Lindsey Huebner interviews Oscar Toeman, runner up of this year’s JMK awards as he gears up to direct Lucy Prebble’s controversial play, The Sugar Syndrome.

I meet Oscar Toeman at the BFI Southbank. The bustle is apropos of a Sunday afternoon: alive but the characteristic London edge is just a bit fuzzier today. I’m staring into middle space as Toeman excitedly strides right up to my table and asks if I’m Lindsey. His demeanour as a bundle of energy is apparent from our first interaction and wakes me from my Sunday slump. The pleasantries quickly yield to his obvious excitement for the piece he is directing at the Orange Tree Theatre: Lucy Prebble’s The Sugar Syndrome.

Toeman’s journey as a director began many years ago when he admits to skipping school in the afternoon in order to attend matinees at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. There, he witnessed the work of numerous renowned directors, some of whom he has now assisted professionally. Toeman acknowledges this as, “the shittiest teenage rebellion ever,” but it has inspired the career of one of the UK’s most promising young directors, so it can be forgiven.

Toeman was this year’s runner up in the prestigious JMK award for young directors, with the top prize being the opportunity to direct a fully-fledged classical production at the Orange Tree. As part of the rigorous application process, Toeman wrote a pitch for Prebble’s The Sugar Syndrome; one that was received so superlatively that he was asked to direct the piece this season, which as far as consolation prizes go, isn’t too shabby.

The degree to which Toeman cares for this piece and the creatives that are integral in bringing it to life is clear to me. I do not, however, expect that same care to be extended in my direction: he generously furnishes me with a trigger-warning as interviewer, which I’d also like to extend to AYT audiences. This play and occasionally this feature deal with sensitive issues including paedophilia and disordered eating. Now, let’s dive in…

The Sugar Syndrome is Prebble’s first play and written at the ripe young age of twenty-two. Toeman says, “what Lucy Prebble was able to do at the age of twenty-two (which is absurd) was write perceptively enough to understand intrinsically, the shared sense of shame that you and I will feel about something to do with our bodies.” A conspiratorial smile comes across Toeman’s face as he poses me a question. “Shall I tell you what the play is really about?” He goes on to describe it as about “a recovering teenage bulimic named Dani who befriends a paedophile online in 2003. Tim is 32 and he thinks Dani is a ten year old boy.” I must flinch at this point. “Bear with me. It’s much funnier than you think. I immediately see you recoil, which is sort of what I’m imagining most audiences will do.”

The piece is a four-hander that explores the relationship between Dani, Tim, Dani’s boyfriend and Dani’s mother, who are all unified in their discomfort within and occasional betrayal by their own bodies. Toeman says, “what’s so interesting about the internet is that it liberates you from your body. Language becomes everything – that’s what is so nice about doing something at the Orange Tree: it puts the human beings at the centre- and if it’s a play about bodies filled with shame, that’s sort of great. You get this 360-degree, petri-dish style experience where you’re just studying these bodies, caught between their desire to be normal and their impulses and urges that are not healthy.”

It would be very easy to vilify some of the characters in The Sugar Syndrome. Even in the brief synopsis given, I imagine readers are already forming their own opinions. Toeman agrees. “You can write the characters off in one sentence, but it takes a play to understand them.” He seems very aware of the potential repulsion that this subject matter could elicit in audiences, telling me, “on the surface, you could say it’s sensationalising, but when you peel it back, it’s about these four incredibly damaged human beings – as we all are. There will be a bit of you that physically, you hate. It dares you to empathise with characters you might think you have nothing in common with.”

Attempting to stage a piece wherein audiences may be invited to empathise with a pedophile can be a minefield. Toeman acknowledges the difficulty of the subject matter explored within the piece by elaborating. “What’s so compelling about this play is the question: at what point does your compassion become problematic? How do you reconcile yourself with excusing the inexcusable? It doesn’t leave you with an easy answer because the world is not easy.”

I come to increasingly admire Toeman’s trust in this piece. He’s the kind of director I’d want leading the charge where such difficult subject matter is concerned. He says, “you’ve got to trust that audiences will understand the impulse behind the work. That’s who you’re making it for. It’s also about being incredibly sensitive to the different human beings and the different stories in the room. You have to create a space where everyone feels comfortable to be open and share if they want to. It has to be a sort of sacred space. It’s my hope that a kind of radical honesty will lead to a radical empathy.” I cannot think of anything more necessary at this point in time.

Two hours on the South Bank fly by, as we wax-lyrical on all things theatre and eventually, life. By the end of our time together, it feels less like an interview and more like a conversation between friends. A lasting impression of Toeman is his reverence for the theatre as an art form. He seems to believe so wholly in its potential, and this is genuinely inspiring to be around. He says, “it’s important to remember that theatre is the most human art form. It’s human beings in a space. And they’re alive. And we’re sharing the same air as them. Together, we’re imaginatively investing in this world that we’re creating. So the question becomes: what do you do when you’re confronted with someone who sees the world so completely differently from you?”

The Sugar Syndrome runs from 24 January until 22 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Orange Tree theatre website.