Nathaniel Martello-White: 'If the writing is good enough, all you need are actors and the space'

The star of upcoming TV series ”Guerrilla” on the inspiration behind his new Royal Court play ”Torn”

Denise Gough (Emma) and Nathaniel Martello-White (Mark)
Denise Gough (Emma) and Nathaniel Martello-White (Mark) in People Places and Things
© Johan Persson

Starring in Sky’s new political thriller Guerrilla alongside Idris Elba; directing a short film for the BBC about gentrification; performing in the West End in People, Places and Things with Denise Gough and now, having his second play staged at the Royal Court. This year has been a busy one for polymath Nathaniel Martello-White.

Given the ease with which he seems to be collecting jobs, you’d think that the pesky 'second album syndrome’ for his play just wasn’t a factor. But, he tells me upstairs at the Royal Court, that isn’t quite true. Torn is his second play programmed, but his sixth written.

It was Blackta in 2012 that put Martello-White into the bracket of writer-actor. Before that you'd have been able to see the London-born 32 year-old mainly treading the boards at the National and RSC and on the small screen. Having your first play staged at the Young Vic and directed by David Lan was always going to be a hard act to follow. "My greatest fear after Blackta was that I was never going to get another play on. That maybe it was a fluke," he explains. "But I am really glad those plays didn’t go on because it gave me time to arrive at Torn."

'Tarell McCraney had a profound effect on the way I look at theatre now, and what I think theatre can be'

If six false starts are all it took for Martello-White to get to his latest play, which has been directed by Richard Twyman at the Royal Court and has just opened to great reviews, then that’s not much to feel sore about. Originally a Young Vic commission, Torn was taken on by Vicky Featherstone, who encouraged Martello-White to make changes. He quickly began a huge edit, chopping his 90 page script to 25 pages. "It was a really scary journey. I think all writers should do it," he says.

Nathaniel Martello-White
Nathaniel Martello-White

Blackta was directly influenced by Martello-White’s conversations with fellow black actors. But the subject matter of Torn –which deals with mixed-race families, family secrets and child abuse – is not so close to home. "I was inspired by some of my own experiences," he explains, "But then I wanted to move away from that and make it into a more universal idea."

The play takes the form of a meeting, where a sprawling, mixed-race family confront each other in one room. "It’s kind of like a courtroom drama," he explains. "I was interested in exploring race through family, and exploring how complicated family can be when you chart the generations. That encapsulates so much about our society and about race."

'My greatest fear after Blackta was that it was a fluke'

On stage, Martello-White is an excellent actor – his turn in People, Places and Things proved that. He is a steady, strong presence who works discreetly in an ensemble or can define a juicy part. In the flesh he is friendly and passionate about his work. And, in the nicest possible way, Martello-White is clearly a bit of a sponge: he learns from everything and anything he does, soaking it all up so he can feed it into the next thing. It was his acting work on the Tarell McCraney play The Brothers Size at the Young Vic, and then on August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone that influenced his decision to turn his hand to playwriting. "With The Brothers Size I learnt so much. The play was essentially a chalk circle in a space… It had a profound effect on the way I look at theatre now, and what I think theatre can be," he says, "I feel strongly that if the writing is good enough, all you really need are the actors and the space."

Guerrilla, a love story set in the 1970s where a politically active couple bust a political prisoner out of jail, is Sky’s latest soon-to-be big hit, written and directed by Academy Award-winner John Ridley. It’s the first time Martello-White will take on a lead role in a TV series. He’s clearly excited about it. "TV shows are the modern novel and Guerrilla really feels like it sits in that category," he says, "The writing is like Shakespeare. The characters are all complex, they have got great journeys." Presumably he's learning as much from the set of Guerrilla as he did from McCraney and Wilson. Which probably means we'll be hearing much more about Martello-White very soon.

Torn runs at the Royal Court until 15 October.

Click here to read our review of the show