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Hackney Wick: How An Unfinished Man explores spirituality and mental health

Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s play tells two truths and is set to be performed at The Yard theatre in Hackney Wick

An Unfinished Man is set to play at The Yard theatre

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On a chilly January morning, playwright, poet and filmmaker Dipo Baruwa-Etti stands on a boundary in Southwark.

Two things are true. He is standing in front of a red wall. He is standing in front of a blue wall. Neither statement tells the whole story, but neither is false.

To his right the property is painted a vibrant scarlet. To his left, an expanse of eggshell stretches away. He’s on a line between two places, two different ways of looking at the world.

His positioning is fortunate because his latest play – An Unfinished Man, set to run for a month at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick – is an attempt to explore how conflicting viewpoints can coexist and be equally valid, and his physical positioning in front of the camera is a convenient visual metaphor.

Audiences going to see his work may wish to reflect that the theatre is also close to a divide – the line between Tower Hamlets and Newham, the borough where Dipo was born and grew up, living first in North Woolwich and then in Stratford where he’s based today.

“The play is about a man called Kayode who’s been unemployed for seven years, and his mum and a pastor come in and tell him he was cursed as a child, and that’s why he’s unemployed, so they set about reversing the curse through a prayer ceremony,” said Dipo. 

“His wife thinks he’s just going through a mental breakdown and that the ceremony is going to make it worse.

“So it becomes a clash between Western and West African views on his mental health and his situation and, in the middle is Kayode, who’s trying to find out what the truth is and what his path forward should be.

“I have Nigerian heritage and in Yoruba culture if there’s something wrong or not happening in your life, you pray or sometimes have dreams about it and I found that spirituality really interesting.

“I believe in it, but to what extent is there still truth in it? How much is it society and how much is it a spiritual battle?

“Everyone around Kayode has all these answers about what he should be doing and what he’s going through. I guess the question I’m asking is whether there’s a true answer when it comes to mental health, unemployment, faith, spirituality, visions and witchcraft in particular?

“That’s what prompted me when I spoke to Jay Miller (artistic director at The Yard) about the idea in 2018 and I’ve been working on it since then.”

Dipo is a playwright, director and poet
Dipo is a playwright, director and poet – image Matt Grayson

An Unfinished Man was originally scheduled for performance in 2020, but the pandemic delayed things. On the morning we meet, Dipo tells me rehearsals, which are now in full swing at the Jerwood Space, should have started 665 days ago.

In the meantime however, he’s been busy, working as Channel 4 Playwright on attachment to the Almeida Theatre and, more recently, seeing his work The Sun, The Moon, And The Stars performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East in June last year.  

Softly spoken, with a wellspring of considered, creative energy bubbling through him, he said he wasn’t one for detailed plot planning. I tend to go straight into the writing process – I don’t research around what I’m writing until after a first draft,”  he said.

“For An Unfinished Man, what I did immediately was write something based on instinct, on who I knew these characters to be and the situation.

“Then, after that I started having conversations with people who are working on it with me, through a series of workshops with actors, bringing people in to talk about the idea, about the concept and the questions they may have.

“All those questions and thoughts continue to challenge my perspective on what I think the story is.

“Not many people read the first draft – just Jay at The Yard and two friends. I think now rehearsals have begun we’re on draft 12.

“So I’m constantly letting the story evolve, based on questions I’ve had and thoughts that people have given me.

“That might be from comments that actors have made even if they don’t know they’re making them, if it triggers me to have a new thought.

“Because there has been this two-year gap, we’ve had the chance to interrogate and live with the material for a bit longer than usual.

“Mostly in this case that’s about making cuts – we’re in a good place with it. The play hasn’t changed that much since 2020, but it’s got tighter and tighter and that’s been great.”

Dipo is prolific, regularly working on multiple projects at once.

As a writer-director his film The Last Days (BFI Network/BBC/Tannahill Productions) starring Adjoa Andoh and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn had its UK premiere in August and he has projects in development with Blueprint Pictures, ITV Studios and Duck Soup Films.

“There was one day when I said I was going to be a writer, – my mum asked: ‘Why?’.” he said. “I was 15, I hadn’t written anything, but I loved reading stuff and watching TV and films, although I hadn’t seen that much.

