With the second Marcelo Dos Santos play opening in London in the space of a month, director Matthew Xia talks to us about Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, fresh from its triumphant run in Edinburgh.
The production, a fascinating exploration of truth, comedy, and the shadows within, beckons audiences into a journey led by a stand-up comedian grappling with the intricacies of honesty, romance, anxiety, and childhood trauma. I had the privilege to sit down with Matthew Xia and delve even deeper into the captivating layers of this unique theatrical experience.
Matthew passionately describes the play as “an hour-long experience with a stand-up comedian who’s attempting to be honest and failing miserably time and time again.” It’s a delicate balance between comedy and romance, woven together by the threads of self-sabotage fuelled by deep-seated anxiety and childhood trauma. However, Matthew is quick to assure that the heaviness is expertly counterbalanced, allowing the play to flow seamlessly with humour and a plethora of well-crafted gags.
Reflecting on his initial encounter with Marcelo’s script, Matthew recounts, “I laughed a number of times. I thought it was hilarious, and yet there was a sadness to it.” He offers insights into the script’s evolution, expressing initial concerns about overwriting and how workshops revealed the necessity of certain cuts. Through this process, they discovered that each edit served not only the time constraints of the Edinburgh hour but also enhanced the drama and structure of the piece.
Marcelo’s unapologetic and queer narrative was one thing that first attracted Matthew to the project, “I love Marcelo’s writing. I love how unashamedly queer it is in lots of his writing that I see, you can see it also in Backstairs Billy which is currently at the Duke of York’s” Beyond the surface, the theme of self-sabotage strikes a personal chord with Matthew, reflecting on the universal tendency to sabotage success even when everything is going well.
This is a solo show, starring Samuel Barnett, and Matthew’s admiration shines through. “The man is phenomenal,” he exclaims, “I love actors that just kind of generate the work” applauding Barnett’s ability to command the stage and create an immense amount of energy. The collaboration between director and actor became a journey into the intricacies of stand-up comedy, involving meticulous analysis of physicality, stage presence, and the unique challenges of solo performances. Matthew emphasises Barnett’s role as both a mentor and an inspiration throughout the creative process.
Navigating the challenges of directing a solo performance, Matthew sheds light on the collaborative process. “It’s brilliant and intense,” he remarks, emphasising the constant dialogue between himself and Barnett in sculpting each moment. The intricate balance between validation from the audience and trusting the play is a recurring theme in their creative journey.
The directorial choices, particularly the staging, come into focus as Matthew describes the shift from the in-the-round format in Edinburgh to a deep thrust at the Bush Theatre, as well as some other changes since the previous run, “the world has changed a lot since we last did this show and there were a few lines and the odd joke that we decided to take out in response to current events, such as the Israel-Gaza conflict”.
Reflecting on surprising audience reactions, Matthew shares amusing anecdotes, highlighting moments when the audience unwittingly became part of the performance. “Samuel sometimes asks quite personal and disturbing questions on stage, they are supposed to be rhetorical, but we’ve had people shout out their answers,” Mathew laughs. The evolution of the play from its initial comedy-club-like atmosphere in Edinburgh to a more traditional theatre experience in London adds a unique layer to the audience’s engagement.
Matthew concludes our conversation with an enthusiastic invitation to potential viewers. “It’s brilliant. It’s hilarious. It’s an hour long, and the performance is stunning” he says, encapsulating the essence of Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, and the brilliance of Samuel Barnett’s performance.
Where honesty meets comedy, and pain intertwines with laughter, Matthew Xia and the team have crafted an experience that invites audiences to explore the intricate layers of the human psyche, and have a good laugh at the same time.
Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going To Happen is at Bush Theatre until 23rd December 2023.