Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Critically acclaimed theatre director David Mercatali on the genesis of his latest plays 'Tender Napalm' and 'Someone to Blame'...

Since I started working as a theatre director several years ago, the vast majority of my work has been on new writing. There is nothing like a new story being told. All the best theatre is about storytelling, and I have had the privilege to bring many exciting stories to the stage over the last few years. Just recently I have had a particularly busy time bringing two of the best stories that I have worked on back to the stage following their original productions. The first of these concerned a young man named Sam Hallam, whom you may remember from recent newspaper headlines was freed on appeal last month after spending almost a third of his young life in prison.

Sam was convicted in 2005 of the murder of a young trainee chef Essayas Kassahun during a street fight, but he always maintained he was never even at the scene of the crime. The only evidence against him came from two very inconsistent eye-witnesses, one of whom tried to go back on their word in court, and the other admitted in court that when she accused Sam she had been “looking for someone to blame.” Nevertheless, the jury found Sam guilty and he was sentenced to a minimum tariff of 12 years, and to be worthy of parole, he would have to admit his guilt.

Following the dismissal of Sam’s first appeal, a campaign was formed to prove Sam’s innocence.  Supporters included Ray Winstone, who was the uncle of Sam’s friend. I first found out about Sam’s case in 2008 while researching miscarriages of justice online. His situation struck me straight away. Both of the two witnesses against him had given very contradictory, unconvincing evidence that changed from statement to statement. The first witness’s identification was prompted by a friend of hers.  The witness then prompted another witness to identify Sam also. No other evidence - forensic or CCTV – existed. It didn’t add up, and I was appalled that someone could be convicted on such poor evidence. But I didn’t know what I could do. So for a while, I did nothing and just followed the events online.

About a year later though it struck me that I could do something. I could tell his story to a wider audience using my skills as a theatre maker.  I consulted my wife Tess, a writer, and I asked her how she felt about putting his story together. She was keen, and when she saw the wealth of material provided by the campaign – court transcripts, witness statements, newspaper reportage – suggested that we should create a verbatim play, using the exact words spoken or written by the real-life characters concerned.  For additional material, we interviewed many of the young people who were there that night, and even went to meet Sam a couple of times, during which I formed a great respect for the courage he was showing in handling his situation. 

At the beginning of 2012, the King’s Head Theatre in Islington agreed to produce the play, aptly titled Someone to Blame, and it ran during the month of March, six weeks before Sam’s appeal was due to be heard.  Audience responses were fantastic and Sam’s case was raised in the public consciousness.  At appeal, there were over a hundred supporters watching in the gallery which included the actors, the producers from the King’s Head, Tess and myself.  After an agonising three hours of submissions, the Crown threw in the towel and admitted that they would not be able to contest Sam’s appeal. The judges released Sam immediately, and the conviction was quashed.  After seven years of imprisonment, he was a free man.

After the media furore over Sam’s case, we decided we needed to tell his story one more time. From 3 – 5 June, the King’s Head gave us a slot to produce the show again, but this time with a new, happy ending, based on the scenes at the Court of Appeal and the newspaper and TV reportage. It was a lot of hard work but hugely worth it. Sam’s story needed to be told, and we were just so privileged to be able to tell it.

From the 11th June, I will be bringing back to London another story I have already told, Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm. In 2011 we premiered the play at the Southwark Playhouse to a brilliant response and incredible reviews, and were on several broadsheets pick of the year lists. This was a very different story to Someone To Blame, coming from the brilliant mind of Philip Ridley. We had first worked on it together at the end of 2009 in development stage. At that point, Philip had written only a few pages in which a couple used a new ‘language of love’ in which to overpower one another with words.  Just the small bit that we workshopped was very exciting, and we knew we would have to get this story on stage. Philip went away to finish the play and came back with something extraordinary: a breathtaking love story told through explosive language, complete with a man conquering a giant sea serpent and a woman commanding an army of monkeys.

It's all underpinned by a story of grief - as the play unravels, we realise what had driven the couple into this fantasy world, and how they had met in the first place. I was excited to stage it, but it was a challenge. I opted to strip down to minimal set and lights, leaving all the main work to the actors to create these visions and to push each other to the max in the process. The result was explosive and the response was overwhelming. When we finished our run last year we knew we wanted to tour it this year, so that we could take the story out to more and more people.

I started work on that a few months ago with a completely new cast. This was the most exciting part because with all the emphasis on the actors’ dynamic and relationship in the show, I knew two new actors would bring a completely new energy to it, and I was right. It’s the same story, but with a whole new flavour, which has been wonderful to see unfold on tour over the last month. Audiences in all the touring theatres we’ve gone to have responded with equal excitement, and I feel huge anticipation for its return to the Southwark Playhouse June 11-23. It’s pure storytelling in its truest form, and that is what audiences, as well as myself, find most exciting.

Tender Napalm is at Southwark Playhouse for two weeks only, 11 - 23 June. More information and tickets are available here, or phone 020 7407 0234.


  1. Agreed. When it’s left to the media to arbitrarily decide which issues deserve attention, it can often encourage conflict between competing “issues” that ultimately serves the status quo. A better approach, of course, would be solidarity between all parties, but that’s easier said than done! | | | | |

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