Actor/writer Ella Road’s first play is the ultra-smart and gripping THE PHLEBOTOMIST. When I saw it staged last year at Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs studio, I felt this was something special. It sold out rapidly and demand was so great and response so good that it has now re-emerged as a fully-fledged production, again tautly directed by Sam Yates, in the Main House at Hampstead. I caught up with Ella to chat about her success and the play’s Olivier Award nomination.
Thanks for making the time to chat with me, Ella. My first question has to be what sparked the idea behind the play?
I started thinking about it years ago, in my final year at university. My partner at the time, who was researching bioengineering internships, found a video about pre-diagnostic genetic testing for pancreatic cancer and excitedly made me watch it. We were both fascinated by the idea that a blood test could tell you so much about your future – but for me it was less about the biotechnology, and more the ethical implications of being able to know so much about ourselves. I started pondering what knowing these things might do to our psyche and it threw up loads of interesting questions about knowledge and identity and power. I did some more research into other diseases people could test for, and realised that it was an area of science advancing at incredible speed.
The character of Bea is a plum role. As a working actor, did you ever consider playing the role yourself?
It felt important to me to be on the outside of the script so I could edit it and support the production objectively, so I never at any point intended to play any role in the play. In truth I’d also imagined the character to look and sound and feel quite different to me. When an actor takes on a part, they add a whole new dimension to it, and I wanted to see who these characters were to other people. When Jade took on the role Bea became Bea², which was joyous to watch. I have nothing wrong with writers playing their own parts (loads of people do it, and I definitely will at some point – in fact I did it last week at the Bush while testing out a play I’m developing there), but for my first play, I wanted to make sure I was giving the whole thing the best chance I could. There was a brief moment during auditions after reading in with one of the actors when the casting director turned to me and said ‘you know, you could just play her…?’, and I had a moment of ‘Could I…?’, but I very quickly remembered why I’d chosen to keep them separate.
The dialogue has a really natural flow to it. How do you think that your experience as an actor has informed your writing for other actors?
I love improvisation, and for me writing isn’t that different to improv. It’s just like improvising in your head and playing a few parts at once. I also found some of the acting work I did really frustrating, partly because of the dirty of meaty roles available to women, and it’s my intention to create characters that are complex and varied.I also think that my background in acting has helped me to listen to actors carefully during R&D and rehearsal, and to trust them. Actors are incredibly instinctive creatures; if the actor has understood a line, but it sticks several times, chances are it doesn’t scan right, or the intention isn’t clear enough. This particular play is pretty naturalistic – but some of the other stuff I’m working on is more stylised. I’d still argue though that as long as it’s really clear what the actor is doing with a particular bit of speech, the speech itself doesn’t have to be that ‘natural’, and we’ll go along with it.
Jade Anouka does an amazing job in the title role. Is this the first time you have worked with her?
She’s incredible and we’re so lucky to have her. I’d seen Jade on stage doing the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar and thought to myself ‘I have to work with that woman’. I actually availability checked her for the original reading of the play, but she wasn’t free, and was so pleased that she was then able to come in for an audition for the production last year. Completely coincidentally Jade and I were cast together in a reading at the Bunker for an event about Women’s Suffrage with Dippermouth the week of her audition. I think we’d actually offered her the role that day, because I remember avoiding her awkwardly so I wouldn’t just shout ‘please accept the role, you’re amazing!’.
The play has really opened out into the larger space well, having previously sold out its run in the small downstairs studio for developing work. How did it feel to know that the show would be coming back into the Main House?
It was pretty scary, but very exciting. Sam (Yates, the director) and I were really keen to have a chance to open up the scope of the production and get the story out to more people. It was so liberating having a bit more time, and space – and budget – to achieve some of the stuff we couldn’t have done Downstairs. The studio at the HT is such an important space, and we had a wonderful time working there. The Main House is a different beast, and what we’ve made this time around feels like a very different play. I wouldn’t say I prefer either space – it’s quality not quantity! – but it has been great to have the space to breathe a bit.
How did it feel to hear that your play had been Olivier Award – nominated?
I genuinely couldn’t believe it. At every stage of this process, I’ve just been happy to be included, and to work alongside the amazing people I’ve teamed up with. I was happy to have the play on Downstairs, then super happy to have the transfer… But then having a nomination of that profile was, and is, a bit overwhelming. I couldn’t have imagined that would happen with my first play. It’s entirely down to the joint efforts of our whole team who worked incredibly hard to pull it together in a very short space of time. I feel so proud of what our little crew made last year.
At last years’ performances I said that this had TV series potential, and its great to know that the play has now been optioned for TV. How is the adaptation going, and do you have any idea when we might see it on screen?
The adaptation is going really well thanks, but it’s slow! TV is a different world, and there are many more hoops to jump through and decisions to be made in the early stages than in theatre. We’re having fun though, and it’s such an exciting though experiment expanding the world laterally, and tugging at some of the story threads. It’s become a very very big story… We’re getting there, but at this stage I’m afraid it’s too early to know when it might hit the screens!
Many of our readers will be thinking about coming to see the play. How would you describe it to them?
Hmmm, gosh, I hate the elevator pitch! But… I’d say it’s a love story set in a world increasingly obsessed with genetic perfection. As genetic testing becomes more and more pervasive, the population begins to rate itself from 1-10 as a means of understanding genetic ‘quality’. We follow several characters as they try to lead normal, meaningful lives in the present, amidst in a culture evermore focused on investment and return.
Read my four star review of THE PHLEBOTOMIST here