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Shôn Dale-Jones: 'I began to wonder whether anything I wrote had any value'

The artistic director of Hoipolloi explains why he is staging his latest show for free at the Edinburgh Fringe and beyond

Shon Dale-Jones in The Duke

Shôn Dale Jones's brilliant and funny new show The Duke has been charming audiences in Edinburgh during the festival. A free - but ticketed - show, the piece tells of a tricky time in Jones' life when his mother accidentally breaks a Royal Worcester porcelain figure of the Duke of Wellington that his father bought in 1974. The incident comes as Jones is trying to write a film script and is upset by a report about the refugee crisis. All these things come together to send Jones on an intriguing journey. After the show, Jones asks for donations to the charity Save the Children. Following its run in Edinburgh, the piece arrives at the Royal Court (28 Nov to 3 Dec), Barbican (15 to17 December), Unicorn Theatre (7 Sept, 6 Oct and 17 Nov) and Theatre Royal Plymouth 27 Sept to 1 Oct) Soho Theatre (17 to 22 Oct).

Had you always had the idea of making a piece for charity?
The idea in general of trying to work on something for the refugee crisis has been going on for quite some time. I started to wonder how anything I wrote might have any value in a world that's changing so quickly. A world that has such disparity between people who have and people who don't have and people who are in crisis and not in crisis. So as I began to write it, it became clear to me that actually working directly with a charity on a piece of theatre might be a good combination. Doctors can offer brilliant things and I was keen to see if there was something I could offer.

So after the show you collect for Save the Children – when did the organisation become involved?
Our relationship started in March. In my mind it's the beginning of the conversation. I would like to go to some of the camps as well to understand more directly what life is like in these places and start to explore how there might be other ways of doing things. To do a piece at the Edinburgh festival is new to the organisation and we are going to London too.

What was it about Save the Children that specifically made you want to work with the charity?
I think the most heartbreaking images of the refugee crisis for me are of the children. But they are also a very big organisation and they are very effective financially. For me, a really key thing was that 88p in every pound from Save the Children goes directly to the cause. And that's a really good equation. The chair Peter Bennett Jones has been a big supporter of the work and he helped me forge the relationship with them.

Can you explain a little of the work Save the Children does with refugees?
There is understandably a big reaction to Calais, but the refugee crisis is actually a global issue and it will be here for many, many years. And I think Save the Children have that much broader picture. But one of the main things they are doing at the moment is trying to create secure passages from Syria to various destinations. Then they make sure that the camps are as good as they can be and that there's education and medicine there. At the same time they lobby the government, so they make a difference at policy level too.

It feels like the donations at the end are a really important part of the show itself…
Yes, I don't think this show exists in its own right, really. I basically wanted to make a piece of theatre that was worthwhile. The donations are probably the most practical and tangible thing about it. The show feels like a vehicle, a beginning of a journey. The show exists in order to get us somewhere else – to a new way of thinking, or doing, or being.

How has doing a free show worked with the theatres themselves?
I say to a theatre: You don't have to buy this show, I can donate it to you, if you can donate me a space and the technicians and the marketing. Then we'll ask the audience to donate to the charity so everyone is donating. For me that model is really important. We are all contributing to the same cause. Now the Royal Court, Barbican, Unicorn and Soho are on board.

It's not a Hugh Hughes show, has he gone?
No! He's still around. I just wanted to create a piece with the absolute freedom to deal with the issue. Hugh Hughes has developed his own criteria of looking at the world. But there are plenty of shows and stories I still want to tell with that character.

You are back at the Fringe after a break of seven years, how does it feel?
It's nuts! It is getting bigger all the time. I feel really excited to be here. It's very, very different to be doing this than previous shows, even in the simplest way. I don't have to make any money at the box office, so it's liberating.

Any Fringe recommendations?
Goggles at 2pm at the Pleasance Courtyard. It's a really, really fun piece of theatre. And Police Cops at the Pleasance Dome at 9.45pm, totally bonkers. In some ways it couldn't be further from what The Duke is. It's massive light relief. But the companies make me feel a bit nostalgic, they remind me of how we started out.

The Duke runs at the Pleasance Courtyard at 3.30pm until 29 August.

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