Interview: Smoke (Southwark Playhouse)

Júlia Levai and Polina Kalinina, co-directors of Smoke, by Kim Davies, playing at Southwark Playhouse Borough until 25 Feb, discuss the production with us.

Ticket link:

Production photo of Smoke

Smoke takes Miss Julie as its inspiration. What drew you to this play?

JL: When Oli (Higginson) & Meaghan Martin), the actors, reached out to us with the play, I was most excited by the team – their passion for the play drew me in first & the opportunity to get to work with Polina!

PK: I love a meaty two-hander and with such an exciting team it was easy to say yes to this project! The prospect of having three weeks to collaborate with Júlia, and the cast, on creating two flawed humans was thrilling.

The BDSM scene still thrives but it often viewed with suspicion, especially around issues of non-consensual consent and age-verification. How does this inform Smoke?

JL: We spent the first R&D of Smoke researching out and talking to people who are part of the BDSM community. Having these conversations highlighted to us how the two characters in the play, John & Julie practice BDSM badly as the rules they should follow start to disappear, making it an increasingly personal exchange between them.

PK: Although the play takes place in the kitchen of a BDSM party, and as Júlia said, we have invited representatives from the community from both sides of the Atlantic into rehearsals, this is not the only way to tell this story.

A variation of this exchange could have occurred in many other spaces. The BDSM scene puts sex, power, and consent on the table for these two people in a very immediate way.

With a very tight running time of 70 minutes there isn’t much time to include a lot about what is a contentious topic. Was it difficult to move this drama into the BDSM space?

JL: We early on made the decision to move Kim’s text into a stylised, more psychological space. It allowed us to go on an exciting creative journey with our brilliant designer, Sami Fendall that led us to an abstract playing space. We wanted to focus on the emotional journeys of the two characters.

PK: This does not claim to be a conclusive analysis around the topic of consent. It is a snapshot of two people interacting, negotiating, and abusing each other’s boundaries – physical and emotional.

Smoke has been described as “unflinching, provocative and intense”. What should audiences expect, and what would you say to anyone initially put off by the topic?

JL: By moving it into this abstracted space we hope the audiences engage not just emotionally but also constantly questioning what’s happening on stage, seeing each decision of the characters and the ripple effects of them.

PK: That quote is a reference to a 2014 naturalistic production of this play. I’m not saying that there aren’t moments of intensity, but the abstract nature of our production does pivot towards a less visceral and more questioning approach.

Our aim is not to shock or sensationalise. It is to provoke discussion. There are also lots of funny moments, too; I think Kim Davies has a wonderful sense of humour that you might not expect given the subject matter.

The co-directors and intimacy director are all women – was this important to the development of Smoke, to move it away from the male gaze?

JL: I think Oli and Meaghan consciously reached out to us, but it’s something to ask them and Katy (Galloway), our other producer! In terms of intimacy direction, I have previously worked with Asha (Jennings-Grant) and was thrilled to get the chance to collaborate with her again.

PK: That would be a question for our producers who brought us all on board separately. I’m super grateful to them though as it has been an utter dream to collaborate with a group of smart, exciting, and creative women.