“But that’s what I said I was going to do. I was part of a drama club in secondary school, so I was always aligned with creative theatre, but I performed in stuff rather than wrote it, because you don’t really do that then.

“The first thing I wrote was a TV script. I got my mum to buy me a bunch of screenwriting books, read them all and then I wrote 12 episodes of a show, called Secrets, Lies And Deceit – a drama, set in London, about a group of teenagers.

“My first five years of writing was really training – no-one ever saw the scripts. I wrote maybe 50 in that time because I just wanted to learn how to do it. That’s when I started writing plays, five years after deciding to become a writer.

“I actually went through and deleted all of the scripts I wrote as a teenager last year – although I have a record of the titles – because I don’t want anyone to ever see them. I think they’re just terrible.

“For anyone who’s considering becoming a writer, the only advice I have is to find stories you’re actually interested in telling because the path is really hard.

“I got my work seen through sending it out, submitting pieces to competitions.

“But I’ve also done lots of behind-the-scenes work in theatres and TV where I got to know people and took their advice. It’s often really about who you end up knowing and who can help you.

“If you’re writing by yourself without anyone challenging you or questioning what you’re doing, then it’s really hard to improve.”

While Dipo is engaged in many different kinds of writing, he’s especially drawn to the stage.

“What’s exciting is that live interaction with the audience – making them feel part of the narrative,” he said.

“That’s so important to me – that they are suspending their disbelief in such an interesting way and how you can play with the form.

“While I was interested in film before theatre, I’ve realised that plays are the medium at its purest and you don’t have to fit the conventions in the same way.

“I only ever write for myself – it’s an outlet – so if a play doesn’t happen it doesn’t really upset me. It’s not important whether someone sees it or not. 

“But when an actor says the words I’ve written, it changes. It becomes something bigger, something I want an audience to see, more than just words I’ve put on a page.

“It feels like a story that’s important to the room and the people who are listening to it.

“Actors bring my work to life and they put their own interpretation on it. It becomes something physical and that’s when I want people to see it.

“With An Unfinished Man, we did the first workshop in May 2019 and one of the actors said to me that the play made them want to start a conversation about the themes and questions it raises.

“That’s the response I want. I hope people watching the play will start to think about the ideas – in this case about explorations of faith and spirituality alongside mental health and depression.

“For me it’s about people having those conversations, particularly among the black community, saying: ‘This is what I believe – can our beliefs align?

“Are we going to be on the same page?’. It’s about the interrogation of those questions. Sometimes I believe Kayode is in a mental health situation and sometimes I believe it’s a curse.

“I don’t think you can ever fully know and that’s what’s interesting. Both explanations are true.

“I’m not trying to give answers and I never want people to think that the writer’s view is the right one.

“It’s about what the audience thinks and however they respond to the play.

“What’s important to me is to keep making the work that I want to make, that’s truthful to my voice. I’m not too fixed on what I want to create, but I do want to be proud of the body of work.”

Read more: Discover Carradine’s Cockney Sing-A-Long at Wilton’s

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Canary Wharf: The Greenhouse Theatre brings zero-waste venue to Jubilee Park

Company set to perform three free shows in the round on rotation from July 23-August 15

Artistic director of The Greenhouse Theatre, Oli Savage – image Matt Grayson

As Oli Savage lies on a stack of timber in Canary Wharf’s Jubilee Park, the trees all around and the sky above are reflected in his glasses. His attitude isn’t one of repose but of mirthful collaboration, creating the illusion of a wooden wall where one is yet to be built.

This is because The Greenhouse Theatre, of which Oli is co-founder and artistic director, is only just starting construction ahead of its run on the estate from July 23 to August 15. The venue will host three plays in rotation during this period and tickets are free, although going fast online so eager attendees will need to move quickly. After picking himself up off the planks, Oli sat down to tell us more…

tell us what The Greenhouse Theatre actually is…

It’s the UK’s first zero-waste performance space. That extends to everything we do from the construction, which uses found or recycled materials, to our shows and our marketing.

What that means to us is that everything we use had a life before it came to us, and it will go on to have a life after, if we don’t continue to use it – that’s it in a nutshell.

how did it begin?

I’ve been involved in theatre since my mother took me to Stagecoach at the age of five. At university I picked up some directing credits and eventually went one step further down that path to become an artistic director. The only way to get even more ownership was to create my own venue.

A few years ago I was touring a piece of queer theatre with a very good friend, playwright and close collaborator of mine, Henry Roberts. One night, we’d had too many drinks and he pitched me the idea for a show, which went on to become Swallows – one of the pieces for when the venue first opened.

It was about intimacy and aggression and the damage that we do to each other and to the environment, and how we view violence towards other people and to the natural world as different, when really they’re kind of the same thing.

My mind immediately started whirring, and I said: ‘If we’re going to do this, then we’ve got to do it properly in a sustainable way that’s eco-friendly’.

The only way to really know if the venue fits in with that is to build it yourself and so that’s what we did – our first outing was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. 

When you start running a zero-waste venue, the antidote to inaction is knowledge. We’ve had to learn so much about sustainability as the project has developed.

Image of Oli Savage on a step ladder
Oli and the team are building the venue in Jubilee Park – image Matt Grayson

what will Wharfers be able to see once the venue’s finished?

We have a really fun selection – The Greenhouse Theatre offers a number of different things – the shows, which are designed to inspire, and a programme of workshops and events to help people convert that inspiration into action.

We’ll also have family events such as storytelling and scavenger hunts.

We’ll have three shows in rotation – I’m directing As You Like It, an all-singing, all-dancing musical production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. It’s about getting out after months of lockdown, having fun and having a laugh.

Henry Roberts is working on 12, which is a much more intimate piece, an exploration of how language and relationships shape our interaction with the climate and the natural world. It’s a bit more intense, a bit more hard-hitting, but very uplifting – a very beautiful piece of theatre 

The other piece is called Hjem, and is about a young girl whose grandmother has dementia.

The girl discovers the older woman had a relationship with a Norwegian sailor and, as the play progresses, she uncovers a beautiful story formed through sea shanties about how we build connections and relationships through the natural world.

All of our shows discuss the environment and the natural world in some way, but none of them are about the climate crisis explicitly. It’s about beautiful storytelling.

WHAT'S ON AT GREENHOUSE THEATRE?

AS YOU LIKE IT
7.30pm - Fridays, Mondays
2.30pm - Sundays
Shakespeare’s classic, directed by Oli, this cross-dressing love story comes complete with an original score of indie-folk music. A chance to escape to the forest in a celebration of life and love  

12
7.30pm - Saturdays, Wednesdays
2.30pm - Fridays
Written by Henry Roberts, this play explores memory, language and intimacy as it follows a relationship struggling to survive in a world that’s falling apart. Just what is worth saving? 

HJEM
7.30pm - Thursdays, Sundays
2.30pm - Saturdays
Harry Sever’s magical modern folk story of whirlwind romance across the decades connecting Northumberland with Norway as a story is discovered and a bond is forged between two unlikely friends 

what’s the atmosphere like?

In the past, our programmes have won awards but the main thing we’re trying to create is a really open and engaged space. 

When you visit the venue, the creators, once they’ve done the show, will be milling around for a chat.

The space is in the round, so it’s all about creating a social, informal, fun atmosphere, not like you’d expect when you go to the West End. The shows will be high quality, but it’s all about having a fun time.

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Wapping: Wilton’s Music Hall reopens its doors with a busy programme of shows

The venue will welcome live audiences for black comedy EastEndless from May 28

The doors to Wilton’s will swing open on May 28 – image by Matt Grayson

The doors of Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping, shut to the public for more than a year, are set to reopen on May 28 and the team cannot wait to welcome people back to its forthcoming programme of shows and to its bars.

 Head of development and communications at the venue, Harry Hickmore said: “We closed the building to the public as instructed on March 16, 2020. The memory of that day is quite vivid because, like all arts organisations, we’re not used to closing our doors – especially not for an uncertain period of time.

“We haven’t been completely quiet over the past 14 months – we’ve had a lot of exciting things going on in the building, which was often used as a set for film or TV productions.

“We’ve had the BBC recording in here, as well as Amazon Prime and new Disney and Netflix films.

“So we’ve been using the building creatively – there have also been rehearsals in the building for streamed performances, but in terms of having real human beings enjoying culture together, May 28 will see us return to live performances.”

OUR TOP PICKS FOR SUMMER 2021

EastEndless, May 28-29, £19-£22
An obsessed EastEnders fan lands a bit part on the show in this blackly comic look at the soap 

Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope, Jun 1, £19-£22
Mark Farrelly takes on the part of the naked civil servant in this resurrection of a work
 
Scaramouche Jones, Jun 15-26, £22.50-£25
A centenarian clown breaks 50 years of silence on Millennium Eve to tell the story of his life 

With restrictions constantly changing and unexpected lockdowns, the reopening means shows that have long been planned can finally go ahead.

“It’s been really rough for the artists,” said Harry. “Everyone who works in theatre, music or anything to do with industries that work with freelance creatives, knows it’s been really rocky, because people have not known when they’d be able to perform again. For all artists, it’s more than a job, it’s their livelihood, their lifestyle and their life.

“We’ve got so many who were meant to be performing in March or April last year that we moved to September or October in the first instance and, when that didn’t happen, rescheduled for January or February.

“Now we can actually say to artists with complete confidence that, in terms of being able to do socially-distanced shows initially, they will be performing to audiences who cannot wait to hear them. We’ve got a lot of frustrated performers and now they’re thrilled.

“We’re delighted that audiences and artists are coming back together in our venue – that’s what makes these buildings really sing – it’s very exciting.”

Harry Hickmore is head of development and communications at Wilton’s Music Hall – image Matt Grayson

At first Wilton’s capacity will be cut from 350 to 109 to ensure audience members can remain socially distanced and Harry said the venue could adapt its operation at short notice should government guidance change.

“Something very strange would have to happen for shows not to go ahead,” he said. “The only thing that would stop us is a full lockdown. If needs be, we can have a socially distanced auditorium for a bit longer in June. 

“The other thing is that audiences will be returning to a venue that’s really comfy and sounds great.

“Wilton’s was built to have more than 1,000 people in the hall for performances in the 19th century so it could be a bit boomy. We’ve just completed a £500,000 project to install acoustic pannelling on the walls of the balcony to enable a range of shows from one person speaking on stage to a full opera.

“We’ve also had new seats put in, which will be an extra bonus for audiences. We have a lot of generous donors who support us and we’ve relied on them this year when ticket sales and other income have fallen by the wayside.”

Harry, who oversees fundraising efforts for the venue, is also looking forward to the return of weddings at Wilton’s.

“By the time this article comes out we’ll have just done our first wedding since lockdown,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people approach us in 2020 who are planning to get married and really want to do it here so I hope there will be more in July and August when people can have a full ceremony and celebration.

“We’ll also be reopening the Mahogany Bar and we have a lot of regulars and locals who just visit us for a drink.”

Ready and waiting for an audience – image Matt Grayson

Harry, who is a trained musician and previously worked as a fundraiser for English National Opera, said he was especially looking forward to Scaramouche Jones Or The Seven White Masks later in June.

“It’s going to be brilliant – starring Justin Butcher in the lead role, it’s 20 years since it was made famous by the late Pete Postlethwaite,” he said.

“In general though, the thing I’ve really missed over the last 14 months is that feeling that people are coming from all different areas, different day-jobs, into one space, to enjoy one thing together – an experience of about 90 minutes without any interruption from the outside world.

“There’s the brilliant magic where there are two or three artists on stage with an audience and they’re all enjoying it together.

“There’s a reason why, since humans lived in the caves, we’ve been taking part in live performance.

“We love being in a  group – it’s something really simple – and we haven’t always been able to do that during the pandemic.

“There have been great things that have come from the proliferation of live streaming, which will really improve the whole theatre sector, but nothing can beat that bustle before 7.30pm, where loads of people who don’t know each other are about to share quite an intimate experience, side by side.

“It’s a really beautiful thing and it’s something we do brilliantly well in London.”

 With strong demand for tickets reported, don’t delay booking if you’re planning an evening out at Wilton’s or another venue in the coming months. 

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