By Simon Fearn
After journeying down one flight of stairs, through a ‘creepy’ corridor, and up another, I finally arrived at what must be one of Durham’s most obscure venues: St. Mary’s Chapel. Adorned in a liberal number of layers, the cast and crew of First Theatre Company’s 4,000 Miles prepare for a grilling in the freezing pews.
‘I was given 4,000 Miles by my old English teacher to read over for my gap year two years ago,’ explains director Ben Foster. ‘It’s very quiet, very relaxed, very natural. I’ve wanted to put it on ever since.’ Luckily, there’s also a lot of love for the cast as well as the text. ‘We found our cast pretty quickly,’ says Foster contentedly to his team. ‘We saw a lot of connections between you guys. You did bring the characters to life quite beautifully.’
The play centres on the relationship between Leo (Jack Usher) and Vera (Stine Svellingen), and consists of ‘short, sharp scenes that paint a picture of their relationship.’ ‘It’s not like the relationship I have with my grandma!’ exclaims Usher. ‘There’s a lot of emotional weight riding on the relationship for both of us. We’re in conflict, but we realise that we do need each other.’
But what is the play really about? There are many theories. Usher volunteers loss, citing the loss of Leo’s close friend before the play begins, and the loss of Vera’s youth. ‘Losing the power of speech, losing the power of mobility, there’s loss on many levels,’ he explains. Good news though: it’s not all unremittingly bleak! ‘The playwright is definitely not putting an emphasis on loss as final,’ clarifies Elle Morgan-Williams (Beck).
Coco Collard, who plays Amanda, thinks identity is key. ‘All of the characters struggle to define themselves, particularly Leo,’ Collard posits. ‘He loses a very youthful identity that inhibits him in his relationships, and that’s what allows him to grow in the play.’ Usher takes a pop at Marxist theories of collective responsibility. ‘For Vera, there are a lot of references to collective responsibility,’ Usher expands, ‘and not pursuing the individualist line. I think that’s a progression we see with Leo, he goes from being a very self-absorbed person to someone who starts to realise the consequences of his words and his actions.’
Whatever the play might be about, Foster is keen to adopt an approach of strict naturalism, determined to avoid what he calls ‘staginess’. ‘In theatre you’re trained to speak in a certain way, and no one speaks like that, it’s stupid!’ he complains. Their naturalistic ambitions meant that The Assembly Rooms were never an option. Usher tells that me in Mary’s chapel ‘you are there; you’re sitting on the seats in the living room.’ This definitely seems to have worked during the rehearsal, and the intimate space gives Usher and Svellingen room to expand their thorough characterisation.
So why should you traverse the creepy corridor to come and see Usher and Svellingen in action? ‘It’s an intimate snapshot of fairly normal people,’ offers Morgan, ‘but not presented in mundane ways. It’s quite light-hearted at times, but there’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster going on beneath.’ For Usher, the play has taught him important truths. ‘It’s a very beautiful little look at some very real characters,’ he says, ‘and I learnt a lot from their characters about how I perceive things. It’s quite revealing in a lot for ways.’
Photograph: Rachael Smith
‘4,000 Miles’ will run from Thur 18th to Sat 20th Feb at St. Mary’s College Chapel. Book your tickets here.