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The Review - FEATURE

Director Colin McFarlane, left, and Shaun Williamson

Marem Hernandez in Road to Nirvana
What wouldn't you do for celebrity stardom?

Former EastEnder Shaun Williamson tells Peter Gruner about the price of fame

A CONTROVERSIAL and shocking American black comedy, which touches on the national obsessions of celebrity and fame, is about have its British premiere at Islington’s King’s Head Theatre.

Road to Nirvana, by Arthur Kopit – about people who will do virtually anything to be famous – is produced by actor comedian Lenny Henry and writer-broadcaster Bonnie Greer and features former EastEnders actor Shaun Williamson .
But beware, this play, written in 1996 and an off-Broadway hit in New York, is not for the fainthearted, with its often stomach turning and gruesome moments describing just how far someone will go for recognition.
Scenes – although not explicit and humourously depicted – include wrist-slashing, excrement-eating and removal of a character’s testicles, all in the quest for fame.
There is also a fair amount of nudity including Marem Hernadez who Plays Nirvana desporting herself in a see-through negligee.
The producers maintain, however, that the play is spot on, considering the bizarre activities ordinary people get up to in an age of Big Brother and reality TV, and that there has never been a better time to stage this parable about exposing yourself and maybe selling your soul.
Lenny Henry said that after reading the drama, which he described as a “sharp laser beam aimed at the heart of Hollywood,” he knew he had to bring it to London.
The plot involves two fast-talking former movie moguls on the skids who reunite to co-produce an autobiographical screenplay by the world’s hottest female rock star, vain and eccentric Nirvana.
She will even star as herself if she can find producers willing to meet her extraordinary terms.
The New York Times wrote: “Mr Kopit arouses audiences with his acerbity, his pitch black humour and his sheer virulence.”
And the Boston Globe declared: “Gruffly announcing itself as scurrilous talk, it rapidly escalates into a dirty joke funny enough to make you hoarse, then into an outsize legend before, finally, rounding itself off as the equivalent of a modern morality play.”
For Williamson, who played sad but cuddly Barrie in EastEnders for nine years, it is a complete contrast. He plays Al, a smarmy egotist and failed film producer, turned drug dealer, who decides to latch on to the fame game.
Williamson comes complete with a recent hair transplant which he joked makes him looks two years younger than his previous TV character.
He added: “My character Al is a polar opposite of Barry, apart from his delicate vulnerability. He’s ruthless and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
“This is a play about people who are willing to debase themselves to get power. I play a failed Hollywood producer, much down the scale, and pretty nasty at that. I love the part. I haven’t had anything this juicy since I left drama school.”
Director Colin McFarlane, famous as the black QC in the BBC drama Judge Deed, who lives in Southgate Road, Islington, believes that the play will hit a nerve with audiences.
He said: “I love this show because at the moment British theatre is really, really safe and conservative.
“I think people have very low expectations of what the theatre can do and this play has a very powerful message.
“It will make you laugh your head off but it also makes you think about the power of celebrity.
“In this age of reality TV everyone is asking what is going on here? What are people going to do next? This play explores how far you will go to get what you want.
“It’s a parable about selling your soul involving two film producers and a rock star but it could be anyone. It’s about human nature. We’ve become so shallow as a society chasing money and worshiping celebrity.”
McFarlane said the shocking scenes are a logical progression in the reality industry. “I dread to think what next people could be asked to do in today’s world of reality TV. Anything is possible.”
Tony Award-winning writer Kopit was in London for just a week overseeing rehearsals at the Rosemary Branch theatre in Shepperton Road, near Old Street.
He described how he wrote the play in the 1990s as a reaction to David Mamet’s script Speed-the-Plow, a comedy which also condemns Hollywood.
Mamet was accused of hypocrisy by casting Madonna to get bums on seats.
“Mamet is a fabulous playwright,” Kopit said. “But Madonna couldn’t act on stage and everyone saw this. She’s a terrific performer but here she wasn’t in her element and you had to ask why they cast her.
“I had been thinking of writing a play about Hollywood for years. About the power structure of that world.”
He added that he hopes his play explores the themes of the power of fame, and what people will do for it. But also what people will do to be in the presence of fame.
“It’s about the magical power of fame and how it can be like royalty.”
Describing Shaun Williamson’s role, Kopit added: “He is great in the part. It’s a satire but it has to be played for real. He has great comic timing.”
Arthur Kopit is best known in the UK for his play Wings that was produced by the National Theatre in 1979, and his books for the musicals Nine (produced at the Donmar Warehouse in 1996) and the stage version of High Society (produced at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park and subsequently revived last year at the Shaftesbury.
The play also stars Wendy Morgan, Ian Porter, and Alan Turner.

• The Road to Nirvana by Arthur Kopit will be performed at the King’s Head Theatre, Upper Street Islington from May 2 until May 28.
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