Interview: Actor & writer Léa des Garets talks about her new play George and LGBTQ+ representation in theatre

Lea des Garets - press shot
Actor & writer Lea des Garets

Léa des Garets is a queer award-winning actor, writer and theatre-maker from France. Through her company MQT Productions, Léa aims to give more visibility to hidden voices from the past and the present, focusing particularly on international voices, female-led narratives and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Here, she talks to me about George, her new play, which opens at the Omnibus Theatre later this month, playing a writer writing a play and LGBTQ+ representation in theatre. (Scroll to the end for the video)

George is inspired by the story of queer French author George Sand. How did you discover her, and what made you want to write the play?

So I am French, and George Sand is quite well known in France, but in a very limited way. Although she sold more books than Victor Hugo and Honoré Balzac in her time, she isn't nearly as well known as they are today.

At school, I had only studied two of her works, so I wasn't drawn to her literary works. But what I did know was that she dressed as a man, she used a male pen name and allegedly had many lovers.

I had this sense that she was a free woman or expressed her gender in whatever way she wanted, and she was still really, really successful in 19th-century France.

In 2019, I was really exploring my own queerness and craving for figures, not only to study but also to potentially embody as an actor, and I re-stumbled upon her.

In spite of all the press slandering, she still fought for equality and went against the norms, not only in what she represented but also in what she was saying. She really has something to say to our time, so I needed to write about her. And how amazing would it be to play her?

You play George and wrote the play, how does being the playwright inform your performance process, particularly as George in the play is a writer?

I had this image of three circles, there was my world, Léa the writer, and her world, George Sand the writer and the work that she is writing in George the play, which is her play Gabriel.

So much of the writing process of George is included in the play itself. There was a lot of bouncing off ideas with loved ones who are in the industry and who aren't, as well as brainstorming. There was some getting up in the middle of the night to write and also not commanding inspiration but having things come at you from the outside.

But then there is also the tunnel vision for something that you end up being so incredibly passionate about. I really found and experienced that, and I know what it feels like to hold on to what you believe in.

 

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Review: GRILLS, Camden People's Theatre - a fun play with a powerful roar

L-R Olivia Dowd Ishmael Kirby Jaye Hudson India JJ - credit Harry Elletson
L-R Olivia Dowd, Ishmael Kirby, Jaye Hudson and India JJ. Photo: Harry Elletson

 

GRILLS at the Camden People's Theatre is set in two time periods and two places connected by the queer experience and history.

Four modern self-professed queer nerds - Vall, Bee, Jaz and Mo - are visiting the Glasgow Women's Library, which is where the archive from the Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group is now kept. 

The CLC and BLG joined forces in the 1980s, and we are transported back to life in their centre through their discoveries while rifling through the archive.

There are revealing snippets from documented phone calls the centre received, which paint a picture of the work the centre did to support queer people. It is a place which created community, support and camaraderie in the face of prejudice and abuse. 

The documents also expose the challenges the centre faced from the politics of the day. Conservative Party rhetoric stoked homophobia, and Section 28 decimated funding for the centre, which was eventually forced to close. Attitudes towards transwomen are also revealed through the internal politics.

 

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Review: Eddie Izzard's Hamlet, Riverside Studios - grappling with performance and personality

Eddie Izzard hamlet poster

When someone plays not just many characters but all the characters in a classic play as Eddie Izzard does here for Hamlet, I have two key questions: How will they do it and why, i.e. what will it add?

When I saw Andrew Scott's one-man Vanya, while a technically brilliant performance, it didn't add to or elevate the play. I missed seeing him riff off other actors.

The jury was still out at the interval of Eddie Izzard's Hamlet. I simply wasn't sure what to make of it, but for different reasons to Vanya. It didn't feel like it was missing other actors, perhaps because I'm used to Eddie Izzard being a solo performer.

Here, the problem was how inextricably linked Eddie Izzard's persona is with her stand-up, at least in my mind. She has a distinct comic style and tone, which is evident in the 23 different characters she plays.

Was she being tongue-in-cheek? I could see her doing little bits of Hamlet in her stand-up show, but this is the whole play, which, while there is some humour to be found, is a tragedy.

But while I grappled with the question of comedy, some scenes worked really well with some interesting decisions.

She plays the characters mostly by taking a step into a different position. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the exceptions; here, she talks with his hands, which is very silly, but it works for the characters who are puppets of Hamlet's uncle Claudius.

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Review: Bluets, Royal Court Theatre - technically impressive but emotionally unengaging.

Bluets Royal Court Theatre building

I haven't read Maggie Nelson's book Bluets, but after watching this stage version adapted by Margaret Perry at the Royal Court Theatre, I don't feel the need to.

