Interview: Che Walker

Ch Walker is not a man to limit himself.

In a varied and eventful career, he has worked as an actor, writer and a director and, now, has landed himself with the, not inconsiderable, challenge of writing a contemporary play to be staged at the Globe Theatre, a space that was designed for and is, for most people, purely associated with the works of Shakespeare.

The play in question is The Frontline, an energetic Camden Town-set epic, brimming with characters and reeking of London on a Saturday night. The play is described on the Globe’s website as a determinedly urban thing, where: “weed, crack, lost old men, unemployed actors and vegans all collide in a riptide of chaos on the streets of London.” Just in case it wasn’t clear in the synopsis, there then follows a warning about the play’s ‘strong content’. Not standard Globe fare then; while Shakespeare’s plays can, of course, be brutal, they usually don’t contain much in the way of crack dealers and strip clubs. I ask him how he came to be staging such a play at the Globe in the first place. “They approached me,” he explains. “I’d had the idea in my head for four or five years, but I always put it out of my mind because I knew it had to have a huge cast. New writing is financially a bit restrictive so I thought it was too expensive, but Dominic (Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director) was adamant he wanted to do a contemporary play and it just chimed with this idea that I’d had in my head.”

Having been commissioned by the Globe did he need to tailor his style of writing to suit the space? Yes, he nods. “For me the experience of writing for this space made me push myself further and become more ambitious in reaching for very large themes, more political themes, more social themes, then perhaps there is in my other writing, which though it has a certain epic dimension tends to be more domestic. Here I’m posing questions about how we organise ourselves as a society.” More specifically he explains that there will be “a lot more music than I might otherwise have put in it and we have this one character who talks directly to the audience.” At the Globe “there’s a unique relationship with the audience, compared to other theatres I’ve worked at, because it really is about embracing they embrace you, but you really have to welcome them too. You will quickly know when you’ve lost a Globe audience!”

His enthusiasm and passion about the project is evident but I can’t help wondering if the Globe is the place for a play like this. Though each past season has featured at least one new play, they’ve been historical works in the main, nothing quite as aggressively contemporary. Is there an audience for a play of this nature in this space? “I’m praying that there is!” he laughs. “I am very excited and keen to try and reach out to people who perhaps have not been here before Londoners who haven’t been here before particularly young people, because it’s such a wonderful experience. We’ll find out. It’s a big move on Dominic’s part; he is really taking a risk and showing typical daring with this.”

We’re conducting this interview in the theatre itself, empty bar us for the moment, the matinee crowds yet to arrive. Beneath us, on the stage, the cast of this season’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are warming up, performing all manner of stretches, leg-lifts, hip thrusts and thunderous vocal exercises. As an actor, Walker has experienced the unique demands of performing at the Globe. According to an interview given recently in the Sunday Times, he pestered the director Wilsom Milam for a small role in last year’s production of Othello and the experience of performing in this space proved invaluable in the writing process for this current project, indeed he wrote much of the play during the period he was performing at the Globe.

I ask what it was like, as an actor, to work down there on the stage where the Midsummer cast are currently limbering up. “I’ve never had as much fun as I had doing Othello. It was the most fun I’ve ever had as an actor. It’s probably the closest experience an actor can ever have to being like a rock star, because the audience are so excited to be here, and so raucous and vocal in their responses, that it really lifts you. There were so many rainy Sunday matinees when you get here and think ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to do this show again’ and you come out and the yard would be packed sold with young people who were so excited to be there and it would just lift you up, you would think I have to give something back to these people it’s incredibly invigorating. There’s something very epic in its scope of the place, but also very intimate, people literally rest their elbows on the stage, and you can’t fake it for the people who are right under your nose and you can’t sell the people in the galleries short either. It was brilliant and I have such great memories of it.”

I ask how, in general, his experience of working as an actor has had a bearing on his writing. “In many ways acting is the best training you can have as a writer. When I was writing my first play I remember thinking, if I can make the characters really good, if I can make the dialogue really good, I’ve got a chance of giving it to an actor and having them commit on the strength of the writing alone. You have to have a feeling for language, and you soon get a good sense of what doesn’t work, you just know if something is too excessive.”

“The closest experience an actor can ever have to being like a rock star” – Ch Walker on performing at the Globe.

Though it was never Walker’s goal to be a writer (he studied drama at the Webber Douglas Academy in London and did “three years of very hard training”) he remembers writing a lot as a child, mainly comics and short stories. After graduation he worked for a couple of years, but it was only on hitting a “lean patch” in terms of acting work that he started writing plays. “So while the acting did come first, way, way back, when I was a kid, writing was a very big part of my life.” His first play, Been So Long, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1998 and, in 2003, the Court staged another of his plays, Flesh Wounds, scooping him the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright.

So, given, that he also directs, will one discipline eventually take precedence? “I really enjoy doing all three and I find one feeds into the other, I’m a better director because of my experience as an actor, I’ve become a better actor because of my experience directing other plays. I wouldn’t be happy just doing one, I like doing all three. It’s a balancing act.”

Walker is a big man, both physically, and in terms of personality; he is loud of laugh and easy to talk to, and I am comfortable in his company from the moment we meet. As we conclude I ask him to sell The Frontline to me as if I were one of the Globe’s more traditionally-minded audience members. Why should I take a punt on this over something with ruffs and doublets and hose? “Apparently, so I’m told by Dominic, my work is in the Jonsonian tradition of market plays.” He chuckles at this, admitting that he’s never finished reading a Jonson play. The Frontline, he continues, “has fantastic language, a London vernacular, and characters that you’ve never seen before on this stage or any other, it has excellent music, and” He pauses, stops, laughing – though I sense he could go on like this for much longer. But he doesn’t need to say anymore, I’m sold.

The Frontline is at the Globe Theatre from 6 July – 17 August 2008

Read the musicOMH review of The Frontline here.

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