Rehearsal Room Drama: In the Belly of the Beast

Written for Spoonfed. Originally published on 17 April 2013.

Naima Khan takes a look at the rehearsal rooms of Theatre Temoin’s Nineveh.

There’s a string of arches near Walworth Road Station. Under one of them, three men are practising the art of falling, and it doesn’t help that they’re surrounded by a ring of 4-foot spikes. Their legs twist over themselves, they sway, they hit the ground and they do it all in unison. Turns out, they are being thrown.

The play they’re rehearsing is Theatre Témoin’s Nineveh, which is is one of two plays about to open in London that look at the aftermath of trauma to the aggressor. The other is Glory Dazed (Soho Theatre) which follows a soldier experiencing reverse culture-shock on returning from Afghanistan. Nineveh, which is based on a year of work with former child-soldiers by director Ailin Conant, has been created from something very different but looks at a similar idea: after the conflict, how do we deal with the monsters in our head?

The actors being thrown around in Wandsworth are Yaron Shavit, Nabil Stuart and Gethin Alderman who are getting to grips with turning playwright Julia Pascal’s play from something that could be a charming tale of redemption, into something more disturbing. Nineveh (the name of the biblical city that Jonah was sent to) sees these three men trapped in the belly of a whale. The spikes that surround them are like the rib cage of a gargantuan, animal tyrant and the atmosphere they’re creating is like an inescapable purgatory.

The scene they’re rehearsing involves a conflict that plays on power trips, ego massages and casual cruelty. It’s Joel, played by Yaron, who gets the brunt of it. But strangely, although Joel is the underdog here, he manages to be the only character with any hope. Perhaps out of desperation or his own resoluteness, he can see a future for himself outside of this whale.

Nineveh hinges on a hook I’m yet to see, the arrival of a fourth character who changes the dynamic of the three men already in the whale. This dynamic revolves around hierarchies, tempers and manipulation and today, the actors’ discussions with Ailin keep returning to Louis Theroux’s Miami’s Mega Jail. Theroux’s 2011 documentary about inmates on death row highlighted the culture that develops for people in hopeless, endless incarceration. In his documentary, the inmates explain a code called GABOS (Game ain’t based on sympathy) that emphasises strength and status as the crux of their community structures. This inevitably means a lot of fighting, often just to pass the time.

It has meant a change for the actors rehearsing today. “We’ve been thinking of it with our own rules of societies in mind,” explains Ailin, “like the way human dynamics are in everyday circumstances but actually, the rules are very different here. They’ve been here for god knows how long, they’re trapped and they’re going mad.” Once they master their attempts to fall in time, director Ailin concerns herself with the “eat or be eaten” world they’re creating.

This is a world where it’s perfectly reasonable for one actor to remind another, “don’t forget to attack me.” But aside from the physical ascpect, which is Theatre Témoin’s forte, this play is about dealing with the emotion of conflict, guilt and trauma. For the people trapped in the whale, it means battling the monsters in their heads while encased in another.

Nineveh runs at Riverside Studios until 11th May 2013
Image: Gethin Alerman, Yaron Shavit and Nabil Stuart.

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