It's directed by Katie Mitchell, and given the technical/live film treatment I last saw her use in ...some trace of her at Soho Theatre, which I really enjoyed.

In Bluets, three actors, Emma D'Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw, play the same character. They stand in a row, each with a table and video camera, and above each is a screen.

They take turns delivering lines, sometimes just a few words, that tell the story of how, after a relationship breaks up, a woman falls in love with the colour blue.

It is voice-over style, so who you see on screen doesn't match who you hear. Only one screen is active at a time, allowing the other performers to set up the next snippet of live film.

The film performance is focused on reenactment/positioning shots to illustrate the story on screen. So the actor will stand side on to the camera, arms positioned to look like they are driving, while footage of a street passing plays behind them, for example.

Among the visual effects are 'walking' along a street, drinking whisky, laying in bed looking at a phone, those sorts of things.

It's technically mesmerising and fascinating to watch, at least for a while. The actors have to remember not only their snippets of dialogue but also all the video cues, where they need to be standing, what props to hold, etc.

But I have problems with it.

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Review: Romeo & Juliet, Duke of York's Theatre starring Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers

Romeo and juliet duke of yorks theatre

Director Jamie Lloyd is behind this new production of Romeo & Juliet with Spider-Man Tom Holland as the star name. He's a director whose work I love, particularly for the way he takes familiar plays and makes you see them differently.

Could he work his magic on this Shakespeare classic and make me like a play I've started to avoid?

I've seen a good handful of productions of Romeo & Juliet, and my main problem has been believability. There has rarely been sufficient chemistry between the star-crossed lovers to make their teenage 3-day meet-fall-in-love-marry-die story feel genuine.

It doesn't help that the 3-day tragi-romance begins with Romeo moping because he's so in love with another girl. (Fickle youth.)

But watching Jamie Lloyd's production, it's like he's asked a mate to hold his pint while he throws an emotional punch.

The staging is stripped back and still. There are a couple of mic stands and a step-down near the front of the stage where the actors sometimes sit.

Jamie Lloyd has embellished this sparse, prop-free backdrop by mixing in live video. A camera projects particular scenes on a huge screen above their heads, creating a cinema-screen-sized close-up.

The handheld camera also allows the actors to roam and break away from the traditional performance space. (At one point, Tom Holland's Romeo goes up onto the roof for a quiet cig.)

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Review: Love's Labour's Lost, Royal Shakespeare Theatre - contemporary touches adds a freshness

RSC love's labour's lost posters 2024

Love's Labour's Lost, starring Luke Thomson, is the play that got me back to Stratford. It's been years since I jumped on a train to the West Midlands as it's become more of a faff since direct trains from London were ditched (such an idiotic decision).

Was it worth the journey?

Director Emily Burns has brought a contemporary freshness to Love's Labour's Lost. It's set in a luxury, exotic resort where Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Abiola Owokoniran), Berowne (Luke Thomson) and two other friends have signed an oath to study, fast and stay away from women for three years.

Even the Princess of France (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) and her three ladies are not permitted beyond the grounds where the King insists they meet. However, this permitted 'off-site' doesn't stop Ferdinand falling in love with the Princess, Berowne falling for Rosaline (Ionna Kimbook) and Longville and Dumaine falling for the other two ladies.

Secret wooing, disguises and mistakes with letters ensue.

The contemporary resort setting works well with servants and courtiers becoming spa staff. There are sun loungers, golf tees and a tennis coach. Stripping away the court puts the focus on the men's behaviour. It also fits with the sassy way the women out-wit them and put them in their place.

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Review: Laughing Boy, Jermyn Street Theatre - urgent and emotional

Daniel Rainford  Lee Braithwaite  Alfie Friedman and Janie Dee in Laughing Boy_Jermyn Street Theatre_ photography by Alex Brenner
Daniel Rainford, Lee Braithwaite, Alfie Friedman and Janie Dee in Laughing Boy, Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo by Alex Brenner

 

Adapted from Sara Ryan's book 'Justice For Laughing Boy' this is a story about a mother's fight to find the truth about her 18-year-old son's death in a bath in an NHS facility.

Connor (Alfie Friedman), or Laughing Boy as his family calls him, has learning difficulties and epilepsy. He likes lorries and buses and often carries around a model of a red double-decker bus.

The play mixes happy family scenes from the past with the lead-up to Connor's admission to the unit and the subsequent campaign to find out what happened.

Connor's absence is, ironically, demonstrated in the fact that he is always there.

