the story of a white working class teenager accused of stabbing a young black boy. When he comes face to face with an illegal immigrant he is forced to examine the rigid moral values which he has been brought up to believe in.
What inspired you to write Naked Soldiers?
Some years ago whilst a youngster I'd seen a story about a former Nazi Concentration camp Guard who was living as an elderly gentleman in a quiet London suburb. However one day someone recognised him and went on to describe his litany of crimes against humanity during the Second World War. Eventually, the German government put in a request for his extradition which he fought tremendously, citing his age and feigning illness. He was brought to justice and given a long prison sentence. Then in the mid 1990's another case came to my attention, although similar, it now featured a supposed Rwandan war criminal who was living in Surrey and working as a doctor.
This intrigued me and the question arose about the hidden past that most of us carry with us. This man was said to have done terrible things, incitement to torture and murder, yet he was living out a middle class existence as a professional in a western country. This inspired me to write a play about it and then a few years later I was given the chance to do so.
Could you summarise the play in your own words?
The play is multi-faceted. Not only am I exploring the plight of the 'outsider', the immigrant attempting to eke out a life in a seemingly hostile environment but I am also piercing deep into the psyche of western ideologies in regards the 'foreigner', the 'other'. The play is fundamentally about power. If you look at the boundaries of race or colour, it is essentially a misnomer. Naked Soldiers explores this phenomenon by pitting people together in a tense situation. We have a wonderful cast led by Ewart James Walters and Adam Sopp, an exceedingly talented young actor who is sure to become a star.
Naked Soldiers is an interesting title – what's the concept behind it?
To me the title suggests soldiers are commonly thought of as powerful figures, fighters or warriors equipped to deal with brutal force. But deep within them there is also a sense of humanity. If you were to strip away their armour and their uniform they are in fact naked, vulnerable.
Sadly with the resurgence of knife crime in the younger community at the moment the play seems apt. How do you think Naked Soldiers can help to address the situation?
In Naked Soldiers the element of knife crime comes into the narrative but it is not the main issue of the play. Yet I recognise that young people today are growing up in an environment whereby they feel they have to act as 'soldiers' in order to gain some self esteem. Society is evolving in a way which leaves people vulnerable to the forces of capitalism. I'm not an anti-capitalist but I am aware that we are enmeshed in a fiercely competitive world. If you happen to fall behind, for whatever reason, it's better to have respect by being feared- this is the mentality. But it's not a new phenomenon.
In fact it has been around since men and women were on this earth. Today, we are supposedly more civilised so are thought to best able to rationalise these instincts, but the reality is different. Bullies come in all walks of life. We can dress it up in a suit and set it to work in the city or in Whitehall, or we can dress it in a hoodie and set it down on the nearest street corner, it's the same thing. If we were to look at the statistics, you would also see that knife crime today is relatively small compared to say, 40's, 50's and 60's. In those days everyone carried knives, pen knives, flick knives, ratchet knives. If you were to look back in even further you'd see the same statistics, incidents per had of capita.
I think today we live in a news hungry, media-led society where three incidents heavily reported could seem like three hundred incidents. Yes, there is a problem but we have to place it in a context, and not be afraid to question media coverage. For the last four years I have been working with the Writers in Prison Network and have come across thousand of young people in the judicial system. I have found them to be thoughtful, quite clever people, but somehow they feel trapped by things such as responsibility, competitiveness and their own lack of belief in themselves. A lot of it comes down to the media which portrays its own version of success.
When I was a youngster television wasn't such a dominant force in people's lives. It started at 6am shut off at midnight and you only had three channels. Now it's a 24 hour frenzy of a thousand channels of mind-numbing mush with a tiny bit of icing on top (which you have to search for). So we can't pile on the blame on the youngsters, after all they're still growing up.
How did the collaboration with Ka Zimba come about and what will they bring to the table?
I'm no expert on it but the director, Jeffery Kissoon is a proponent of Ka Zimba Theatre. Ka Zimba Ngoma is an Afro-Caribbean martial art form that derives from dance and movement and is inter-connected with the rhythm of the drum. Ka Zimba itself has a relationship with the movement of animals and Ka Zimba Theatre utilises aspects of this to help performance, such as spirituality and presence. This play has a particular energy that used correctly will form its own spirituality. All the characters in the play operate on some spiritual basis which will be further enhanced by the Ka Zimba art form.
Your play addresses the changing face of Britishness sparked by ongoing debates in the media – could you share some more insight on this?
We have a general election in the next few weeks. Regardless of who wins, the debate on Nationalism will continue. During the recent European elections far right groups polled more than one million votes. The media went into a frenzy over it. But as far as I was concerned it was almost inevitable. In the UK we are lucky. Because of the history of the country and its 'liberal' politics we have become complacent. Yet when the problem arises we discuss it, debate it and act on it. However if you were to travel to many of the countries of our so-called European cousins you would be shocked to see the extent to which fascism and right wing nationalistic politics exist. I'm talking about Germany, Poland, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Norway and countless others. And yet none of these countries' governments, through necessity or expedience deigns to deal seriously with the problem.
In Naked Soldiers, I take a look at the problem of community and what happens when it is being forced to change without their consent. I talk about consent, because many indigenous communities want to be able to change when they want but sometimes the world cannot wait for that. For example, when West Indians came to Britain in the fifties, the locals saw themselves as being 'swamped'. They were too blinded by their fear of the 'winds of change' to see the future benefits of what was to come. Much the same is happening today with influxes from abroad. What I have seen over the years though, is that Britishness has evolved into a more fluid term and now right wing elements tend to talk about Englishness as a way of narrowing the margins for error. On the one hand it's quite funny, but ultimately it's sad. By no means does it only happen in the UK. It's a worldwide thing, thus a human trait.
Please share some more information on the Do the Right Thing initiative at Warehouse Theatre – how did that come about?
Do the Write Thing is an initiative to encourage local people to get involved in theatre in all its forms. When one thinks of theatre one automatically thinks about acting and directing, writing. But there are many other careers associated with it, such as stage managing, publicity, theatre managing, front of house, box office, designing, lighting and the list goes on.
Have you said goodbye to your film days now and crossed over to theatre?
No. In fact, I wrapped on another feature film just a few days ago. The film's called Ham and The Piper and stars Jeffrey Kissoon in the lead. It was a fantastic experience and we shot a wonderfully original movie about a man struggling to deal with his inner demons in the 21st century. Hopefully we'll be complete by the autumn. Currently the signs are good. We have fantastic responses from the films sales people. I also have a couple of other films in the pipeline including a psychological horror film set in Norway.
What more does 2010 have in store for you?
After Naked Soldiers and the movie, I have another play in development which I see as a study of the modern British family. It's a pretty tough piece of work which theatres are generally afraid to tackle in the current economic climate. But writing to me is about not compromising... sometimes your work will not be understood or encouraged, especially if you are asking questions. I'm also hoping to take some time off before settling down to some serious writing after three solid years of hard work.
Naked Soldiers will be at the Warehouse Theatre from 21 May to 20 June 2010