Protest Song by Tim Price is an alternative Christmas play telling the story of Danny who sleeps rough on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral inspired by the true story of Jimmy McMahon, the Big Issue seller who became an icon of the Occupy London movement. We spoke to the director Sarah Bedi about the show.
Can you tell us a little bit about you and your work?
I’m a theatre director and writer and I’m interested in great stories. I work across every type of play from classical to verbatim-based and devised shows. My favourite play to work on is one that helps us get inside someone’s experience. To make sense of other people and the world and – also to learn about myself better. Essentially, I’m interested in stories that help us connect.
Why did you choose to direct Protest Song, and how do you think its themes are relevant today, even though it was first performed ten years ago?
I have wanted to work on Protest Song since I first read it. The play, written by Tim Price is about The Occupy Movement of 2011 who campaigned against the distribution of wealth after the financial crash. The brutality of our government to its own people has only increased in the eleven years since it was written. What comes next? In moving forward we’ve got to look back: to examine where we were a decade ago – the hope, the fight, the explosion of protest – and see how that path is connected to now. But more than anything, we must keep listening to the people who are failed again and again by those in power. If we can do that, then maybe we can figure out where the hell we go next.
Can you share what it is like working as a director in a play that is performed by only one actor?
David Nellist the actor and I worked together a few years ago and we’re good mates. We’ve been developing this project for a few years now, as it’s a play that has a lot of meaning for both of us. We feel very safe together and we play a lot of table tennis in the rehearsal room. He’s an incredible actor – it’s a hard play in many ways – there’s a lot of stamina required. But it’s such a good piece of writing the process feels simple.
As a director, what do you find most challenging and rewarding when working on a play that explores real-world events and societal issues?
Good question…. These stories matter and I have to hold it responsibly, but we also need to come from a playful place. So there’s a tension there. The most challenging thing is to make sure you’re not telling people what to think. It’s an important story and we need to let people come to it in their own way and have their own response.
How are you approaching portraying homelessness in the play, considering the recent political tension, how do you make it accessible without oversimplifying the issue?
I don’t think we’re trying to portray homelessness….We’re exploring one person’s experience. The play is partly inspired by Jimmy McMahon a rough sleeper who got swept up and nourished by the Occupy Village. The writer Tim Price spent a lot of time with Jimmy. They met outside St Paul’s Cathedral in Christmas 2011. So, I’m being led by the play, by the writing and trying to portray a character as the complex individual he is.
What do you hope the audience learns from the play?
I’m not sure the aim is learning but experiencing Danny’s inner world. There’s vulnerability, aggression, and humour. It’s a special play, a special piece.
Protest Song is at Arcola Theatre from 12 December – 6 January, tickets and more information can be found here: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/protest-song