The conversation never shifts far from him, but micro-stories and examples of Connor in life are played out in interactions with his family, his comments and questions or when he simply sits playing with his bus.

Aside from Alfie Friedman and Janie Dee, the rest of the cast take on the menagerie of antagonists (medical staff and their representatives) and supporters of the family, lawyers and advisors. 

The stage is plain white, and the back wall curves around and acts as a screen for family photos, text messages, emails and documents. It feels almost like a docudrama, told primarily through Sara's eyes.

 

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Review: Black Swans, Omnibus Theatre - reflection on technology and what it says about humans

Black Swans featuring Trine Garrett © Tim Morrozzo
Black Swans, Omnibus Theatre, L-R  Camila França and Trine Garrett. Photo © Tim Morrozzo

In my interview with Camila França and Trine Garrett, who play sisters in Black Swans at the Omnibus Theatre, they said Christina Kettering's play felt futuristic when it came to them in 2020 years ago, but four years later, less so.

Such is the rampant advance in AI in the last couple of years that a robot that gathers medical, mood and domestic data to deliver the best care no longer seems quite so far-fetched.

The play sees two sisters arguing about who and how their elderly mother should be cared for. Neither has had a particularly close relationship with her, but the younger sister (Garrett) feels it's their moral duty and shouldn't be a burden.

Her older sister doesn't agree. She argues that others can provide much better care.

It is an argument that is perhaps motivated by a desire to live her life unencumbered by any caring responsibility, which echoes how she and her sister were raised.

However, seeing her sister struggling with caring, part-time work, family responsibilities and an absent husband, she buys her sister a robot carer to help out. They call the robot Rosie.

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Review: Player Kings, Noel Coward Theatre - a vehicle for Ian McKellen at the expense of something richer

Player Kings at the Noel Coward Theatre is Henry IV parts 1 & 2 squished together to create just under four hours of Shakespeare with one interval.

Ian McKellen is the big star name, playing Falstaff with Richard Coyle as Henry IV and Toheeb Jimoh as Hal.

Prince Hal's behaviour is presented as influenced by his spending so much time hanging out in taverns and with thieves, and I really liked that.

It is particularly notable in the way he fights. There is one moment when his actions towards Hotspur, whom his father admires, are certainly dirty and dishonourable. It puts both characters in a different light.

Richard Coyle, as Henry IV, has such a commanding stage presence that you could hear a pin drop every time he appeared. He presents a formidable and slightly scary King.

Robert Icke, who has adapted and directed the play, leaves little room for guilt about the means by which Henry came by the crown.

Although the fact that Henry was able to leap out of bed and wrestle with his son when he was supposedly dying did feel a little comical.

Ian McKellen is going to be my favourite Falstaff. This production felt like it was a vehicle for him to do a series of comic turns.

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Interview: Camila França and Trine Garrett, co-artistic directors of Foreign Affairs theatre company

Rev Stan interview with Camila and Trine Foreign Affairs Theatre

Camila França and Trine Garrett are co-artistic directors of the Foreign Affairs theatre company, which produces translated work sometimes in unusual spaces.

Ahead of their latest production, Black Swans at the Omnibus Theatre (23 April-11 May), I asked them about the new piece, how they choose what stories to tell and the unusual places they've staged theatre in the past.  

Black Swans also sees Camila and Trine returning to acting after a 5-year break, so I asked them what they are looking forward to about being back on stage and how they'll be feeling on opening night.

You can watch the full interview on my YouTube channel here.

Your theatre company, Foreign Affairs, shares stories from afar. What is the process for finding the plays you put on, and what are you looking for from a piece?

Trine: Our focus is working with theatre in translation. And the translators are our best friends, so plays get pitched to us. We also discover them through our theatre translator mentorship, which we run every other year.

And this play [Black Swans] was discovered during one of those.

What draws us to the plays that we stage is a lot about identity and belonging. We are both not from the UK; I'm from Denmark and Camila's from Brazil.

And then plays about women. I think that has been at the forefront for the last year with this one in particular [Black Swans], and prior to that, we did a rehearsed reading of a play about a female Danish scientist.

Black Swans is about caregiving for an elderly parent in a world of increasing technological influence. Tell us a bit about the play and what drew you to this particular story.

Camila: It's a story about women, and that immediately appealed. And then there's also a personal connection to the story, both on my side and Trine's, caring for elderly family, which is something we as a society tend not to talk a lot about.

The play is about two sisters who have to care for their elderly mother, who can no longer look after herself.

In that comes all the beauty and the bickering of their relationship and what happens when decisions have to be made.

How do they deal with it, and how does it affect their personal relationships, their own lives, and their relationship with their mother?

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