I Saw Middle-Class People Get Up Early to Rummage through Bins; Athens-Born Writer Alexi Kaye Campbell Wanted to Stay Away from Politics for His New Play but There Is No Avoiding How Bad Greece Has Become, He Tells Fiona Mountford

The Evening Standard (London, England), May 24, 2016 | Go to article overview

I Saw Middle-Class People Get Up Early to Rummage through Bins; Athens-Born Writer Alexi Kaye Campbell Wanted to Stay Away from Politics for His New Play but There Is No Avoiding How Bad Greece Has Become, He Tells Fiona Mountford


Byline: Fiona Mountford

THERE'S no getting around the fact: playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell should be sponsored by the Greek Tourist Board. For alongside some subtle if trenchant political commentary, his new play for the National Theatre, Sunset at the Villa Thalia, offers the idyll of Greek island living: it's all swims at sunset and wine and snacks on the terrace before dinner. It is, if you like, the Mamma Mia! of serious drama.

Campbell, born in Athens to a Greek father and English mother, smiles. "For years I've slightly acted as a travel agent for everybody in the theatre who wants to go to Greece," he says. "Put it this way: I've sent quite a few people on idyllic Greek holidays. Then of course if anything goes wrong I take it personally. Somebody told me they got food poisoning in Greece and I was, 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry!'" Sunset at the Villa Thalia looks at the profound consequences -- on both personal and governmental levels -- of meddling in the business of other countries. It centres on two couples, one British and one American, staying in the eponymous house on the island of Skiathos over the course of 10 bumpy years in the mid-1960s. Ben Miles and Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern play the Americans, Harvey and June: he's a shady government operative and she's his increasingly frazzled spouse.

The setting is inspired by the Skiathos house Campbell's parents built when he was a baby and in which he spent his childhood summers. He hadn't returned since he was 18 but he and director Simon Godwin went back last autumn as research for the production. "Skiathos is a beautiful island but it's gone a bit" he trails off; "mass market British tourism" might be the phrase. "When I was growing up it was like a paradise, this idyllic island, and there was a real innocence." Campbell, 49, took himself off to Greece to write the play too, this time to the island of Syros. "I was getting emails from the National going, 'When do you think we're going to get a first draft?' and I kept lying. So eventually I said, 'I'm going to go to Greece and not come back until I've finished the first draft'." This Greek seclusion appears to have done the trick, as Villa Thalia is one of the most promising new plays I've read in years.

Is it a direct comment on what has happened to Greece over the past few years? "I knew I had to write something about Greece," he says, "but I didn't want to write it in a kind of explicit political way. The themes the play talks about are different forms of colonialism and how economic colonialism is a universal thing."

Regular visits back to his family in Athens have, however, reminded him how bad the situation has become. "There were people in my brother's neighbourhood, middle-class people, and you could see them getting up early to rummage through bins," he says quietly.

Campbell shot to attention in 2008 with his Critics' Circle Award-winning debut The Pride. A skilful look at a half-century's worth of changing attitudes to homosexuality, it has proved to be a considerable worldwide hit in countries as far-flung as Japan and South Korea. "A lot of it has to do with code and speaking in code -- all cultures have that to some extent," he says.

Its notable original production was at the Royal Court, of which his partner Dominic Cooke was then the artistic director. "When it went blindly into the script meeting it got a very positive response and they voted to do it, MANUEL HARLAN without knowing that it was by me," he says. …

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