Merlin star Richard Wilson is a firm believer in the theatre looking at current issues and he’s directing a new play in Sheffield set among British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.
The Sheffield Theatres associate director is rehearsing his actors for the world premiere of Love Your Soldiers by Robin Hooper, which is at the Crucible Studio.
The title comes from what army officers are told at the end of their training at Sandhurst.
The play looks at a love triangle involving a young woman and two soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
Richard, who is much loved for his grumpy TV character Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, regularly directs plays at the Studio.
He said: “We are blessed that Sheffield does but any working theatre should have new writing in the front of its thinking.
“I believe that new writing is what theatre’s about. I once said in an interview that new writing was the bone marrow of life. It sounds odd now but I did mean it in a way.
“I think society learns a huge amount from new writing and I think we should support the people who are writing about what’s happening in the world today. It’s what the theatre is made for in a way.
“I always get surprised by people who are happy to watch some old Shakespeare time and time again.
“Young people should do Shakespeare and I’m all for it but I just think we should be talking about what’s happening now. This is a perfect example.
“The timeline of this play is last year. It happens over a year, that’s how recent it is. We bring in Lee Rigby’s death laterally.”
The play has a young cast, including Broadchurch TV crime drama star Charlotte Beaumont, who has only just finished her A-levels.
Richard said: “They’re all a joy. I prefer working with young actors. I find their enthusiasm infectious.”
He added: “Gemma, the girl, is only 19. She’s a spiky young lass and she’s got these two men, which is one of the things the play is about – how do you keep a love affair going when you’re thousands of miles apart?
“Her dilemma is pretty genuine. She probably loves both of them in her own way.
“It’s a real problem for her. She also says ‘I love to win my battles’. She probably tells a few porkies here and there to try and keep things on an equilibrium.”
He admits that the subject matter is tough: “It’s a play about Afghanistan. It’s a big responsibility because of that. Bobby (Robin Hooper) did a lot of research and talking to soldiers.
“Our technical advisor is someone who was blown up in Afghanistan and he has thoroughly been through it.”
Richard added: “I believe that in this enlightened age we should know as much as we want to know. If the public find it quite hard to confront then they should confront it.
“There’s so much in the media about Afghanistan and some of it is very moving.
“The most moving thing I watched was about parents whose children committed suicide because of post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s little known about it.
“When I think about what they go through in combat, it’s hardly surprising.”
Richard said that the play is also technically challenging with 26 scenes in total, some of them showing conversations on Skype, and it also has lots of intricate lighting and sound effects.
He said: “Normally I like plays about relationships. Normally the lights just come up and down. This one is somewhat different and at the same time that makes it exciting. I’ve got a very good team around me with designer James Cotterill and Johanna Town, the lighting designer.”
He added: “ I’d wanted to work with Bobby for a long time and nearly directed one of his plays but didn’t quite make it.
“I commissioned this play because at the time he was a bit hard up. I said I’ll direct it and put it on. He told me what he was thinking about and I liked the sound of that.”
Richard said: “I’m delighted that Daniel Evans and people at Sheffield are keen to do new writing. The thing with a play like this is it’s not going to make us a penny.
“It doesn’t attract audiences and the Studio theatre doesn’t get enough people in, even if it was packed.”
Richard said that he is not due back on our TV screens for a while. He added: “I’m in talks with the BBC about something way off in the future, if it happens.”
n Love Your Soldiers is at the Crucible Studio from tomorrow until November 23, with a public dress rehearsal tonight. Box office: 0114 249 6000 or go to www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk