FS: Firstly, I have to check: is it Tem-e-sis or Tem-ee-sis? I’ve heard it pronounced both ways.
Nathaniel: It doesn’t really matter, there’s no set way, but we settled on Tem-e-sis because it’s easy to explain (rhymes with nemesis). It’s an anglicised version of the Latin name for the Thames, we added the h to make it more familiar-looking. The Latin word has obscure roots but seems to come from a Sanskrit word for dark things, so I like the fact that [the name] is what you know about the Thames but slightly skewed, slightly mysterious.
How much is the show about the river?
Nathaniel: The river is a much bigger part than the script lets on at the start. (…) The play started off as me doing research into the Thames and finding it really interesting and then where that lead me in terms of Britain’s ancient culture and religion. So yeah, the river is pretty central to the play.
Can you give a brief summary of the play?
Nathaniel: It’s quite hard to describe the play as the form of it is very different to the content of the play. A man arrives on the stage to deliver a performance in celebration of the festival [of Midsummer] and the night doesn’t quite go to plan. His performance begins to unravel, and he’s forced to confront the secrets of his past that he didn’t want to face. It ties together literary heritage with your own personal history and the way in which you can parallel obscured history with your own forgotten past.
Did you do research into pagan rituals for the show?
Nathaniel: That side of the play very much comes from my own interest in it, I did 2-3 years of research not with the intention of writing the play, just because I’m interested in it. I study Classics and the idea of geographical theology and gods within a place I found really interesting. (…) The idea of gods that are very tied to the natural world and the changing seasons and using that as a starting point for religious practise in ritual and reflection. So there’s a lot groundwork that’s been done that’s (…) hardly scratched in the play but that just about comes to the surface.
Given that most people, when they think of pagan rituals especially in the modern day, associate them with group worship such as that practiced at Stonehenge, why did you choose to stage this as a one a man-show?
Nathaniel: In terms of the pagan stuff, I think it’s actually very common for a lot of people that follow these rituals and processes for them to do it in solitude… If you look online there’s a lot of stuff about being pagans in solitude, and I think it’s because a lot of the festivals you can do by yourself. There is a big community spirit to a lot of them and their original roots are big community festivals, but a lot of it is about using season markers and seasonal changes as a parallel to your own life. It’s very introspective, using the outside world for your own personal meditation and reflection, so a lot of it can be done in solitude which is very nice and contemplative.
I chose to do it as a one man show because the way that I use the festivals both in real life and in the play is extremely personal and takes it into this idea of how the outside world and nature can really force you to look at yourself and consider yourself in this cycle of seasons, and where you fit into that with your own personal history.
How much of yourself is in the play and its central character? Did you always know you were going to play them?
Nathaniel: I think someone else could have performed it, it didn’t have to be me. I think it was very much written in my voice which is good and bad: a lot of rehearsals have been us thinking about how a lot of the script is just the way that I talk…The processes of using these festivals and some of the revelations towards the end are based on my own experiences but at the same time we have pushed it into the fantasy world and into a narrative that’s not wholly mine. It’s kind of like 60/40 autobiographical and fictional.
What has it been like directing Nathaniel, both working with his writing and as an actor in his own play?
Leah: I think it’s worked surprisingly well. Me and Nathaniel are very good friends, but I think it’s been good because it’s helped me to understand how to separate the character from the person and see kind of how that can physically be done, and also to see how the writer and the performer separates… The most challenging thing is the physicality and trying to separate idiosyncrasies from Nathaniel as a person from the character, trying to make sure the performance is performative. [The show] is quite didactic in a lot of senses, it’s teaching the audience about the traditions of midsummer that they might not have heard of, so it’s been quite challenging to figure out that balance of teaching and also connecting. It’s a difficult piece to act—I don’t think I’d want to act it.
Have you directed before? How has this been different?
Leah: I direct most of the Oxford Revue shows, I also directed to my Cuppers play ‘Punchline’ which I wrote as a one-person play. This is different scale because there’s so much of it but also because the language is so beautiful and so well crafted… every single transition has its own purpose. It has been difficult to have that overarching feeling of what an audience will understand, versus what I understand, and what Nathaniel understands, especially as we’re both neurodivergent so we thought we might find it challenging to see the big picture. It’s actually worked really well though.
Has it just been your two voices in the rehearsal room or more people?
Nathaniel: We’ve got quite a tight knit crew—everyone in the crew, apart from Faye, our composer, I’d already worked with a lot, some of them for years. When it came to the journey of getting this onto the stage, I just wanted people I could trust, not only with the work but with being able to give as much input as possible. I sent the original draft out to I think six script editors? I was just like, “I trust you all, not only with my personal experience but with like my work to tell me what you think and what you think can be changed.” (…) We have about four dramaturges that have been there since the start and it’s not just a cast of look at the script once and then go away – some are helping with marketing and production and things so it is very collaborative process. (…) In the rehearsal room it has been like people coming in and out but it has mostly been me and Leah which has been really nice. I think what Leah does so well is bring out the fun in a script, she really has the ability to draw life out of the script and into the performance which has been really fun to learn. It’s also been really nice to have this relaxed setting because obviously the work is quite vulnerable so it’s been nice with Leah to make it as silly as possible, to push it as far as it can go and then pull it back and think about ‘right, how is this going to work in a performance space?’
Leah: I think it’s really important [to have this kind of relationship], I think sometimes in a lot of spaces within OUDS it can get a bit too formal and we just don’t get that much of a sense of camaraderie between the cast and the director. I’ve been on the other side as an actor, so has Nathaniel as producer, and those perspectives have been really helpful for us both.
Are you nervous about performing something so personal, which has so far only been shared with people you are very close to?
Nathaniel: Surprisingly I’m actually not too nervous about sharing the content—a lot of the content is very personal but they are experiences I’m very open about and have frequent conversations with people about, and it’s (I hope) far enough removed from my experience that it’s not too personal… What I’m more nervous about is the vulnerability of acting, I think especially in front of people that I’ve produced and been in charge of, having those tables flipped and having to act for [them]. I’m excited, especially because I’m singing in it as well which is very healing for me and very calming in the play as well. So not too nervous as of yet—maybe once we get to Tuesday!
Why should people come and see the show?
Leah: It’s beautiful, it’s organic, there’s an original folk score, and it’s the most refreshing thing I’ve seen in Oxford drama – I’ve never seen or heard anything like it.
Nathaniel: Not to toot my own horn but people should come because hopefully they will learn something about the practices of a culture that is quite underground in contemporary Britain, and there is a lot of teaching about this throughout the show. It’s a fun, different way of playing with the form of theatre, an exploration of the performance space and what that means for the character. (…) I think it will be a very different experience of watching a play than what most people are used to in student drama.
Thamesis is showing at the Burton Taylor Studio, Tuesday 7th-Saturday 11th February, 9:30pm.