An Interview with: Gareth Nicholls

Director of How to Disappear

How to Disappear is a new play by renowned playwright Morna Pearson. It has won the Catherine Johnson Award for best new writing and will run at the Traverse Theatre 8-23 December. Director Gareth Nicholls met with us to give an insight into the play and its ambitious themes.

The play follows protagonist Robert, played by Owen Whitelaw, who suffers from mental health issues and no longer leaves his house. He is supported by his 14-year-old sister Isla (Kirsty Mackay) who cares for him at home when a benefits assessor comes to visit.

It is interestingly described as a “black comedy with hints of fantasy and magic”. Gareth helped to explain this genre further. Pearson wrote How to Disappear in response to benefit cuts and austerity measures; the piece explores emotive issues such as relative poverty and mental health in the UK.

The description states that it is “a voice for those who often go unheard”, implicitly suggesting its potential to raise political issues. However, Nicholls states: “It is political, but it doesn’t hit you around the head with it; it’s a character-driven piece which delves into deeper issues.”

Nicholls states that the main theme is political and personal abandonment. It is about the system letting people down. This is prevalent with Robert, the protagonist of the piece, as he is abandoned by society, through welfare cuts and isolation from the outside world. It is also evident with his sister Isla, who is unsupported in school, as well as being personally left by their mother and father.

Nicholls explained how the play succeeds in expressing these political themes through a humanising, sensitive and often comedic platform. He said he calls the piece “I, Daniel Blake meets Alice in Wonderland”. It has a gritty edge but also a playful touch of magic and imagination.

The play moves from a naturalistic meeting with the benefits assessor to delve into Robert’s mind. The fantasy element comes in as the three characters are transported into his imagination, presenting aspects of magical realism, including new creatures and visualisations.

Nicholls praises Pearson’s accomplishment at tackling these tough themes in a humanising and comical way. He particularly admires the passages of dialogue between the brother and sister and the witty word play throughout the piece.
Furthermore, Nicholls feels December is a perfect time for this show to be performed. It is a bittersweet time for many people who deal with a sense of loss, hope and isolation during the festive season. He also highlighted that this play is a great alternative from the numerous Christmas shows at other theatres in December.
Nicholls states this play is accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds as there are parts of all three characters that a wide range of people can relate to. He hopes that this play will “move people to empathise, touch people’s own experiences of isolation and potentially fire people up politically to think about these issues in wider society after the show”.

As a last note, Nicholls concludes with some great advice for new directors on the scene. He encourages directors to see as much work as possible, from studio work to mainstream, and expose themselves to multiple genres. Upcoming directors should also be bold thematically and have the confidence to think big in their own work. Useful guidance.

How to Disappear looks like a show that will think big, and be an emotive adventure into political issues, with bursts of ‘wow’ magical realist moments.


How to Disappear

Traverse Theatre

Runs 6th – 23rd December


Photo Credit: Michael Cranston

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