When it comes to theatre, dreams really do come true. Whether that’s landing the perfect role or sitting in the stalls and being swept away into a magical world, fantasy becomes reality on a regular basis. However, the Arcola Theatre’s upcoming production of The Conquest of the South Pole, written by Manfred Karge, and translated into English by Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis, concerns a group of disillusioned friends with little hope of realising their ambitions.
Written in 1986, the play gained prominence in 1988 in a production directed by Stephen Unwin at the Traverse Theatre and cemented its reputation by transferring to the Royal Court in London. Its tale of unemployed youths helped launch the careers of Alan Cumming and Ewen Bremner, with Cumming nominated for the Olivier Award for Most Promising Newcomer. Unwin returns to direct the Arcola’s current production and, as Artistic Director of The Rose Theatre in Kingston, will oversee the production both at the Arcola and the Rose.
Centred on a group of four unemployed and desperate friends, Conquest charts their descent into an imaginary world as they recreate Roald Amundsen’s 1911 exploration of the South Pole as a way to escape the misery of their lives. Despite the success of their make-believe expedition, they are torn between hope and despair. As the complexities of their friendships are explored, so is the bleak reality of their situation.
Ashby reveals that in acting out a tale of escapism, the actors create their own fantasy. “As actors, escapism is… why we [act].” Within the play’s texture of roleplay and the imagination, this is a story that still resonates with its audience today. “It’s about unemployment, you know, there’s not a lot of money around, people are struggling with it and trying to find ways to manage so I think that’s why it’s been brought back at this time. So you can reciprocate and sort of sympathise with what’s going on.” Fagbenle shares the catharsis that the characters find from their imagination: “the core of acting is expressing something about your own psyche, about yourself and filtering it through your character.” Just as the journey to the South Pole provides the characters with solace, Ashby relates this to the reality of his life as a recently graduated drama student. “I was out of work for 8 months and I’ve been graduated for 10, so [dreaming] is what you have to do to kind of keep yourself sane and keep yourself going.”
Karge himself was a member of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and, as a result, valued words as a poetic and political tool. Ashby has grappled with his lyrical writing, particularly during the audition process. “My initial instinct was – what is this? I really didn’t understand it – the language is translated from German. It’s quite stylised, quite poetic.” However, getting to grips with the script has paid off. “Now that I do understand it, I feel like I’ve actually achieved something and I’m better for it.” Fagbenle agrees: “I think what it requires is a nimbleness of thought. The funny thing is reading it, it is quite dense but watching it is really easy and exciting.” Ashby’s character, Frankieboy, has quite limited dialogue, but this has actually given him “complete freedom to explore the part, explore the character”. Both enjoy the thought and consideration that the script requires, Fagbenle even declaring, “it’s the closest thing to Shakespeare that I’ve done.”
Though Ashby and Fagbenle auditioned for their roles (Frankieboy and Slupianek), the more-experienced Fagbenle had previously worked with Unwin on Romeo and Juliet and explains that “since we’d known each other he had a good idea of what I’m like as an actor”. Ashby in turn reveals that given his very recent graduation from drama school, he procured his audition through his agent. The difference in their career stages was helpful to Ashby during rehearsals: “It’s been good for me, for my first year since graduation, to watch guys like O-T just play around with it… I’ve learnt so much.” “We’ve got a really nice cast, we’ve all come together,” adds Fagbenle. “That cohesion does help because we have to take risks.”
Conquest kickstarted Cumming’s journey to stardom and is now helping another generation of young actors continue their work within the industry. “I just didn’t get enough attention as a child,” Fagbenle jokes, before continuing, “I was better at acting than I was at anything else… so I thought I’d try it out and it worked out.” Ashby agrees: “I just thought you know, you’ve only got one shot at it so I thought I’ll just do what I want to do and here I am.” For Fagbenle, who has won an African Film Award for Outstanding Achievement, inspiration came from working with his uncle Rufus Orisayomi, a pioneer of African Theatre in the UK – “he was definitely an inspiration to me as I became an actor” – as well as attending the Weekend Arts College, formerly in Kentish Town. Both Ashby and Fagbenle attended drama school (ALRA and RADA respectively) and know what it takes to get those sought-after places. “Prepare yourself with as much knowledge as you can,” Ashby advises. “You’ve got to find a school that sits with you.” Fagbenle adds: “Find someone who can help you prepare for it because oftentimes someone who’s got experience will see things that you don’t see.” And most importantly? “Find speeches that you are excited by, and find speeches that you could play.”
The hopes of their characters in Conquest may remain unrealised, but Ashby and Fagbenle are determinedly pursuing their ambitions. Fagbenle has recently written and directed his first short film, Kandi and the Jinn, has directed his first music video and is currently writing a one-man show. Though Ashby doesn’t have any immediate plans, he is optimistic. “It is a case for me, and a lot of actors, when the show is done, I’m back out there auditioning for things. But that’s exciting!” When asked to describe the best aspect of acting, Ashby explains, “I think, as anyone feels, you do a job that you love: that in itself is its own reward.” This joy in performance is echoed by Fagbenle. “There is a magic when two people say ‘okay I’m in a room with seats and things but I’m going to imagine’.” This sentiment seems to extract the magic at the heart of The Conquest of the South Pole: the power of the imagination and, crucially, its ability to provide an escape, no matter what the circumstances.
The Conquest of the South Pole runs at the Arcola Theatre until 26 May and then transfers to the Rose Theatre Kingston. For tickets and more information, click here.
Image credit: Simon Annand