Friday , September 24 2021

Theatre Interview: John R. Wilkinson, Director of ‘Mugabe, My Dad & Me’

This week, I’m putting the spotlight on UK theatre again. Mugabe, My Dad & Me is a solo show written and performed by Tonderai Munyevu, focusing on Munyevu’s personal story and the career of controversial Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe. The production is co-produced by English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal, in association with Allison Holder. York Theatre Royal is holding in-person performances September 9 – 18. The play is directed by John R. Wilkinson and includes music performed by Millicent Chapanda.

I called Wilkinson earlier this week to hear more about directing, the development of the production, and what it was like to work with Munyevu and Chapanda. A winner of the 2018 Genesis Future Directors Award, Wilkinson’s credits include Winter at the Young Vic as well as Hello and Goodbye and Swallows and Amazons at York Theatre Royal.

How did you become interested in directing?

I never did drama at school. When I left for University, I genuinely had no idea what I wanted to do. I did the first English university degree in dramaturgy. Nobody over here had any idea what a dramaturg was because we didn’t really have them in the early 2000s. It’s a German thing and sort of more prevalent in mainland Europe and over in America. It was script-orientated. 

I got a foot-in-the-door job in a theatre, doing box office for a few years. I went down the route of assisting a few directors, shadowing them, doing research, and reading scripts. I enjoyed watching the other directors and seeing how they talk about things. I was a rehearsal junkie. I remember they would say things like intention, objective, or Stanislavsky because I had come from that background. 

At some point, one director said, “We think you’ve got the personality and potential to do it, if you want to have a go.” 

We did a show in the studio and it went really well. It was well received.

How would you describe your own approach as a director?

I always think there are two types of directors. There are architectural directors who know exactly they want. There are also directors who are more like gardeners. They throw ideas and let actors contribute; you see what happens from there. The ideal is to be a combination of the two, I suppose. For me, it is about constant evolution. There are things on this process that I haven’t done before. A British actor once said you have to approach a role like a boxing match and you have to come out in a different corner every time. I think there’s a little bit of that. You can’t solidly adhere to one methodology. You have to do a different thing every time and realize who you are working with. Ask [others] what they need and how they work. You come up with a style together that works for everyone. There’s no one way of doing it and that’s part of the joy of it. 

What was it like doing the Audible version?

Even though I’ve done a degree in dramaturgy, it is the first time I’ve taken a play from first draft to publication. We’ve done this play before for Audible. It was originally meant to be done [on stage] 18 months ago. Then due to lockdown, we had to postpone. During that period, Audible did a series of unproduced work. They said they’d like to do Tonderai’s. It was funny to do it, because there was me in my bedroom here, the sound designer in his bedroom in London, the producer in hers somewhere in Hertfordshire, and then Tonderai and a technician in studio in London. We were all communicating via a combination of Skype and WhatsApp. 

Could you talk about what you did for research and crafting rehearsals together for this production?

If there is such a genre, it’s really sort of autobiographical theatre. Particularly with new plays, I think it’s more about adopting a mode [where] I’m here to support Tonderai. I shape the show that he wants. There is much of the history of Zim and his own story that Tonderai knows so intimately. To a certain respect, there are bits that you don’t have to do the same research that you would for an actor coming at this [as] an existing play. There are also moments when Tonderai, because he’s written it, in a weird way knows it with a particular form of intimacy. It is about you unpicking that and working out, “Yes, but is that actually how you’ve written it for an audience? Is what you want to say coming across the way you wanted to say it?”

The script has been through various drafts. What’s so interesting about the first couple of drafts is that Tonderai had been back to Zimbabwe for a field trip for extra research for the play. Having come back, how much of it is illuminating? How much can be used and added in a beneficial way? How do you distill it down?

I would selfishly call [Tonderai] an ideal collaborator because he absorbed every note I give him, he repurposed it for himself to decide whether it was useful or useless, and made it work for himself and the play. There wasn’t any protectiveness about it. 

Millicent Chapanda performs original music. What do you like about what she brings to the play?

First of all, it’s brilliant to have her in the room. We used her music for the Audible. I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a huge difference between live and recorded music. It’s even more so with a mbira. The instrument is so spiritual and simultaneously soothing and ghostly. We’ve been having discussions throughout rehearsals about who drives who. What is firing this memory or that scene? You can’t beat live music, much as you can’t beat live theatre. Having had many months without it just shows how powerful it is to a performance. We joke about this with Tonderai: they are both of the Diaspora, but he’s more Westernized Diasporian than Millicent is. When I ask questions, it’s to get different takes from them. Each of them come at it in their own ways.

Do you have anything else to share about working on this play?

As I’ve said before, the production reasserts the power of live theatre and storytelling. You can celebrate by its razzmatazz and big spectacles. You can go the other way and be subtle, go at it on a smaller scale. This production goes at that smaller version. 

I’ve always seen new plays as you have to [be] quite minimal about your production choices. [Not only] is your responsibility is present an original version of the play, but to show the quality of the script. Were somebody to pick it up as a script separately, you could see the flex within the vision someone might have for it. 

I think diverse stories are massively important, but there is something about telling them in a way that is universal and relatable for anyone. I’d like to think we made this and told a story that yes, it’s about Tonderai and his experience, but I hope that anybody watching it can see parallels and take things for themselves relating to their stories. 

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C. She also covers events in Canada and London. Her highlights include interviews with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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