Tell Them That I Am Young And Beautiful

Tell Them That I Am Young and Beautiful

Tell Them That I Am Young And Beautiful stars Marcello Magni, Patrice Naiambana, David Bartlomeij Soroczynski, kora player Tunde Jegede and Kathryn Hunter. Photograph: Robert Workman

Kneeling on the floor and in animated conversation with a handful of cast members is not how I expect to find actor and all-round thesp Marcello Magni, as I come to meet him at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre. Magni, a stalwart of British, and indeed international theatre, is at the Arcola to direct (and perform in) Tell Them That I Am Young And Beautiful, a new work created with French writer Gilles Aufray. The play is a collection of seven stories from around the globe, performed by an international cast including Magni’s wife, the Olivier Award winning actress Kathryn Hunter, who is alongside him on the floor of the rehearsal space.

It is obvious that Magni feels comfortable at this venue. Before we even take our seats at the café downstairs, he proudly explains that the Arcola is his local theatre – he lives in De Beauvoir with Hunter, and has lived in Hackney since 1994. So why has he not done something here sooner? “Both Leyla & Mehmet (Leyla Nazli and Mehmet Ergen, founders of the Arcola),” Magni explains, “have said ‘you must come and work here’, but it has taken me a long time to take advantage of their generosity and friendship”. Although he has lived in England for several years, Magni’s accent has a soothing Italian tinge, which, alongside his infectious effervescence, makes him exceptionally personable.

It quickly becomes clear that Magni is intensely interested in people. When I tell him I missed one of his wife’s performances due to appendicitis, he is eager to know if it was painful, if it took long, and if I’ve fully recovered. His acute sensitivity to human suffering is further revealed as he describes, with palpable emotion, the true story of a man who donated a kidney in France and was subsequently neglected – one of the play’s seven plots. Magni explains that his long-standing interest in “how we relate to the other” is the driving force behind this new work. “I’m interested in how we make judgements about the other,” he says, “and by the other, I mean the foreigner”.

Both the content and the method of this ambitious piece are somewhat ‘foreign’. All seven tales are all told in the same studio space by a cast of five, which, as Magni explains, presents a unique challenge. “My passion, my desire, was to see if we could tell stories by finding a language in which the body, movement and images could complement the voice of the narration.”

The set remains the same for all stories: there is no change in backdrop, no curtains and no major costume changes. The onus, says Magni, is on the actors, who are asked to “conjure up a sense of where we are through our bodies”. “The task is to essentialise,” he continues, “to suggest things, rather than heavily represent.”

Magni constantly emphasises the collaborative aspect of the piece, and talks of how his work with British company Complicité was an inspiration. “There was lots of devising”, he says of the group. “The shows were created by the cast. In this show, I direct, but the voice is quite shared, there are a lot of collective decisions.” “It’s a story that we are telling together”, he explains, “so we all have to agree on the choices. If we don’t, it creates a gap between the will of an individual and the creative energy of all of us.”

Magni and Hunter are a rare breed, in that they seem able to move freely between stints at the National, the Globe and other mainstream theatres and small-scale, fringe productions. So how does he manage to travel between the two with such ease, I ask? “I think as an actor you have to remain open to be able to go from here to there,” he explains. “The establishment don’t make you do it too often – it’s not very welcome. Either you are in the premier league or in the lower leagues. You can’t be in both. But the main buildings are trying very much to welcome new companies all the time – maybe not enough.”

Talk of the divide between established theatre and smaller productions has got Magni pondering about the perils of the former. “The danger,” he tells me, “is that when you enter [the mainstream], the audience have an expectation. The budgets push you to change your ethic”. He continues in hushed tones, as if slightly uneasy about criticising organisations with whom he has worked several times. “It’s such a pity that there is such a big financial gap between the big institutions and the smaller ones. If the Arts Council wouldn’t give so many millions to the RSC…” Despite this assessment, Magni is keen to convey that being forced to operate on a miniscule budget is a rather welcome affliction. “We were not funded,” he says, “but that becomes a blessing – you are obliged to be simple. It’s a great thing.”

The Arcola, says Magni, offers something which mainstream theatres do not, and he is full of admiration for the environment it fosters. “Here there is a liberty, a research, a spirit of working towards a product,” he enthuses. “The spirit is alive and vibrant. The audiences are very different, people that you don’t get in bigger theatres.” In fact, the size of the venue is to its advantage. “A small space can make you fail. A large set and lights can protect you. This is raw. I love that in theatre when it is not static. It takes a certain courage”.

“Audiences,” continues the veteran actor, “have to be educated”. “Usually theatre is presented as a nice package. We all want to go to the grand gala in the theatre with red curtains – yes it’s beautiful and wonderful, but even those theatres sometimes had people fucking on the last balcony and spitting down. That magic, exotic, sense of the old theatre is a bit romanticised, because theatre has always only ever worked when it was alive, when people went with an energy, wanting to discover.”

So what will people discover by going to see Tell Them That I Am Young And Beautiful? “I hope,” he says pensively, “that maybe every story will touch an audience for one tiny moment. I hope by empathising with a particular character, an audience’s perspective on the other is slightly changed. I am not presenting a sophisticated point. If you understand it here [he points to his heart], we can dialectically discuss it.” Magni’s extraordinary capacity for empathy comes to the fore as he continues to explain his motives for creating the piece. “I feel deep down I suffer when I feel pain in other people. Why do we do this to each other? Why? I hope that will stay with people.”

“But,” says Magni, a smile spreading across his face, “at the same time I want people to laugh”.

Tell Them That I Am Young And Beautiful
6 Sept – 8 October
Arcola Theatre
Ashwin Street, Dalston E8 3DL
Box Office: 020 7503 1646