Strat Mastoris believes theatre’s role is to address moral and political issues.
The best plays throw the viewer out of their comfort zone and question long-held assumptions.
So the photographer-turned-theatre director has chosen to take on a recent play by English dramatist Caryl Churchill.
He will tackle Seven Jewish Children which she wrote in 2009 in a double header with her 2000 play Far Away, which will directed by Mastoris’s partner and colleague from New Venture Theatre, Tamsin Fraser.
Caryl Churchill, widely regarded as one of contemporary theatre’s greats, has always refused to speak publicly about her work. She says that’s because everything is in the text, but discussing the provocative plays would never be straightforward.
“I don’t think I’m in this business to do easy plays because our audience deserves more,” says Mastoris, who moved to Brighton to be with Fraser and bit by bit found himself spending more time at New Venture and eventually getting into directing.
“I believe we need to be shocked. I was talking with Mark Chutter, who is the coordinator of English literature at Sussex Down College and who will host a discussion at end of the plays, and he said this is what theatre is for.
“It shouldn’t be about a comfortable night out, and certainly not fringe theatre like ours. If you want to go to the West End with a coach party then fine, but the kind of theatre we do should make you think.”
Seven Jewish Children was written as a response to the conflict between Israel and Gaza in 2009. It is less than ten minutes long and has seven speeches made by seven different Jewish relatives to the parent of a young girl. Each alludes to a different and key time in Jewish history.
It’s a history of Israel told as a litany. It was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2009. Churchill declared that anyone could perform it for free on the basis they hold a collection at the end for the people of Gaza.
At New Venture Theatre there will be a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians, map-uk.org, after the show. Unsurprisingly, many people have called the play anti-Israel.
Mastoris calls it anti-Zionist.
“Many years ago [Churchill] was writing bigger plays such as Top Girls and Serious Money,” explains Mastoris. “But as she has got older she has begun writing smaller, denser plays. They are very poetic. They are beautifully done as well as being controversial and powerful.”
Seven Jewish Children starts with a speech from a relative who is in hiding during the Holocaust. Her message to the young girl is to keep quiet and not to sing.
The next speech is from a member of a displaced people who have lost everything in Europe and later there are speeches at the founding of Israel and the Six-Day War in 1967 through to the conflict in 2009.
“It’s an intensely emotional piece. It attempts to examine the psychology of the Israeli people – refugees from the Holocaust in Europe now building and defending a new state in Palestine.
“We tend to only have memories back to the last newscast. It’s always the last war, the last peace settlement. This takes you back to the Second World War and emigration, so it will give people some sort of perspective. My personal view is the whole situation is almost like a Greek tragedy.
“People who suffered unimaginable devastation, and murder and genocide, and all they need is a safe haven, but the only way they can get it is by displacing other people from their home.”
He says Seven Jewish Children is the perfect counterpart to Far Away.
“Both plays address how people attempt to protect themselves from unbearable truths, and demonise others perceived as ‘the enemy’.”
Far Away is based on the premise of a world in which everything in nature is at war.
Harper, Joan and Todd’s country is at war with its neighbours and the action becomes surreal when animals, insects and even the elements are pitted against each other. It asks how much is truth and how much tales told to protect ourselves from real atrocities.
“The setting is unspecified,” Mastoris says. “It feels like Bosnia during war after the break-up of Yugoslavia with ethnic cleansing of some kind, but it could be anywhere with people at war with their neighbours.
“It’s not in your face. What you’ve got is a child asking questions, telling her aunt she has seen things, wondering what is going on, and all the while coming up with evasions.”
Mastoris has long been an admirer of Caryl Churchill’s work and directed A Number at New Venture Theatre in 2007. With Fraser he had seen that play in a double bill with Far Away at The Royal Court and the pair were struck by “the power of the imagery and language”.
Fraser has wanted to do Far Away since, while Mastoris loved Seven Jewish Children at its first performance.
“You might have your mind opened a certain amount,” he jokes. “It’s going to be more stimulating than Strictly Come Dancing.”
- New Venture Theatre, Bedford Place, Brighton, until Saturday, January 26. Starts 7.45pm, matinee on January 22 at 2.30pm, £9. Call 01273 746118