John Rwoth-Omack is directing Bad Blood Blues at Theatre Delicatessen this weekend, a play exploring the global injustices hidden in our medical research system. Forge Press caught up with John to find out how the production has taken shape.
Can you tell us why this production appealed to you as a director?
It’s such a rich piece and asks very important questions about whether it’s worth sacrificing our humanity for the sake of medicine. What makes one life more important than another? What gives it more value? Unethical medical trials led by multinational pharmaceutical companies have been going on in developing countries for years, and still happen to this day. The power of the play is through the way it negotiates the complexity of these issues by presenting us with two characters, a researcher and the brother of a trialist who are at opposite ends of the dilemma.
I first read Bad Blood Blues about two years ago in my last year of drama school. It hit me straight to the core and moved me so much that I wanted to put the play on immediately. The character of Patrice also really appealed to me as an actor, but just giving the play a platform was more important.
The play deals with some difficult themes. What has been the most challenging aspect of bringing it to life so far?
The biggest challenge so far is to tell a neutral story that doesn’t give weight or credence to either character’s stance on the trials. It’s tempting to portray a character as evil or good when they make a despicable decision, so it’s about finding the humanity or even justification in every decision that the character makes. It’s allowing the audience to make the decision for themselves: what would they do in the character’s shoes? If I’ve done my job correctly, the auditorium after the show will feel very conflicted.
The production is set in an unspecified country in Africa. How do you see it resonating with a Sheffield audience?
I don’t see the issues the play tackle as an ‘African’ problem, they are a human problem. Drugs have to be tested on people, it is something done worldwide. The play focuses on the ethics of medical trials in Africa being run by western pharmaceutical companies. It asks why the ethical maxims are so easily bendable in Africa, especially if the conditions are mainly found in the West.
What mAKES ONE LIFE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANOTHER?
To see this solely as an African problem is misleading. There’s a chain, as new drugs are needed in the West but there are systems that stop researchers from doing everything they want. That means the research is carried out in a third world country for the medicine to be approved and used by people in the West. In a way, we are all part of the problem. Sheffield is a melting pot of people from all over the world. This play is for everyone. It is a global issue.
What advice would you give to any of our student readers who aspire to work in theatre?
As I am still at a very early stage in my career as a theatre-maker I would probably say “Don’t do it!” The hope is that those students who are passionate, stubborn and hungry enough will ignore me. It’s worth getting used to people telling you that. You need to be hungry enough to pursue a career in theatre, but also get used to being hungry, too, at least for a little while.
Saying ‘I love it’ is not enough. I would say, take a good look at your options in life, and when you truly decide the only thing you are happy to forge a career in is theatre, go for it, but like in every profession you should only do it if it truly makes you happy. If it ever feels like a chore, it’s time to stop. It’s also important to realise that rejection, disappointment and failure are not deterrents but gifts in this industry; once you realise that, you can develop and forge a career.
yOU NEED TO BE HUNGRY ENOUGH TO PURSUE A CAREER IN THEATRE, BUT ALSO GET USED TO BEING HUNGRY, TOO.
Could you talk us through your process of seeing a production through from script to full-scale performance?
First I read the play and simply loved it, got the urge to stage it, then took the necessary steps to do so. That being said, I had the most help anyone could ask for from the most amazing people in the theatre scene in Sheffield. I met with the team at Theatre Deli, who were kind enough to allow me use their stage.
Next was funding. I hunted around for financial support for the project, and yes it is as hard as you would imagine, but Arts Council England were kind enough to trust me with money.
Somewhere around the money hunt I started gathering the creative team: the producer, light designer, set/costume designer etc. This was one of the most crucial parts of the project. I do think I was very lucky to end up with a such a fantastic team of talented individuals who were so easy to work with it.
tHIS PLAY IS FOR EVERYONE. IT’S A GLOBAL ISSUE.
Then came the casting, and I can honestly say I am so blessed by the presence of our actors.
Why do you think theatre is a useful medium for exploring political issues?
Theatre is often seen as a mirror to real life. Shakespeare’s Hamlet embodies this beautifully when Hamlet performs The Mousetrap, a play that mimics real life events to draw out his uncle’s guilt. It asks everyone who is watching to make a decision. We are all implicated simply by being in that room, and I think that’s its power. It’s not nearly as passive as TV or film, which I feel often just form a lot background noise. In theatre, you are confronted by these issues head on, with nowhere to hide.
What have you enjoyed most about being involved in this production?
I have loved witnessing the transformation from words on a script to a staged play, seeing the ideas I had in my head and notebooks becoming real life images. Every person worked to create this wonderful world, exchanging ideas with designers, working out what works and doesn’t work for the play.
I have loved working with the wonderful actors. The most amazing thing is when we have moments of magic, when we, as a team, ‘get it’; we get what it all means and what we are doing to the audience.
Bad Blood Blues is showing at Theatre Delicatessen, Eyre Street from Thursday 1 – Saturday 3 March. Get your tickets here.