Standing outside the abandoned Three Tuns Hotel – you know, that dilapidated building opposite Elvet Riverside – no signs of life to be seen anywhere, I marvel again at the bizarre location 1TC have chosen for their upcoming production of Denis Kelly’s After the End.
All becomes clear in the rehearsal room, however. The hotel is the perfect setting for this intense two-hander set in a bunker post-nuclear apocalypse. Old furniture and other junk piled high around the room, create an appropriate sense of decay; although the clearing-out process appears to have been somewhat traumatic for producers Charlotte Hughes-Morgan and Lara McLeod, it has certainly been worth the effort. Director Kitty Briggs explains that ‘it needs to be somewhere quite intimate, because obviously, a nuclear bunker is quite small.’ Emma-Louise Howell, who plays Louise, agrees that the abandoned building is perfect, adding to the uniqueness of the production; ‘It just gives you such a different atmosphere.’
The other half of the small cast, Zac Tiplady, describes the play as ‘intriguing,’ a sentiment echoed by the whole team. They insist that the audience should know almost nothing about it going in, for maximum effect. Briggs sketches out the bare minimum of facts: ‘it’s a nuclear bunker, there’s two of them, a bomb’s gone off. And I think that’s all you really need to know.’ She even kept the script away from the actors until the first read-through: ‘I just wanted to keep it so vague – you get the general gist, and then you come and experience it.’
Both actors were fascinated by the concept, and by the secrecy, it seems, right from the start. Howell attributes her interest in the play to the appeal of the ‘unknown,’ the ‘accessible characters’ and the naturalistic acting style, which jars with this ‘controversial issue; it is really thought-provoking.’
Tiplady is keen on the ‘novelty’ of the piece and the venue, and enjoys the intensity of working in the round. ‘I actually find it weirder now doing something on a conventional stage!’ And despite the highly-concentrated two-person format, he insists that ‘it’s not draining.’ Howell agrees, ‘It keeps you on edge.’
Briggs and her producers have had a lot of fun playing with publicity and ‘getting people on edge.’ She quotes her favourite line from the script: ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with N’ – ‘Nuclear fallout shelter?’ – ‘Yes…’ This dark humour has formed the backbone of their creative publicity campaign, along with ‘advice on how to survive The End,’ creating a deeply unsettling impression before we’ve even bought our tickets.
In a world in which Donald Trump has just been elected US President, and where far-right movements are growing alarmingly fast across Europe, this play feels unnervingly relevant. Briggs is adamant about its importance. ‘It was written about ten years ago, but even now you’re thinking how much politics has not actually progressed. It’s just so relevant to today’s politics, the ever-changing power balances of countries are reflected in the script, with regards to understanding what might push people to set off the bomb. And then, us, as normal people, how we could react.’
‘I want people to go away talking about it and thinking about it for a while, and be affected by it. I want people to go away and think, would that happen to them? How would they survive ‘after the end’?’
The gender politics of the piece are something the whole team are keen to stress. Briggs explains that ‘there’s no way in this play you can cast it gender-blind; I think it has to be male and female. And you can imagine… post-apocalyptic, male and female, how the power balance shifts, how it changes, how they each use their own gender to have power over each other and change the dynamic.’
It’s a play that forces its audience to confront uncomfortable truths. ‘I’m still uncomfortable,’ laughs Briggs. But according to Howell, ‘at the same time, there are moments where you really enjoy the play, there are some really funny bits. And then you think, I shouldn’t be laughing, the world’s just ended and I’m sat here laughing! So it’s the perfect balance – it really challenges you but also it’s really enjoyable.’
McLeod encourages us to think of it as ‘a break away from the bubble of Christmas, the bubble of Durham, into something a bit bigger than that.’ So if you feel like something a bit more serious in the midst of the incessant Christmas cheer of the final week of term, look no further than After the End.
‘After the End’ will be performed in the Three Tuns Hotel from Monday, 12th of December until Wednesday, 14th of December at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Kitty Briggs