BWW Interview: Actor Simon Manyonda Talks FAR AWAY at Donmar Warehouse
Manyonda has previously appeared in many West End shows, including Actually (Trafalgar Studios) and King Lear (Old Vic). On screen, he's appeared in popular shows like Doctor Who, His Dark Materials and Whitechapel.
He spoke to BroadwayWorld UK about Far Away, how it feels to be working with Caryl Churchill and the power of language.
Can you tell us a little bit about the show and its themes?
The play deals with a lot of ambiguity, and that ambiguity creates a lot of fear. So I suppose one of the themes in Far Away is fear and how we can weaponise language, and how harmless words can become very harmful.
You play Todd in the show - how would you describe him?
Todd is a valued old hand at a hat factory, and he's a bit jaded with the job because he's aware that the powers-that-be are corrupt. But he feels paralysed in his job and unable to do anything about what he's aware of.
But then he meets Joan (played by Aisling Loftus), who has all of the fresh-faced, arts-school energy that maybe Todd once had. She inspires him to gain the strength to speak up to his bosses and say, "I'm not happy with the way this place is being run".
How does it feel to act in a Caryl Churchill play?
It's an incredible privilege. Caryl Churchill is an exceptional writer and she's been in the rehearsal room two to three times a week, and she's been in every single preview.
She and Lyndsey Turner (the director) have an exceptional working relationship, so you're seeing a production of the revival that Caryl herself wanted - it's not like Lyndsey and the team have gone off and done their own production, Caryl was there. It's also Caryl's vision, as much as it is Lyndsey's, as much as it's my interpretation of Todd and Aisling's interpretation of Joan.
That must be amazing to have the playwright so heavily involved with the show
Absolutely. She's been there since rehearsals, sat round the table with us having conversations. To have her approval and support has been incredible.
What's the most challenging part of being in Far Away?
It's a challenge for us from entrance to exit, as Caryl's work is so delicate. And in the factory scenes that I'm in, there's so little time to get across so much. When we did our first run-through in the rehearsal room, particularly in Act II, it felt like it was over before it'd begun, and we did another run-through and had the same experience.
Then Lyndsey said the words needed muscularity, and because we know each other so well and we're comfortable, it can be easy to be really casual - and actually it needed to have muscularity behind everything we were saying.
When I took those notes on board, I realised if at any point it feels over before it's begun, then I was never there. Because this play isn't underwritten, it's not short; this play is concise, and you won't leave feeling like the show is incomplete.
So the challenge is to dig deep in a production where there isn't loads of time, and you've got to just dive straight in there. It's not a long-drawn-out scene change, and we as actors are doing the scene changes, so there's no time to think.
You have to think extremely quickly from one moment to the next, you've got to be there, and you've got to deliver that line and thought clearly. The audience need it clearly because it happens so quickly - so if you miss it, and it's over before it's begun, then the audience won't get it either. The speed of thought is definitely a challenge, particularly in Act II.
How does it feel to perform in such a beautiful and intimate space as The Donmar Warehouse?
It's an intimate space, and the play takes place in a very intimate world.
I previously performed The Way Of The World there, and it had big costumes, big personalities and everything on show; even though most of the play took place in a drawing room, you had themes and ideas of people on display.
With Far Away, the majority of the scenes take place between two people, and there's a huge element of secrecy and conspiracy. So within that, the performing of the play is very intimate, and particularly in Act II for me, where it's just Todd and Joan, and they're in their own little world, and they need to be. Todd needs to bring Joan into his world because he's got so much going on inside there, and he's been there for so long.
So having that intimate space of the Donmar is great because you don't feel the need to communicate to the back of the room, you don't need to broadcast anything, I can just be there and bring the audience on this intimate and delicate journey.
As you said, you're no stranger to the Donmar - how does it feel to be back there?
It's a really active theatre. It's great because of the intimacy, because of the calibre of actors who've been there before, the calibre of writer and director that you get to work with.
And it's such a small cast for a revival of a play that's held in such high regard, it feels great to be doing it there, at this time, in the West End. To round off Michael Longhurst's first season is great, and it feels great to be leading a play there as well.
Why should people come and see Far Away?
Because it's an incredibly relevant play. We're in a time right now where people are always trying to simplify everything: red and blue, right and left, cancel and not cancel, leave or remain. And real life isn't like that; there aren't things that you can't just click or tick.
This play deals with the timeless ambiguity of politics, social politics, fear, thoughts and language. It doesn't matter what you think you know, you don't know those things, not really, because you don't know it from all sides, and you can't know it from all sides.
What Caryl is able to do - and I think she must be a genius - is she's able to present an idea, a world, where we say, "Look, we don't know the answers, nobody knows the answers", and that's what creates the fear.
I really think this is a play for our time and a play for many years to come. Once you make beauty, it disappears, so once it's gone, it's gone. I think it's an exceptional thing to be happening at the Donmar, and I'd recommend seeing it for sure. I'd watch it!
Photo credit: Johan Persson