For the first time in two years, the Byre Theatre will be showing a play at full capacity, and the director of Belleville, Henry Empson, wants to fill all the available seats. And he certainly seems to be pulling out all the stops to do so, hiring both an intimacy coordinator and a sustainability advisor: a testament to the production team’s dedication to handling the polemical themes of Belleville in a respectful and accurate way.
“Touching themes on deceit, white privilege, and addiction, Belleville is a realistically intense and allegorical look at modern couples and the way we perceive others around us.”
Belleville is the story of a recently married young white couple as they grapple with their recent move to Paris, their relationship, white privilege, and other polemical topics of the modern era. I caught up with Empson, and the actors Jack Detweiler, Daisy Paterson, and Salem El Tabal during one of their early rehearsals in mid-January to get their thoughts on the play and its underlying themes.
Detweiler plays the husband Zack. He says this character is hard to relate to for many reasons, and seems almost glad that his character definitely gets “called on his privilege and entitlement,” throughout the course of the play:
“It can be really hard to relate to a character whose actions and way of being you really disagree with. It’s an interesting kind of sense that Zack has that nothing is ever his fault. But there’s a certain undertone of insecurity about my character that can be very relatable. I’m hoping that shines through.”
Paterson, who plays Zack’s wife, Abby, feels similarly about her character:
“I don’t really like [Abby]. So I wouldn’t say I relate to her, I would say I relate because she’s very stressed. Yeah, just her chaoticness is on some level relatable. But her traits, I’ve definitely seen in people. That’s interesting, because they’re so annoying, but it’s quite funny to take them on.”
After our interview I was given the opportunity to watch them rehearse for a bit. What struck me most about their performance was how realistically the characters slipped into the lines of dialogue. At first, I could not tell that they had begun and thought they were simply talking between themselves. They already were moving through a scene of casual dialogue in a way that was so convincing that I hadn’t realized they were acting. Empson clearly wanted to draw out the minute ways in which the white couple could be simultaneously relatable and problematic in their relationships with each other and their landlord.
My final question asked the group why people should come and see Belleville:
Detweiler said: “I think it is a show that will really get people to think, and challenge some people’s perceptions of a healthy relationship and how to deal with one’s privilege and/or sense of entitlement. It’s a show that’s going to make some people uncomfortable. Even though that’s not always the best feeling in the world, it's a very exciting way to tell a story and to get people to be interested”.
El Tabal, who plays their landlord, Alioune, said: “Specifically with St Andrews being such an international uni, so many people, English people, particularly people who speak one language, who obviously want to go and live in another country, hopefully it will make people think that they should go out and do the things that people who aren’t like you are doing. You shouldn’t just stick to the status quo. It’s something that I liked that gets talked about in the play”.
Paterson said: “Like when we were talking about relating to your character, I think everyone will in some way relate to certain characteristics and issues in the characters, and that’s very cool to watch because there’s so much to take in about yourself and think about”.
Finally, Empson answered “I think it’s a play that you really feel the effects of if you’re young. Critics have never really liked it, because critics tend to be older men, whereas younger audiences who have seen productions of this tend to be really responsive and excited. I remember Emma Watson tweeting something like ‘go and see [Belleville]. You’ll shit yourself millennials”.
Well, if Emma Watson recommends it, that’s good enough for me.
Belleville will be showing at the Byre on the 1st and 2nd of February at 7:30. Tickets are available on the Byre Theatre’s website from £8.