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Beth Steel On ... Ditch at the Old Vic Tunnels

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Following its premiere at the HighTide Festival, Beth Steel’s debut play, Ditch, opens this week at the Old Vic Tunnels. Ditch is being dubbed as “a clear-eyed look at how we might behave when the conveniences of our civilisation are taken away, and a frightening vision of a future that could all too easily be ours”. It's directed by Richard Twyman with a cast that includes Gethin Anthony, Sam Hazeldine, Matti Houghton, Dearblha Molloy, Paul Rattray and Danny Webb.

Beth Steel: I didn’t write Ditch for any particular space. I think it’s really important to write story first and then if one is lucky enough, find a venue that can best tell that story. But the format of a traditional theatre would just not suit the piece because it’s such a strange play. The distinction is not, however, writing for a particular venue but writing work that is so different that it asks to be done in these sorts of spaces. If it wasn’t this kind of play then it wouldn’t be done in the Old Vic Tunnels. It’s more about the ambition of the writing - the ambition of the world – which means that directors will start to think that this play needs to be done somewhere other than a theatre.

I do think that unconventional theatre spaces are definitely something that young writers seem to be more aware of. There’s a strong aesthetic element being put to new works of theatre, which is not just based on location, and you can either be daunted by that as a writer or you can relish it and step up to the challenge.

The Old Vic, inspired by their strong commitment to narrative and innovative use of space, approached HighTide after seeing their promenade production of Stovepipe. But Ditch is the acually the first play in the tunnels that is not promenade; we are using fixed-seating. Both the Old Vic and HighTide were very keen to prove that the tunnels can be used in this way. It's a huge space but I’m not worried about it being swallowed up in it just because the audience are sitting down.

The story is very vivid and it was always going to be very minimal in terms of set because the action of the play is the dialogue. Although, the audience will have an almost promenade experience when they enter the theatre, seeing elements of the story in the ten minute walk through the tunnels before they take their seats. So there’s that time when they can switch off from London life and get into the world of the Ditch and it’s at that point when the play begins.

It’s been a really collaborative process working with the director, Richard Twyman, who’s been brilliant especially as this is my first play. I originally submitted the play to HighTide and they got back to me and said “we love it, we want to do it - we’ve got a director for you and you’ve got a few months to get the script together to get it into a better shape”. HighTide have been amazingly supportive from the very start. It’s one thing writing the story but it’s another having the knowledge of how it’s going to work on stage. But nothing has changed in the script since the decision to perform it in the Old Vic Tunnels. Richard did say to me I wasn’t allowed to look at a venue if I was going to change the play, that I had to keep it exactly as it is - he didn’t want me to alter it at all which is fantastic.

So when had a 95% yes on the venue, Richard and I went to the Old Vic tunnels and both immediately went “Oh my god, we have to have it”. We had only been in there literally 20 minutes and my eyes had already started doing strange things and you’re hearing dripping water and it’s pitch black. And then we went outside to Waterloo and it was about four 'o' clock in the afternoon and there was blinding sunlight and it was almost like a perfect after-note for the play. And just thought “I hope we have matinees”. It was such an experience.

For more about Ditch click here


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