I, Daniel Blake: Interview with Dave Johns and Mark Calvert

The stage adaptation of Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake makes its way to the Oxford Playhouse next week, after much fanfare from its sold-out run on the Northern stage in Newcastle from 2021-22. After Daniel is denied Employment and Support Allowance despite having been declared unfit to work by his doctor, we follow his struggle to navigate the bureacracy and apathy of a gutted and underfunded welfare state. We spoke to show writer Dave Johns and director Mark Calvert about bringing Loach's searing examination of austerity's human impact to the stage.

Daily Information: First of all, thank you so much to you both for speaking to us. Of course, since I, Daniel Blake was released, especially following the pandemic, the impact of austerity on UK infrastructure has only been thrown into deeper relief. The production’s staging and set design was inspired by the work of contemporary activists; could you describe some of the ways in which that has influenced the look and feel of the stage adaptation?

Mark Calvert: As a team, Rhys Jarman, set designer, Matt Brown, the video designer, Dave and I would spend hours trawling the internet for facts and figures. Looking for tweets, and election campaign imagery and listening to interviews from prominent politicians. We would then meet every week to talk about the how we wanted to frame this information but also not overload the story and Dave’s adaptation. We wanted to find a way to represent the state in the production. After reading Russ Jones’ amazing book A Decade in Tory and looking at huge amounts of the output from Led By Donkeys (we can also recommend their book) we decided to use a combination of visuals inspired by them and a hybrid of the political campaign posters to frame the onstage narrative. We didn’t want to be too heavy-handed and point fingers, we wanted to find a way to let the audience decide which side of the fence they stand on. There’s a lot of information out there, too much sometimes for us to hear what is going on in our country, so supplying bite-sized sound bites and tweets to support Dave Johns’ play meant that we could frame the storytelling with a device that provides further context to what’s happening throughout the piece.

DI: Mark, you spent time researching with staff and volunteers in food banks; what other first-hand experience has the cast and company had of the effects of the cost of living crisis that the show portrays?

MC: I spent quite a lot time at a local food bank before rehearsals started getting to know more about what was happening in the city I live in. I thought I understood what is happening but that was incredibly naive of me. There’s so much need in our communities; sometimes more than the food banks can offer. It shouldn’t have to be the community that is constantly called upon to be the sticking plaster for where we are as country.

We also took the cast to visit two sites that the West End Foodbank runs in Newcastle. The foodbank itself, and a centre that offers advice to people needing support around fuel poverty, mental wellbeing issues and housing. Spending time there had a huge impact on the cast’s understanding of what is happening in their communities.

Davey Nellist who plays Daniel Blake had previously volunteered in his local Foodbank in London during the pandemic and because of this and working on the production, he did a charity cycle ride for West End Foodbank, cycling from London to Newcastle the week before we started rehearsals for the autumn tour. He cycled 400 miles in 6 days, and raised £10k at the last count.

Also because of what the cast had seen firsthand during rehearsals, Jodie Wild who plays Daisy Jenkins started to volunteer at the advice centre in the West End of Newcastle. She felt that she wanted to somehow pay something back. Jodie volunteered throughout the summer after the spring tour finished and has plans to return after the autumn tour.

We also try to engage audiences by holding collections for food and hygiene banks at every venue on the tour. We’ve been working closely with the Trussell Trust and the Hygiene Bank to raise awareness for local audiences about the need in their area. There are 14.5 million people currently suffering extreme levels of poverty in our country, a 4500% rise since the current government came into power according to figures published in 2019. I imagine this has increased even more over the last four years, it’s a jaw-dropping figure.

Dave Johns: The cost of living affects everyone to a more or lesser degree, but those that feel it the most are the ones that have the least disposable income, that were struggling already. The awful truth of poverty is the total lack of choice you have. Most of us have choices but when you’re poor your choice is very, very limited.

Dave of course has a background in stand-up comedy and the show does have its moments of levity amid the pathos; how effective is humour as a tool to address the kind of oppression we see in I, Daniel Blake?

DJ: Humour is something that gets Dan through the day, to be able to laugh, this is his escape valve. He is worn down eventually, but still tries to see humour, even when it’s dark. We all use it as a coping mechanism; I don’t know how anyone lives their lives without humour. Looking at it as a mechanism for a writer, you have to give the audience some light relief from tragedy, it helps to punctuate the awful things that happen to Katie and Dan.

MC: When we were visiting the food banks to prepare for this new production, one thing that was constantly repeated to us was that it’s not a constant stream of sadness. People are experiencing incredible levels of stress and need, but there’s also humour and laughter. There is a striking sense of community within the food banks; for some people it’s the only time in their week that they have face to face contact with another person. The interactions are not just transactional. They’re also a space to have the opportunity to feel like a human being again.

We were also aware that if audiences sit through two hours of unremitting sadness they will stop hearing the message. They need to be able to see the characters as human beings, seeing their camaraderie so they can witness their struggle. We want the characters to succeed because of this, to find a solution, to find help from the system. It’s a complex juxtaposition. The humour also allows us, the audience, some respite from the pressure that is taking place in front of us. I think it surprised us, as a company, just how much the audience laugh along with characters. It’s incredibly heart warming to hear the response the moments of laughter receive, we know the audience are with the characters on stage.

DI: Who in particular do you want the show to reach most?

MC: Good question. I sometimes struggle with the idea that a piece of theatre can change things, challenge the system. It feels too lofty an idea. But one thing I am aware of is the impact visiting a food bank had on me. Talking to people who use them, talking to staff who volunteer there, seeing what an incredibly difficult time millions of people are having right now. This is a very long-winded way to say the people I want to reach the most are the ones who come to see it. We want people to leave feeling that they should do something about it. Be it volunteer at a food bank, donate some food or cash, to try to help in some way. When we first started talking to West End Foodbank they told us the biggest challenge they face is keeping the issue in people’s minds. It comes and goes. The foodbank’s need and the needs of the people that use them doesn’t ever go away, I guess it gets increasingly harder to support that. So the aim is to reach people that can help here and now, not with a promise to do something for a vote but with an act that can help someone who needs it right now.

DJ: I want it to make people angry, I make no apology for it being political because politics runs through everything. I want people to see what is being done to ordinary people. As an artist you do research. You stage a piece of work and you present it and say, “This is what we have found, how does that make you feel?”

DI: What do you want audiences to leave the theatre thinking; how can they organise to fight these systemic issues in a more direct way?

MC: All the way through this I’ve mentioned foodbanks and hygiene banks. The Trussell Trust support a network of food banks across the country, and the Hygiene Bank which came about in direct response to the film’s release in 2016, who rightly state that basic hygiene is not a privilege are two organisations that help millions of people every year but there are more including mental health charities and child poverty charities. If people leave thinking: ‘what can I do?’, you can volunteer your time, donate some food or money. Don’t think that you can’t help; a simple act of kindness can genuinely help a family or person that could be you. Throughout rehearsals Rhys Jarman, the set and costume designer, would regularly quote we’re all three pay cheques away from this possibility. So help now if you can. However large or small it is, as a famous supermarket chain says ‘Every little helps’.

DJ: I want people to be angry when they leave the theatre, I want them to see that this is happening to ordinary people, people that could be your Dad, Mum, uncle, son, daughter, sister, brother.

I, Daniel Blake is running at the Oxford Playhouse from Tuesday 10th - Sat 14th October.

Image credits: Pamela Raith

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