Winner of more than five international awards, including a Fringe First, Joe Sellman-Leava comes to Bristol in January with two staggering one-man productions. Monster interrogates entrenched associations between violence and masculinity, asking why some men become monsters. Also coming to The Wardrobe Theatre, Labels examines how language can dehumanise people and tries to answer a complex question: “where are you from?”.
Directed by Yaz Al-Shaater (Dead Reckoning, Young Vic; Boris World King, Trafalgar Studios), Monster explores ideas of aggression within relationships, while scrutinising the place of the male role model in society. Experimenting with form, it considers the viewpoints on conflicting performative masculinities, including those of famous figures like Mike Tyson and Patrick Stewart, using a play within a play, overlapping voices and multi-roling.
Monster and Labels is at The Wardrobe Theatre Bristol 21st to 24th January 2020.
You’re bringing two plays to The Wardrobe Theatre, what can you tell us about them?
Monster is a solo play: a love story about masculinity, using multiple voices (including Mike Tyson and Patrick Stewart), a play-within-a-play, and a little bit of Shakespeare! It asks questions about the nature of violence and aggression, and the kinds of role models young men look up to. I’ve taken it to Bristol once before – at Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment Fortnight in July 2017, just before we launched the show at Edinburgh, so it’s great to be coming back for a whole week.
Labels tries to answer the question “where are you from?”, which is something I’m often asked. It’s a family story about dual heritage, migration, displacement and the changing political landscape around those things. It uses a mixture of storytelling, comedy and performance art (and more). It’s a show I’ve toured since 2015, and which had a sold-out, week-long run at the Wardrobe in 2018. I am really excited to be bringing it back in 2019.
What inspired both these plays?
Labels initially came from a workshop Emma Thompson led in Exeter, back in 2009, when I was studying drama. Initially it was a short story about why my family changed our surname, but years later I decided to expand on this and place that story within the context of the resurgence in nationalism and the toxic debate around immigration and displacement. The show went on to win a Fringe First in Edinburgh 2015 and has been touring the UK and internationally since then.
Monster started its life at roughly the same time, and like Labels was initially a short piece of around 10 minutes. I’d recently been in a play which was about domestic violence and, while researching for the role, had been reading Patrick Stewart’s candid words about growing up with a violent father, as well as watching a documentary about Mike Tyson. While the two men have no direct connection, both come from poor, troubled homes, and found success at a young age, but have had very different lives, and talk very differently about masculinity and violence. The two voices act sort of like devil and angel on the shoulder of Monster’s protagonist (who is a fictionalised version of myself).
You’ve performed both separately, why do you think they will work well together?
Performatively, there are things that link them, such as the impressions of the real people whose voices form part of the narratives. They’re each about very different subjects and themes; Monster is a lot darker in tone than Labels, and is only partly true, whereas Labels is much more autobiographical. But I think the both pieces have things in common, such as a currency and urgency in their subject matter and the way they’re told: by a performer whose relationship to the audience is very tied up with the narratives and themes.
What will be the biggest challenge for you as a performer in bringing these two shows together?
Monster is very physically and mentally demanding, with its quick shifts between characters and settings. It’s also very precise, in both text and its physical score, so even though I’ve toured the piece a lot now, each time almost feels like re-learning it from scratch!
Why did you choose The Wardrobe Theatre for this double bill?
I really love the venue. When Labels was here in 2018, I had some of my favourite ever shows: audiences were so warm and generous, and I absolutely loved chatting to people afterwards. I think the Wardrobe programs some of the best theatre and performance in the UK, so really it’s an honour to be part of that.
What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see Monster and Labels?
Both shows will make you do one of the following: laugh, cry or think…and possibly all of those things! I think we need the magic of theatre – of good stories, watched live, with other people – now, more than ever, so come with some friends, or meet some new ones.
I’m also developing a new show called Fanboy, which is about our relationship to pop-culture and the cost of nostalgia, during that week at The Wardrobe, so if you like either of the shows and want to see a work-in-progress of the new one, there’s a chance to do that too!
Main Image Credit: Joe Sellman Leava courtesy of Chris Mann