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Interview: Peter Darney talks 5 Guys Chillin' success and directing the 'dangerous' and 'sexy' play Kompromat

"Theatre should challenge, should open your eyes to the nooks and crannies of life you wouldn't see otherwise."

Peter Darney studied drama at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and has acting, writing and directing credits to his name including the international fringe hit 5 Guys Chillin’.

He is currently directing gay crime thriller Kompromat by David Thame, which was inspired by the 2010 'spy in the bag' murders and opens at the Vault Festival next week.

Here he talks about what has made him a more empathetic director, how theatre should challenge and why Kompromat is a must-see.

Peter Darney
Writer/director Peter Darney. Photo by Oscar Blustin

You wrote while you were at drama school, subsequently studied directing and then took up writing again how do the disciplines compare?

I made a living from acting for six years and it's quite blissful because I feel like I've come full circle.

I think what I always wanted to be was a writer and I am now really exploring that again but I'm bringing the knowledge I learnt from being an actor, knowing that I have to be able to motivate any line of dialogue.

And from being a director, having an understanding of structure and the bigger picture of what works and what doesn't; what's going to be impossible to stage, what's going to be cheap to stage and then taking all of that back into my writing.

Does it make you a better director?

A good boss can always do your job and everybody else's, so I think [it’s good] understanding the three disciplines.

You know what it feels like to stand there as an actor and get crushed by a director and I would hope it stops me from crushing an actor.  

Similarly, knowing what it feels like to have a director say ‘oh no this is rubbish’... having empathy for each role I hope helps me work a little more holistically and with kindness.

What are you most proud of so far?

The thing I'm most proud of is a play that I wrote and directed called 5 Guys Chillin’ which is a verbatim drama about the chemsex epidemic.

It played in London for about six months, did two Edinburgh festivals, played Sydney and Toronto and it’s opening in a French translation in Paris this month.

Last year it was chosen as one of ten plays that have made LBQT+ theatre history by the Evening Standard.

And the thing that still makes me proud is getting messages out of the blue from people who say things like: ‘seeing the play was a really important part of my recovery’ or ‘it motivated me to go and get an HIV test’.

It’s the fact that it's had a direct effect on people's health, well-being and conversations.

Is it important for theatre to have a wider impact on people's lives?

I think it's an important part of theatre for me.

Just enjoyment isn't enough, not that I have to run social points down people's throats but I'm interested in there being a social point.

I'm interested in looking at a marginalised life or a life that you would never look into or understand if you didn't see a performance.

Hopefully, it allows an audience to go away with the facility to show a greater empathy from understanding.

Theatre should challenge, should open your eyes to the nooks and crannies of life you wouldn't see otherwise.

Saying that I loved the pantomime at the Palladium - I had a bloody brilliant time - maybe I loved it because I have no urge to direct it whatsoever.

Kompromat rehearsal Vault Festival
Max Rinehart and Guy Warren-Thomas in rehearsal for Kompromat, Vault Festival

What was it about Kompromat that sold you on the play?

I thought it was a fascinating take on a story that I was already aware of: The Gareth Williams story.

It is really interesting that we learn more about the killer than the victim and there is a really interesting mix of sensuosity and brutality, of connection and absolute disconnection.

I found it, to some extent, relatable what we can convince ourselves can possibly be right when we really want something, even when we know it's not.

How do approach rehearsals?

I wouldn't say that I have a set methodology because I think you have to find what's going to work for the play and the people you are working with.  

I have an interpretation and I have some images in my head and some moments that I want to create and I'm excited about finding my way between those moments with the cast, depending on what they bring and how we work together.  

But I'm also very conscious that I might throw out every idea I've ever had on the first day or in the middle if it's not working or another idea has come along that's better.

So I get as familiar as I can with the text and characters and have ideas but I’m prepared to let those go because actors are incredibly inspiring and imaginative beings inherently.

You always end up with the best work by taking a little bit of magic from everybody and then shaping it rather than forcing something preordained onto a process.

Why should people come and see Kompromat

People should come and see it because it's dangerous, edgy, sensuous, sexy and a fascinating exploration of power dynamics.

Also at the root of all of this, a man died and he didn't need to die...I think it's good to remind people that this happened and people like him shouldn't be forgotten.

This is an unsolved case and we are proposing a possibility, I'm sure there will be lots of people that will disagree with that possibility and lots of people that will agree with it.

I'm sure there are lots of different theories out there is.   

What's next for you?

I'm working on a film adaptation of 5 Guys Chillin’ called Clapham Trash Bag and a play I’ve written called Tidy Boy is going into R&D and staged readings in Wales and London in the spring.

It's a comedy about gender inequality, about our perception of what constitutes abuse and an exploration of small-town racism.

Kompromat is at the Vault Festival from Jan 23-27.