DIRECTOR INTERVIEW: Visitors opens at the Bear Pit

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Director Tony Homer in rehearsals for Visitors at The Bear Pit

The first play from the Bear Pit Theatre Company this year is Visitors, written by Barney Norris, which opens Monday. The moving portrait of old age is directed by Tony Homer, who tells Gill Sutherland about the production.

How did you come across the play?

Bear Pit Artistic Director David Mears suggested it to me. I had come across the playwright Barney Norris through his novels which I enjoyed thoroughly, so I was more than happy to take on Visitors. It took a couple of reads for me to ‘get it’, because it is a fairly still play, not action-packed. It is all about the characters and the theme of dementia.

The interesting thing for me was that it’s not a play I’d seen on stage – I’m completely fresh to it. So every rehearsal I’m finding something new in it, which in many ways is helpful.

In a nutshell what’s it about?

The focus of the play is on two characters: Arthur and Edie. They live on a farm, which Arthur inherited, and have been there throughout 50 years of married life. Edie has early on-set dementia and the play deals with that. They are coming to terms with the fact that she is going to have to leave the farm and move into a care home.

With the help of their son Stephen, they find a student, Kate, who comes and helps look after Edie. She’s still coherent, but comes and goes a bit.

The central tenet is the importance of a loving relationship, it’s a simple as that.

It sounds like a play everyone can relate to… is it humorous?

Yes, I’m looking forward to when the audience react to the fun that Arthur and Edie have. Ironically the son thinks he has to tell jokes in order to get people to like him. But it’s a fairly gentle, poignant play.

The production is in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Friends — tell us about that.

It made sense to link it to these two great organisations, and to raise awareness. There will be an opportunity to donate to the society at each performance.

In the play one of the concerns of the husband is that he doesn’t want to be left alone on the farm. Statistically around 70 per cent of people in care homes are coping with dementia – there’s a lot of isolation involved for them and their families.

There is support available around Stratford for those affected by dementia with regular meet-ups organised, and even the RSC has a dementia-friendly session at its café, and that’s so important.

The cast and crew have had dementia awareness sessions. We learned some of the key things that Dementia Friends like to get across. For example, if you know one person with dementia – then you know one person with dementia – in other words every case and every person is different. It’s easy to pigeonhole dementia as forgetfulness, but there are all sorts of issues you may not even have thought about – for example to do with perception and co-ordination. For example, if there is a dark coloured doormat, to people with dementia that can look like a black hole – so shop entrances with that sort of flooring are impossible to negotiate. The brain is affected in many different ways… Sadly it’s been fascinating learning about it. There are so many having to cope with it.

Tell us about the cast.

Kevin Hand, who I’ve known for over 30 years, is playing Arthur and Juliet Grundy, who I have also worked with, is playing Edie. Kevin is in his 70s and Juliet is slightly younger. The younger characters are played by Barry Purchase-Rathbone and Zoe Mortimer. They are all super actors to work with and made my life very easy.

It’s been fun to work with them and take on the responsibility of directing for about the first time in 20 years or so. I last directed The Doll’s House for Second Thoughts in about 1997.

How would you describe your acting style?

I’d say I was a collaborative director. I once worked with a very dictatorial director and I would never want to be like that! I’d say my biggest influence has been working with Nicky Cox, who I’ve worked with over the past five years. [Nicky directed The 39 Steps last year, which starred Tony.]

We loosen up, make rehearsals fun and unpressured and don’t just jump into the text.

You open on Monday, how prepared are you all?!

The Bear Pit has such a great support network and is so well organised, my role as director to a large degree has been made easy – that’s because of all the backstage assistance I have. I feel we are in a very good place, we’re going to peak at the right time!

Finally, why should the audience come and see the play?

I think it will strike a chord with everybody in the same way: it’s tender, heart-warming and poignant.

When and where: Visitors runs at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford, 11th to 16th February at 7.30pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. Tickets are £14 (£7 for under 18s). Book tickets via www.thebearpit.org.uk or call in the box office on 01789 403416.