‘Jim Sarbh is an instinctive actor,’ says award-winning theatre director Bruce Guthrie

Bruce Guthrie is an award-winning theatre director with global productions like Constellations, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Twelfth Night for Singapore Repertory Theatre. He has directed and taught theatre in institutes like the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, The Royal Academy of Music and La Salle, Singapore among others. And, the director is back, this time bringing Sea Wall by Simon Stephens (Tony and Olivier award-winning playwright of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame) to the stage. Starring Jim Sarbh, the play is Alex’s monologue as he talks about his wife, daughter and his passions before immersing into heart-wrenching grief. In an interaction with the Cinema Journal, Bruce gets candid about India, working with Jim Sarbh, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

How has it been heading theatre at NCPA during the pandemic?

I came to India because it is a country I have wanted to visit for a long time. The NCPA is a great institution with tremendous performance spaces and wonderful people who are passionate about the arts. We have been connecting with groups and watching productions online. Lockdown has been a period of monumental change and growth. My time at the NCPA has been industrious. We have been working towards reopening for live productions as well as continuing our online initiatives to exist alongside our programming at the NCPA.

Do you think interest in watching plays is still alive?

Absolutely. Audiences in Mumbai and across the country are engaged and passionate about theatre. Storytelling has a unique place at the heart of Indian culture. There is such an appetite for performance in theatre, film, dance and music. People are eager to get back to live events. We will soon see an explosion of enthusiasm for live experiences. 

‘Jim Sarbh is an instinctive actor,’ says award-winning theatre director Bruce Guthrie

Do you think regional theatre is dying in India?

India is a huge country with a rich and varied cultural history. Cultural trends tend to ebb and flow. As with all areas of the arts, the regional theatre has been hit extremely hard during the pandemic. It will come back as audiences come back. Some of the most exciting productions I have seen in my short time here in India has been in languages other than English. I am excited to explore the riches of regional theatre more.

What difficulties did you face while directing Sea Wall?

The main challenge was with logistics. We shot the play during the lockdown. Hence, the health and safety of the entire team were of paramount importance. We all had to get used to working in an environment that required a pause for thought with every action. Luckily, we were working with a terrific team of experienced professionals. Jim had also been on several shoots and was comfortable with all the health and safety aspects. It didn’t faze him. The pandemic has made everything way more time consuming and draining for everyone in most walks of life. Getting everyone focused on the piece itself while there is so much uncertainty and different factors to consider was tricky. However,  I’m glad to say we managed to overcome the considerable obstacles to create a piece of theatre we are all very proud of.

Theatre, too, is going virtual. What are your thoughts on that?

There are many merits to filming performances and streaming them. Accessibility is the main one. It allows us to share our work with people all over India and around the world. Rather than travelling to the NCPA, we can experience it at home. However, this will never be able to replace the live experience but can be the next best thing. With this production, our goal was to maintain the feeling of it being a play. Jim’s performance is shot on multiple cameras in real-time. It is continuous.

What made you choose this particular play? 

The story, its writing, and the central character drove me the most. People will experience joy and celebration, but it will also be reflective of life. Sea Wall is a play that is compelling and triggers the audience with questions. It is also a play that is relevant to its time and that’s what makes a play classic — the ability to say something different at any given point in history.

Director’s actor!

Featuring Jim Sarbh as Alex in Sea Wall, the play has been garnering quite some attention. Ask Bruce what made him cast Jim for the play, pat comes the reply, “Jim is a wonderful actor. The role requires someone with openness, likability, and truthfulness and he has these qualities in abundance. Jim is an instinctive actor who cares deeply about the craft. When I read the script, I had none but him in mind. He too read it and took an instant liking to it. When an actor has a connection like that with a role, it is the best start possible. You know they will go the extra mile to make it happen. He has done that at every turn with this play.”

Since it’s a monologue, directing the play must have been quite a task. Speaking about it, Bruce says, “The play required the actor to be able to describe moments and situations with photographic accuracy. In rehearsal, we worked up storyboards and collages of images so that Jim could have a visual connection to what he was described as the character. The images helped fuel his imagination and his memory rather than thinking about the next word, you are thinking about the next beat of the story. Jim is an actor who is in demand right now with multiple movies and series on the go. He was attracted to this role because he had never played such a role and also because of the quality of the writing.”

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