Paul Chesterton and Ben Woodhall on playing immigration officers in A View from the Bridge

Paul Chesterton and Ben Woodhall on playing immigration officers in A View from the Bridge

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

by Raza Khan

"It is extremely relevant, I think this is a pro-immigration play". Young reporter Raza Khan talks to Paul and Ben about their roles as immigration officers in A View from the Bridge

Paul Chesterton on stage as immigration officerWith the General Elections only six weeks away, immigration has become a topic which has the power to propel a party into 10 Downing Street. With the theme of immigration being so prevalent in Miller's A View from the Bridge, the Touring Consortium Theatre Company couldn't have mounted their production at a more crucial point in the electoral calendar. Stepping into Bradford's Alhambra at 5pm on a cold, blustery afternoon to interview Ben Woodhall and Paul Chesterton (Immigration officers in the play), I became slightly hesitant of the questions I was asking. Immigration can be a very a divisive topic, the way it has been manipulated by the political world means it has the potential to be a conversational minefield. As the ficticious Great Pumpkin said "There are two things I have learned to never discuss with people, religion and politics." These are arguably the wisest words ever spoken by a fictional character from a 60s comic strip.

Convening in the green room; Roger (Company Stage Manager), Ben, Paul and I went on a quest to find a suitable place to conduct the interview, we ended up on the stage. Possible controversial questions, check. Terrifying drop from the stage, check. Clumsy interviewer who is known for breaking props and sets, check. Ben sat opposite me and Paul sat facing the stage. With no one's backs towards the audience, and the theatre lights remaining on, we could have been in a little play of our own. Lying to myself that I wasn't scared of heights and that I was perfectly comfortable, I began the interview.

How did you get to work with the Touring Consortium Theatre Company?
Ben and Paul entered the Touring Consortium in a very similar fashion. Paul auditioned for a role in a past production, and was acquainted with the casting director for the show. In keeping contact with her, the opportunity to audition for A View from the Bridge came about and he got the part. Similarly, Ben kept in contact with the same casting director as his friends knew she had the ability to present opportunities which would otherwise be missed. It just goes to show, in the world of theatre, who you know plays heavily in the opportunities which are presented to you.

How did you prepare for the roles as immigration officers?
The immigration officers in A View from the Bridge have very little stage time, however it is their presence which propels the storyline through to its unfortunate climax. As each joke is told, as each step is taken, as each fleeting second of love passes between Catherine and Rodolpho, the idea of being "picked up" is ever present. The immigrations officers tip the moral scales, throwing lives into disarray regardless of the havoc it may cause. The crux of the immigration officers is that morals do not matter, at the end of the day it is a job.

Ben and Paul had to convey this coldness, that despite being servants of the law, society didn't gel with immigration officers. The irony here is it was the officers who were seen as mobsters and outcasts, so what better way to adopt this demeanour than by watching noire films? As long as no one wakes up with a horse's head next to them, you really can't fault it as a way of getting into character.

Ben looks very young, therefore his great physical presence in the penultimate scene must be commended, entering the house uninvited he had to become less human in a sense. As Ben himself puts it, one has to associate being an immigration officer as "being like a dog".

Paul, having lived all around the world, has much experience with immigration officers and their uninviting facades. Ultimately, he concludes, immigration officers must be lonely. They feel as if they are doing good in the world, yet are looked down upon "like parking attendants".

How relevant do you think the theme of immigration is today?
It is extremely relevant, I think this is a pro-immigration play," Paul says as Ben agrees. In a time where the issue of immigration is priority in a political manifesto, it is easy to see how relatable the theme of immigration is.

Ben reflected on his childhood with a touching story about his father’s Romanian friend, Tony. Tony stayed over at his home for a whole summer and he was the go to man for any work when fixing things up at their house. At the time, Romania was not part of the EU, so therefore he was an illegal immigrant. Every penny Tony made would be sent back to Romania for his family, and on occasion Ben’s old football shirts would be sent for his son. Just like Marco and Rodolpho, Tony came to Britian for work, yes he may have been here illegally, but it was for the sake of his family.

The themes of immigration are still present today. With immigrants from financially unstable countries in the EU seeking work in Britain, similarly to how Marco and Rodolpho were, the play brings into perspective the moral dilemmas which the proposed immigration caps and closed borders could create.

Have you had any experience with other Miller plays?
Paul has been in a performance of All My Sons as Chris Keller and is a keen admirer of Miller's works, citing The Crucible as a piece of "genius writing". Furthermore, a theme which is present in a majority of Miller's work, is not fulfilling the American Dream, an idea which he believes will remain "eternal".

Ben was given a collection of Miller's work and respects Miller's ability to help the audience understand events in their own lives. Ultimately, the most mesmerising aspect of Miller's work is the use of a single character to convey the struggles of society, and both Ben and Paul admire the "human story within the epic".

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a part of this production?
"Meeting Paul / Working with Ben". The chemistry between them is tangible, not only between them but within the entire cast. Watching the warm ups before the tech rehearsals, the cast looked like the most dysfunctional family taking part in the weirdest PE lesson... that's why it works. You can tell it is a fun cast to be a part of and everyone is comfortable with each other.

In terms of the performance, occasionally the presence of the immigration officers garner an "ooooohhh" from the audience, isn't it fun when Miller becomes pantomime? Beneath all the serious pretence, the actors and actresses have fun doing what they're doing. That's what makes the show such a joy to watch.

What's coming up next?
Ben laughs and answers "I really don't know, I need an agent". For all the agents out there who need a client... hint, hint.

Paul is making the move from acting to directing, becoming the director of the play "Boys" about a group of boys who are starting university life.

All I can say is if Ben acts with the same vigour and passion he did in this production, and Paul is as fabulous at directing as he is at acting, the future looks particularly bright.

Why should people watch A View from the Bridge?
This production is like a piece of a music, as each actor and actress takes up their position as musicians on that stage, each note is flawlessly performed. It is hilarious, yet heart-breaking. It is one of the most accomplished pieces of literature from the 20th century. It is a story about everyone of us. It is a story about you.

A View from the Bridge opened at Theatre Royal, Nottingham, where it ran from 4 to 7 March 2015. It then toured to Cheltenham, Darlington, Wolverhampton, Bradford, Coventry and Edinburgh, where it concluded on 2 May.