Interview: Oscar Toeman, ‘It’s very important to tell this story responsibly’

Pamela Carter’s new play The Misfortune of the English, inspired by true events, is a tale of (mis)adventure and blind optimism, nationhood, and courage in the face of disaster.

Directed by Oscar Toeman and starring Hubert Burton, Vinnie Heaven, Eva Magyar and Matthew Tennyson, the play holds its official opening last night at the Orange Tree Theatre. During rehearsals we spoke with Toeman about sensitivity of portraying real life inspired events, the intelligence of the play and taking audience members up a mountain in the Black Forest.

The Understudy Q&A with Oscar Toeman

Hi Oscar, thanks for talking to us about your new production of The Misfortune of the English. What can you tell us about the play?

‘The Misfortune of the English’ is a new play, inspired by true events, which occurred in April 1936, in the Black Forest, in Germany. A party of 27 schoolboys and their teacher set off from a youth hostel in Freiberg, with the expectation of arriving that evening in Todnauberg, a nearby village. Instead, by 8pm that evening, local villagers were looking for the group, who were now lost in a blizzard high up on a nearby mountain, the Schauinsland. The play relates this true story – both what is known about it factually, and speculates about certain events; but is also asking something more slippery, and teasingly relevant to audiences now: was it merely bad luck? Or was such a tragedy actually inevitable, when you come to think about it?

Is it more challenging to direct a play that is inspired by true events than one that is entirely fictional?

Whilst the play is based on true events, and the playwright has been incredibly thorough with their research and consideration, it is ultimately a work of speculation. We never could know exactly what really happened. The events related are very much the playwright’s speculated imaginings of them. It has been incredibly important to be sensitive to the memory of the students – some of whom were only just into their teens- and to remember they were real people, with real families. Real relations will come and see this show. So it’s very important to tell this story responsibly. With this in mind, rehearsals have been about understanding the truth of each character; who they are; what makes them tick; in what sphere they’re operating. And this is shared with an entirely fictional play.

The Orange Tree Theatre is a truly intimate space – how much has that had an impact on what you’ve been doing? 

The Orange Tree is one of my favourite theatres; it has both an epic-ness and an intimacy that allows all sorts of stories to sit in it. For a play that is both about an epic endeavour, to ‘bag a mountain’, and yet is told directly to audiences, it feels like the perfect space for a shared imagining. Any play is a speculative, imagined act; we all know that Hamlet and co will get up at the end of the play; we just pretend we don’t know for that period of time. But what ‘The Misfortune of the English’ does extraordinarily excitingly is to ask an audience to go on a journey up a climb the mountain, whilst never leaving their seats. It feels ambitious and fun for audiences to meet our tremendous cast be taken by the hand, and go off together, up through the clouds.

In rehearsals for The Misfortune of the English. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

What do you think audiences will take away from the play? 

The play is gorgeously and intelligently layered. There will be some audience members who leave engaged and moved by the story of these brave boys, facing disaster. There will be others who are excited by the theatrical game the play and production are playing – how it slips, teasingly, across time, space and truth. It doesn’t behave like a conventional play, and is all the more exciting for it. Others might be heartened (or provoked!) by the allegorical dimensions of the writing. And the production – the fantastic cast, the audacious design – I think will only add to these. Ultimately though, the complexity of the writing – its wit, warmth and poignancy – means there’s something for everyone.

Finally, how would you describe The Misfortune of the English to someone considering buying a ticket for the show? 

The Misfortune of the English is a thrilling theatrical speculation; an imaginative investigation into why these events happened to these boys on a mountain. It’s like a post-modern detective story. We know what happened…but trying to understand the why; the thinking that led to the boys getting lost in the first place… it’s really compelling. It’s also very, very funny. Until it’s not.